Throughout most of the '90s, you could hardly go a date night without Daniel Day-Lewis horning in on your action at the multiplex. However, after taking home an Oscar for My Left Foot and raking in big bucks at the box office with The Last of the Mohicans, the thinking woman's heartthrob virtually disappeared. In fact, until director Martin Scorsese coaxed him out of retirement to play Leonardo DiCaprio's archenemy Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (opening Dec. 20), the master thespian seemed determined to become his own "Whatever Happened to... ?" special.

So, whatever did happen to Day-Lewis after his last film, 1997's The Boxer? Did Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson make off with all of his job offers? Or did he, as has been widely rumored, become — no joke — a cobbler? "I decided to spend some time doing other things," he says simply to TV Guide Online, "and I'm told five years have passed.

"I wasn't really aware of time passing," he adds. "I have a loose understanding of time." (Lest this problem resurface and again bring his thriving career to a standstill, let's help homey out, shall we? In Hollywood, five years makes has-beens of hot stuff. Got it? Good.)

The 45-year-old Englishman declines to reveal whether he actually trained to be a shoemaker — "I've never really chosen to talk about that; I never saw the point," he insists. Instead, he allows only that he spent his days engaged in pursuits "that interested me in a different way. I have always taken time periodically over the years, and I always felt, from a very early stage, that to do the work that I do, I would also need to spend time not doing it. So, that's what I was doing." Or rather, not doing.

For awhile, moviemakers kept Day-Lewis high on their most-wanted lists. But the considerate recluse made every effort to let them know that he should be stricken from their roster of available talent. "I usually make it clear when I'm not going to be working, just so I don't waste people's time," he offers. "It's hard enough getting a film made without them thinking maybe there's just half a chance that [I'm] kidding [about being on hiatus].

"It's not with any sense of ingratitude that I allow these [opportunities] to pass me by," he continues. "I'm tremendously grateful for anybody that shows an interest in working with me, but I feel that part of the way in which I can respect them is not to engage in a piece of work that I'm not ready for. That would be the worst thing of all. I can only know myself when the time is right to get back into the game."

Unless you spent the last few months living in a cave — or perhaps apprenticing at Foot Locker — you've undoubtedly come across all sorts of tall tales about what made Gangs an offer that the picky performer couldn't refuse, wild stories about trickery and racketeers and what have you. Don't believe any of it, says the man in the middle of the muddle. "Forget what you read. I called [Miramax honcho] Harvey [Weinstein] to try and get some money out of him for the film [Personal Velocity] that my wife [Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur] was setting up at the time, which he didn't give me, but he said during the conversation that Martin was looking for me, so I talked to him and that was it.

"The only convincing that needed to be done, which didn't involve going to restaurants with gangsters if that's also what you read, [was that] I needed to convince myself that I would go into this dungeon with [Scorsese] and stay there and not look for the escape hatch," he goes on. "I needed to know that I would give everything I possibly could to the work, for my sake and more particularly for his. So, those were the only questions. Nobody in their right mind would question such a request from Martin."

Now that Day-Lewis at last is back on the playing field — thanks, Marty — it looks like we can expect him to stick around for a bit. Despite his rep as one of the most intense and Methodical actors in the industry, he insists that he shows himself a good time, not a hard one. "I've tried to deal with that misconception [about myself] a number of times, but it doesn't work," he sighs. "The fact is that this is and always has been a game to me. The work that I do is a response to the curiosity and fascination I have for this life.

"The work is the pleasure for me and it always has been — no matter what [difficulties] you might seem to endure as part of that," he concludes. "I'm not in the business of self-flagellation. Even if I appear to others to take it too seriously, for me I'm just indulging the great pleasure of taking part in that game."