February 11, 2013 12:00 PM

Daniel Day-Lewis is so method, he even has a method to accepting roles. After years of saying no to playing Abraham Lincoln, in 2010 he finally began to change his mind-but first asked director Steven Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy and writer Tony Kushner to fly to his home in Ireland so they could talk in person and meet his wife and children.

“Daniel took care of all of the arrangements and put us up in a beautiful inn in the country,” recalls Kennedy. “At the time, he lived in an exquisite old farmhouse [in the Wicklow Mountains outside Dublin] with wisteria growing everywhere. We walked into the house and stood in the kitchen, and the first two or three hours were spent getting to know his children. That is who Daniel is.”

It’s a side of Day-Lewis, 55, that few get to glimpse. The actor who so vividly inhabits the characters he plays-an artist with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot, a ruthless oil prospector in There Will Be Blood and now a war-weary President in Lincoln, earning his fifth Oscar nomination-prefers to remain a mystery himself. He stays in character on sets and takes years-long breaks between movies. (Did he really apprentice himself to an Italian cobbler on one hiatus? He’s refused to say.) But those who’ve gotten to know the very private star say he’s not at all pretentious or prickly. “He’s deeply humble and enormously approachable,” says Kushner. “You don’t have to work through thickets of ego and defensiveness. But he also possesses this remarkable talent.”

Day-Lewis spends most of his time in Ireland with his wife of 16 years, Rebecca Miller, 50, the actress-director daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, and their kids Ronan, 14, and Cashel, 10. (He also has a son, Gabriel, 17, with French actress Isabelle Adjani.) Says Kennedy, “The environment they set up for the kids and how that normal life is nurtured are absolutely his priority.”

And so he rarely says yes, with Lincoln only his fifth movie since 1997’s The Boxer. “He knows what each character requires of him and of his family,” says Kennedy. Before the shoot, Kushner notes, Day-Lewis read countless books on Lincoln and the Civil War. On-set, he spoke in Lincoln’s voice (thoroughly researched, of course), kept his costume on and was addressed by Spielberg as “Mr. President.” He absorbed the role so thoroughly that “he was never trying to be Lincolnian,” says Spielberg. “He was simply trying to be himself, which at the time of the shooting meant that he was day in and day out our 16th President-right up until the final shot on the final day of production, which was the first time I got to hear his English accent.” Day-Lewis also kept mostly to himself. “We decided to keep the normal kind of socializing to an absolute minimum,” says Kennedy. But the two-time Oscar winner’s approach “wasn’t some odd experience. It’s just somebody who is completely attentive to their craft.” Day-Lewis allowed no one to visit him on the set, but he did see his family when he had longer breaks from filming. Says Kennedy: “It’s not like he completely disappears.”

Born in Greenwich, England, Day-Lewis grew up in a decidedly artistic family. His mother was actress Jill Balcon, whose father, Sir Michael Balcon, headed the movie production company Ealing Studios. His father was Irish poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, whose family vacations to Ireland each summer led to his son’s love of the country, as Daniel told Time: “It became a secret garden where anything seemed possible.” Cecil died when Daniel was just 15 and in boarding school, pursuing dual interests in acting and woodworking.

After school, he jumped from job to job, from TV roles to working on the docks. It wasn’t until 1986, when he appeared in My Beautiful Laundrette as a gay street punk and A Room with a View as a stuffy Edwardian suitor, that the film world first took serious notice of the lanky, darkly handsome actor. The next year, he won an Oscar for his portrayal of paralyzed artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot. As tales of him staying in character through the shoot made their rounds, the legend of the ultimate Method actor was born. “Every actor has his own way of getting ready,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “You can’t talk about it. It sounds self-important and ridiculous.”

Now Day-Lewis draws strength from his wife as he navigates through awards season as the Best Actor frontrunner. “Rebecca and Daniel take great care of each other,” says Kushner. Being the center of attention “isn’t something he feels at all comfortable doing,” says Kennedy. “But when he is in that environment, he is amazingly gracious.” At the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in January, with Miller at his side, he warmly greeted well-wishers and sought out French actress Emmanuelle Riva, whom he had never met, to congratulate her for her role in Amour. “I do say yes from time to time,” Day-Lewis said in his acceptance speech that night. “Sixteen years ago I said yes to Rebecca, and that was the best yes I ever said.”

It’s that attitude that many who have worked with him admire most. As Spielberg says, “Daniel doesn’t work to make a living. He’s just busy living.”