His Bare Foot

updated 11/09/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1992 01:00AM

THIS IS HOW JAMES FENIMORE COOPER describes Hawkeye, the intrepid woodsman, when he first appears in The Lost of the Mohicans, Cooper's 1826 novel set during the French and Indian War: "His person, though muscular, was rather attenuated than full; but every nerve and muscle appeared strung and indurated by unremitted exposure and toil....His countenance was not only without guile, but at the moment at which he is introduced, it was charged with an expression of sturdy honesty."

Thank you, Jim, that was very nice. But Daniel Day-Lewis's take on the character, in the new film hit The Last of the Mohicans, has considerably more kick. With his dark mane flowing behind him as he charges through dense forests, rescuing damsels in distress (most notably Madeleine Stowe) from aggrieved Hurons, he is an Early American superhero. Mohicans provides ample opportunity for Day-Lewis to show off his strong, chiseled profile, especially in a love scene shot against a waterfall. The actor also removes his buckskin jacket on occasion, revealing a chest that is lean and muscled—or, as Cooper would say, "attenuated rather than full."

This is not what most people would have expected from the 35-year-old Day-Lewis, who has long been considered sexy but never matinee-idol material. He is more a brooder, tall (about 6'2"), rail-thin, maybe even faintly effete. Yet here he is, as The New York Times' Janet Maslin put it, "a hot-blooded leading man" in a $40 million outdoorsy epic (one that took in nearly $50 million in the U.S. in its first month, doubtless helped by enthralled female moviegoers).

One reason Day-Lewis took the part of Hawkeye, the Englishman reared by Mohicans, he has said, was precisely because he wanted the chance to play someone from the ruddy past, as opposed to the more cerebral, offbeat parts that have made him one of the most highly praised actors of his generation. Day-Lewis was a gay punk in 1986's My Beautiful Laundrette, an Edwardian nerd in A Room with a View (also 1986), an amorous Czech surgeon in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Christy Brown, the Irish artist and writer who suffered from severe cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot (1989), for which Day-Lewis won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Day-Lewis doesn't simply disappear into these roles; he obsessively sinks himself into them. In My Left Foot, he stayed so thoroughly in character between takes that he refused to get up and walk and had to be fed his meals by the crew. For Mohicans, which was shot in North Carolina, he learned to skin animals, make a canoe and shoot a flintlock rifle, which he carried with him almost everywhere for months. David Webster, director of the Special Operations Center, a private counterterrorist and law-enforcement training facility in Pittsview, Ala., taught Day-Lewis how to handle firearms. The actor "soaked up information," says Webster. "He didn't want Hawkeye to do something that really wasn't feasible. He was going to find this character, and he did."

No one, though, seems to have quite found Daniel Day-Lewis yet. "He's a very complicated guy," said Philip Kaufman after directing him in Unbearable Lightness. The sort of guy who, once asked about how he would cope with stardom, answered, "I don't deal at all well with the stuff I have to face already." During recent interviews, Day-Lewis—whose tangled dark hair always looks as if it should have a few dead leaves tucked in—has kept himself calm by breaking open small glass capsules and swallowing herbal concoctions. (He described one as "an anti—self obsessional potion," then added: "You should see what I take in the morning.")

What he does not take is sugar, meat, starch, caffeine or alcohol, although he does smoke. He is, by all accounts, something of a loner, fond of traveling with a set of watercolors and painting the passing scene. Though raised in London, he's a citizen of Ireland and spends much of his free time there (his father, poet Cecil Day-Lewis, was born in Country Laois). He is reticent, positively closemouthed about private matters ("I'm inhibited in my personal life," he told PEOPLE). Although never married, he has for the past two years been linked with French actress Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.). Varied reports this year have had Adjani, 37, leaving Paris to live with Day-Lewis in London; breaking up with him and moving back to Paris: and (just a few weeks ago) hanging out with him in Paris. There have also been rumors of a romance with antipapal rock star Sinéad O'Connor.

But Daniel's strongest attachment, perhaps, is to his sister, Tamasin, 38, a documentary-film maker who has the same angular features and dark, tangled hair. "We're closer to each other than to anybody else." Tamasin has said. It was to her home that he fled in 1989, recuperating from a breakdown he suffered while playing I Hamlet in London. The problem, he has since said, was that he was starting to hear not only the ghost of Hamlet's father but the voice of his own father as well.

Cecil Day-Lewis, named poet laureate of England in 1968, was 53 when Daniel, his second child by actress Jill Balcon, was born. "He was the most radiant child, with natural grace and beautiful manners," his mother has said. But Day-Lewis, in recounting his childhood in a large Georgian house in London, has occasionally alluded to some less than wonderful years. A stint at a boys' boarding school in his early teens was so ghastly, he has said, that he look to drinking and shoplifting and finally ran away to his sister's coed school, where he stayed. His father died of pancreatic cancer in 1972, when Day-Lewis was only 15. "It's a great source of sadness to me that my father died without having seen me do anything worthwhile," he told PEOPLE in 1988.

Acting was his emotional rescue—"I wasn't brave enough to stick with my own life," he has said. His first role was as a black African boy in a school production of Cry the Beloved Country; then he look small parts with London's National Youth Theater and eventually hooked up with the Royal Shakespeare Company. As a budding film actor, he had a walk-on in Sunday. Bloody Sunday (1971), then worked his way up to larger parts. At 29, he starred in his two breakthrough films, Laundrette and Room with a View.

The role he has sunk himself into most recently is that of a New York lawyer, circa 1870, in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, directed by Martin Scorsese. Preparing for the part of Newland Archer. Day-Lewis checked into a hotel that had the appropriate ambience and began signing himself in with the character's name. He also spent time trying to decide what sort of cologne Archer would wear. The end result will probably be a Mr. Archer more fascinating, if not more hot-blooded, than anything Edith Wharton could have imagined.

TOM GLIATTO with bureau reports

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