As a fleet of boats carried the cast of The Crucible to the New World, they came upon a sight that would have flustered even the staunchest Puritan. There, roaming around an island off the coast of northern Massachusetts, was Daniel Day-Lewis. His skin had turned the color of a hazelnut, calluses had thickened the palms of his hands, and he was holding a knife.
Two months earlier, in July 1995, Day-Lewis had struck out for Hog Island, the uninhabited bird sanctuary in Ipswich Bay where a film crew was laying down the floorboards, pews, and beams of colonial Salem. Famous for plunging into roles with a mix of fastidiousness and ferocity, Day-Lewis had decided that to get to the root of John Proctor the Puritan farmer at the heart of Arthur Miller's tragic tale of a Massachusetts witch-hunt he must know the land. ''It seemed that the important thing to do was some kind of physical work,'' he says. ''So I spent some time on the island, because so much of the story of those people's lives was contained within the way they took possession of that land.''
By the time the cameras were rolling, the land had taken possession of him. After a summer of living right across the bay, working in the company of carpenters, swatting away greenhead flies, and helping build Proctor's wooden homestead by hand, the Oscar-winning actor was thoroughly caught up in the spell of his role. He rarely spoke. Eschewing a golf cart, he rode to the set on the back of a brown horse. The cast dubbed him Heathcliff. ''It was funny to observe him,'' recalls Charlayne Woodard, the actress who plays Tituba, a spirit-conjuring slave from Barbados. ''When they said 'Cut,' he didn't just go to craft services and eat some jelly beans. He would sit on something and take out an old knife and start whittling a piece of wood.''
Such spellbound behavior is hardly abnormal for the star of In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot; besides, Day-Lewis knew that The Crucible deserved whatever sorcery he could summon. Arthur Miller's 1953 play may have a permanent hex on high schools across the country, but Washington scandal and Hollywood apathy have prevented anyone from making a big-screen American version for 43 years. When director Nicholas Hytner and his crew converged on Hog Island, they brought along a daunting coven of actors, a script from the hand of Miller himself, and a singular burden. As the playwright's son, Robert, puts it, ''You don't want to be the one to screw it up.''
Especially with Arthur Miller watching. Imagine Jane Austen joshing around on the set of Emma, and you get a sense of how it felt to see a literary legend a man who, as Hytner says, ''looks like an Old Testament prophet'' jovially wandering the island, dispensing smiles and compliments. ''I can't deny that the thought of being able to spend some time in his presence was a huge incentive for me,'' says Day-Lewis, 39. The actor even struck up a transatlantic correspondence with the playwright, and many months later, that Old Testament pen pal became his father-in-law. On Nov. 13, Day-Lewis who has an 18-month-old son with French actress Isabelle Adjani wed Arthur Miller's daughter Rebecca, a 33-year-old filmmaker, in a tiny, hushed ceremony in Vermont. ''They should be good for each other,'' says Robert. ''They're both very creative people; they're independent and yet also very loving and very bright.''