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The Unbearable Lightness of Being


At 30, Daniel Day-Lewis has outgrown the British boy who ran away from school and took a perverse delight in breaking rules, but he admits that even now when he sees a sign saying, "Don't do this," he feels his pulse rising.

By chance, this upper-class rebel without a cause recently found himself inhabiting the strange, enclosed worlds of three great Eastern European rebels and writers: Kafka, Mayakovsky and Kundera. Kafka, with his eerie prescience about the coming of totalitarianism; Mayakovsky, bard of the Russian revolution, who committed suicide; Kundera, who embraced the new faith in Czechoslovakia and then recoiled from it.

Day-Lewis' reflections of those writers add new luster to the fame he suddenly achieved for his versatility in portraying a homosexual punk in "My Beautiful Laundrette" and the Victorian prig in "Room with a View." In England, he played Franz Kafka in the TV production of Alan Bennett's "The Insurance Man" and Vladimir Mayakovsky in Dusty Hughes' play "The Futurists." Now he's about to become the talk of the town as Tomas, a Czech brain surgeon and Don Juan, in the film version of Milan Kundera's novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

In England, his name came up for consideration, but casting agents kept saying he was too young, but then director Philip Kaufman turned on the tv and saw him with his head shaved bald for his theater role as Mayakovsky, the Soviet poet, in "The Futurists."

"There was something so likeable about him that I called the casting director and said, "I've got to see this guy." He asked Day-Lewis to fly to Paris and meet Kundera and the two hit it off.

At 6-foot-2, the actor's gawky skin and bones look hides the wiry strength of an indefatiguable runner. There's an infectious gaiety in his voice as he talks about his obstreperous youth when he wanted to overthrow the public (that is, private British) school to which he had been sent. His spirit of fun belies his recollation of being wild and withdrawn, then tricky, brooding and uncommunicative.

He said he'd get quite violent when someone wanted to take a picture of him, and he'd wear luminous yellow socks in defiance of the school's dress code, just as Mayakovsky had reveled in sporting his orange-yellow blouse. Day-Lewis felt far more at ease portraying the larger-than-life poet than he was able to realize with Tomas' erotic compulsions.

He found it very difficult to be playing a man having intense sexual relationships with two women, as well as sundry casual ones. He talked awkwardly about the experience when he was in Berkeley to to dialogue "looping" for certain scenes.

"It was terribly painful," he said. There was a long silence. "There may have been other actresses with whom it might have been possible to do those scenes, but I think the three of us (Juliette Binoche as the timid Teresa and Lena Olin as the sensual Sabina) had a fair degree of trust that enabled us to do it.

"There's a part of me which doesn't ever want to see the film. It happens with all films to a certain extent, but with this more than any other. I'm going through a period now when I don't want any audiences to see it. It's like a private film. When you're doing it, you create a life for yourself and the people you're working with , and tht is so private and so intense and all -consuming that it takes over every aspect of your life. The film was a life in itself. It still hasn't left me. When it was finished, it haunted me every day."

(Finally, he saw the film. "When Iwatched it," he said on the telephone, "I felt an enormous emptiness, bigger than the room I was sitting in. Then later, there was a great sense of freedom that I was able to see it as something separate from myself for the first time." )

Day-Lewis, son of the late English poet-laureate C.Day Lewis and Jill Balcon and grandson of producer Michael Balcon, thought originally that the Kundera novel could never be made into a film, but he found the challenge "irresistable."

As with the Mayakovsky play, he was fascinated by the way the political and personal lives of those people were inextricably intertwined. "It is such a constant truth it can stand being re-explored. I loved the way Kundera used the characters as author's conceits in a way. Kundera made it quite clear that these weren't people but different aspects of his imagination through which he spoke. At the same time they DO exist as people in a very unusual way."

The performers didn't always agree with Kundera's conception of the charac ters. He created the sensuous Sabina as someone who could cope with Tomas' cavalier attitude and just accept his way of showing up when it suited his needs.

"Lena didn't believe that Sabina could toss off her feelings. She thought that was a very male attitude. I think that Kundera in spite of himself created a love between Tomas and Sabina, but he isn't able to recognize it for one reason or another. It seemed to me there was an extraordinary relationship between them that neither of them would ever have again with anyone else and despite the dead end Sabina reaches with her constant betrayals, she had a strength which sustained Tomas. She was somebody whose counsel he would seek at times of need and that was something that was never possible between him and Teresa."

Day-Lewis said that the first time he met Kundera in Paris, the writer sat and stared at him for a long time. "I was aware that to some extent I'd be playing him, but not really. He's got such an incisive and penetrating look. Usually I'd be put off by that, but my curiosity about him was so great that it overcame my shyness.There were certain things in the script that bothered me and I wanted to talk about them. The first question he asked me was, 'What do you think of the script?'

Daniel thought that the script lacked one of Kundera's main themes, the element of compassion in the Czech use of the word, which he describes quite carefully as emotion empathy rather than pity. " It seemed to me fundamental to the relationship between Tomas and Teresa. Even though Tomas could dream about the ideal woman, he also saw a vision of Teresa, and it was compassion that constantly brought him back to her because he not only understood her pain, he actually felt it himself. I didn't see how that could be communicated with the script as it was."

He had already expressed his reservations to Kaufman and the co-scriptwriter,Jean-Claude Carriere, but he didn't think he had convinced them. "After thinking about it for a long time, Kundera said, 'I think maybe that IS missing .' I broke out in a rash of relief because I knew he had been involved in the script as well. Also I very much doubted my own instincts about this."

Kaufman told Day-Lewis that it was the actor's job to convey that compassion. "He was quite right. The thing about a film as opposed to a play is that 80 percent of the film isn't in the writing."

Before shooting began, Day-Lewis went to Czechoslovakia for two weeks to absorb the atmosphere of Prague. "Every city has a life of its own. Every city has its own smells and its own filth. There's a fair chance that by walking through a street and breathing in the air that something registers in you, becomes a part of you. It's really a period of self-delusion. That's what preparation is all about - it's rendering yourself ignorant of all things that are not relevant to the part."

Through some friends, he was able to see what life could be like in Prague. "Hard," he said. "One particular guy was a member of a jazz group. He had originally trained as a film director and now can barely get a job as a manual laborer. He's a man who is entirely deprived of the possibility of using his talent because he can't resist saying what he thinks, and that's something they'll never take away from him."

Having been to Prague could he understand why Tomas went back to that restrictive society?

"Yes," Day-Lewis answered. "Because of Teresa. There was no other reason. He went back because he couldn't stand not being with her. That was his affliction in a way. He had always protected himself so carefully against love, against the responsibility of that kind of love. His life was turned upside down by Teresa. You'd go anywhere if you loved someone. He didn't go back because he needed to be with her but because he couldn't stand the thought of her being in pain and on her own."

San Francisco Chronicle, December 17, 1989