That intensity is widely expected to land Day-Lewis his third Oscar nomination, and possibly a second win, to go along with a Golden Globe nod. A self-imposed five-year break from acting since '97's The Boxer left no rust on the famously reclusive actor. "The time flew," Day-Lewis, 45, says. "I have a strange relationship with time. I'm not aware of it passing. I knew if I was going to keep doing this work that I would also have to take periods away."
The period off seems to have been among the happiest of a life that has taken some odd turns. Born in London to England's poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and his wife, actress Jill Balcon, Day-Lewis overdosed on migraine pills and was admitted to a mental hospital after his father's death in 1972. Winning acclaim in 1986's A Room with a View and later in My Left Foot, for which he won an Oscar in 1990, he suffered another apparent breakdown on a London stage in 1989 while playing Hamlet. A scene in which Hamlet speaks to his dead father led Day-Lewis to burst into tears and walk offstage; he hasn't worked in theater since.
Once linked to actresses Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder, Day-Lewis in 1996 quietly married author and filmmaker Rebecca Miller, 40, whom he met while starring in The Crucible, a screen adaptation of the play by her father, Arthur Miller. The couple spend their summers at her father's farm in Connecticut and own an apartment in downtown Manhattan, where they can be spotted strolling hand-in-hand. "They're both committed to making a nice home and a nice environment for their family," says Miller's half-brother Robert, a movie producer. In recent years they have lived mostly in the village of Annamoe, Ireland, with their son Ronan, now 4. (Son Cashel was born last May.) But around the end of 1998 Day-Lewis took a curious detour, when he became fascinated by the art of shoemaking. "I can understand his love of it," says John Lobb Jr., whose shoemaker father first gave Day-Lewis a glimpse of their work at their venerable London studio. "It's a craft that involves working with your hands, and that's so rare these days."
Inspired by the visit, Day-Lewis went to order footwear at the Florence shop run by the master shoemaker Stefano Bemer and ended up returning daily to study the craft and take on such tasks as stitching. "He always walked with his shoulders hunched a bit, looking at the floor," says Leonardo Tozzi, a fellow apprentice. "He was very serious." The store prizes the only pair of shoes Day-Lewis completed: lace-ups that normally sell for $1,800. "He did beautiful work," says Tozzi.
His wife, too, has spread her wings since their marriage. Miller, a former painter and actress, directed last year's acclaimed independent film Personal Velocity, based on her book. Her father, Arthur, 87, says she finds time for both her art and her family even while mourning the death a year ago of her mother, photographer Inge Morath. "Rebecca is a bit like her mother," he says. "Her mother could make a trip to China...and the next day be in the vegetable garden pulling up weeds."
Her husband can juggle tasks too. In the midst of promoting Gangs he spent the holidays mostly in Ireland looking after his son Gabriel-Kane, 7, by his ex-girlfriend, French actress Isabelle Adjani, 47. "I don't think anyone can go through [fatherhood] and not be changed," he says. Not that even his kids get to see behind his curtain of secrecy. "My children don't know what I do," he says, jokingly adding, "God forbid they should ever find out."
Amy Longsdorf, Sharon Cotliar and Diane Herbst in New York City, Sophia Hemphill in London and Robin Micheli in Florence