For Day-Lewis, the Unbearable Fright of Being an Actor

The problem with being Daniel Day-Lewis--apart from being blessed or cursed with the name of one of England's former poet laureates--is that he can't hang his role on a peg at the end of the day. He can't head home for a cup of hot chocolate, stretch out in front of the TV and forget the day's agonies before the camera.

"Some actors pretend they're not afraid every time they step out on to a stage or a film set," he said. "I don't believe them. I can't accept that they don't run that inner gauntlet every time. I know I do."

Day-Lewis must have suffered stage fright a lot during the making of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." The film, adapted from Czech writer Milan Kundera's novel of eroticism set against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague, took six months to shoot and runs nearly three hours in its final version.

Day-Lewis is on a whirlwind tour of the United States, promoting the film that may bring him the international stardom critics have predicted for him since his back-to-back performances in "A Room With a View" and "My Beautiful Laundrette."

"Unbearable Lightness," directed by Philip Kaufman and produced by Saul Zaentz, is one of those sincere theatrical purebreds that can ride critics' raves to commercial and Academy Award glories, or disappear into box-office oblivion. Its audacious eroticism is sure to gain some notoriety for it, but will that sell tickets?

"I don't know," said Day-Lewis, shaking his head. "Ask me what kind of audience it will appeal to, and I have to say limited! But I can tell you this: It's quite the most extraordinary thing I've ever had to tackle."

The role is a total departure from the gay punk Day-Lewis played to rave reviews in "My Beautiful Laundrette," or the insufferable Victorian prig in "Room With a View." (He takes his first cinematic steps on American soil this spring in Columbia's "Stars and Bars," playing a snooty British art expert who travels to the Deep South to buy a Renoir.)

In "Unbearable Lightness of Being," Day-Lewis plays Tomas, a prominent young Czech brain surgeon who follows his commitments to both medicine and womanizing with Hippocratic devotion.

"He doesn't dare be trapped by love," Day-Lewis said. "So he thinks in three's: He'll live with a woman for three days, or three weeks--and then he'll never see her again."

The story, revolving around Tomas' relationships with a mistress and his wife, takes place against the tense background of the Soviet military buildup and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, a broiling political crucible with tanks in the streets and newsreel shots intercut with director Philip ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Right Stuff") Kaufman's starkly realistic scenes filmed in the drab gray streets of Lyon in France.

The film shows how the philandering Tomas is smitten by Teresa (Juliette Binoche), a young waitress, and breaks his own rules by allowing her to move in with him. On the side is his longstanding mistress Sabina (Lena Olin), a Bohemian artist living in the city.

"He's a despicable character, actually," Day-Lewis said. "He has protected himself from the inconvenience of love--or so he thinks--but it creeps in by the back door and turns his life upside down. It may shock some people, and it may well antagonize women. He's not a character they will accept in the '80s. But remember, he was a man of the '60s."

Day-Lewis said he doesn't think the film's subject is commercial, but it was made with uncompromising integrity by Kaufman and he is hoping that it will be hailed as a piece of film making.

If so, it will be worth the inner hell Day-Lewis admits he went through during the filming--six long months of it, in Lyon and at the Bois de Boulogne studios in Paris for interiors--before coming out the other side, bruised and emotionally battered.

"If you had spoken to me then, you'd have been talking to a different person," he says now, lounging back in a discreet corner of Trader Vic's in Mayfair, toying with a light fish lunch and orange juice

He had arrived at the restaurant from his home in Hammersmith on his 125 Suzuki dirt bike--he doesn't own a car--and said he is about to move up to a Harley Davidson.

"I like anything on two wheels," he said. "I enjoy violent sports, mainly football (English style). And I take the dirt bike around the fields and tracks, skidding in the mud. I love it. It's a great release."

You feel he could have done with the bike during the arduous six months on the Czech epic, which left its effect on the entire cast, 20 months later.

"It's still haunting all of us, even today," he said. "What attracted me really was that it seemed an impossible task. And in my own mind I thought I was quite unsuitable. But Philip and Saul (producer Saul Zaentz, whose films have included "Amadeus" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") saw me, and didn't look any further.

"I read the book, and felt very drawn to it. Tomas is so different from me, but he has his own compulsions. His mission was neurosurgery, and the irony of it is that he ends up selling aspirin in a corner-shop pharmacy. Me? I've got the compulsion to act. My mission is to dress up in other people's clothes!"

Day-Lewis hails from stout creative stock: His father (who died when his son was 15) was Cecil Day-Lewis, who succeeded John Masefield as Britain's poet laureate. His mother, actress Jill Balcon, is the daughter of distinguished producer Sir Michael Balcon.

"My family always insisted we should grow up without any sense of privilege," Day-Lewis, now 30, insists. His academic career was checkered--he went to public school, but ran away after two years. "Then I went to a working-class school which was all football and fighting. Public school was a prison camp, two years of unadulterated hell!"

Eventually, at 15, he found his niche with the prestigious National Youth Theater, and appeared with the Bristol Old Vic--"That was a wonderful time."

His first screen role, in fact, had been in John Schlesinger's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"--at the age of 12, playing a delinquent upper-class brat. "You'd recognize the nose," he says wryly. "It was the same size then as it is now. I just grew around it!"

Early films included minor roles in "Gandhi" and the ill-fated remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty," with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. Then came the role that changed his fortunes: the homosexual National Front punk in "Laundrette," followed by "Room With a View."

"Homosexuality seemed the sort of flavor of the year," he mused, adding, "but it's nonsense to assume I took this role as a womanizer in case I got typed. People are always groping for some label to give you. The fact is that I could spend all my life playing effete characters with homosexual tendencies and never play the same character twice. I think it's very demeaning to use that as a yardstick. It's ridiculous.

"Being an actor can be agony at times. I just can't hang up the part at the end of the day and go home and forget it. For those six months I was Tomas--though I didn't go around bedding all the chambermaids in Paris! Of course I'm uncertain as an actor, it would be ludicrous not to be. . . .

"If I had even begun to think of the thousands of people who might see me in those love scenes, out there behind the lens of the camera, I wouldn't have walked onto the set.

"The idea of all those people seeing me nude! But I'm also naked metaphorically: Every time you give a performance, you take your clothes off. . . .

"And wouldn't it be dull otherwise?"

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