NEW YORK -- Daniel Day Lewis has not been himself lately.

Which is mostly a good thing, because Lewis earns his keep portraying other people, inhabiting other lives.

But during the last year, things have gotten out of hand for the acclaimed 30-year-old English actor. First, there was the six months in Paris toiling on the profoundly difficult film version of Czech novelist Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

Lewis, a rail-thin, rangy fellow, portrays Tomaz, a neurosurgeon and "epic" womanizer whose life is torn asunder by the political strife of 1968 Prague, and by the metaphysical strife caused by one of the women he takes up with.

Then, from Paris straight to the backwoods burg of Helen, Ga., Lewis joined a remarkable ensemble of performers, including a monologuist, a 280-pound rocker and a stand-up comedian, for "Stars and Bars," a movie based on William Boyd's comic novel of the same name.

In it, Lewis is Henderson Dores, an uptight Brit who moves to America to work for a major Manhattan art auctioneer. He ends up in the middle of nowhere -- the mythical Luxora Beach, Ga. -- assessing a reclusive millionaire's small but significant collection of impressionist paintings. The millionaire, a cantankerous old coot, is played by legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton. And the inhibited, wildly neurotic Dores -- surrounded by a pack of crazed rednecks, all at cross-purposes -- is never quite the same again.

From Georgia, Lewis, director Pat O'Connor and the cast and crew flew to New York for a final two weeks of filming.

About 36 hours after the movie's last shot, Lewis is in a dark, exclusive Upper West Side restaurant, wearing a floppy felt hat, a red bandanna, an army-green T-shirt and blue jeans.

He is very tired, very serious, very relaxed, and not at all like either of the characters for which he is best known: the effeminate Edwardian fop with the pince-nez in "A Room With a View" and the macho homosexual punk in "My Beautiful Laundrette." For his work in the roles, the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Lewis the title of best supporting actor of 1986.

Lewis' problem is that the two characters he's been "inhabiting" during the last 12 months or so -- Tomaz and Dores -- "are kind of doing battle in my mind. What an extraordinary combination! And they're going to be there, like pugilists pounding away at each other in my mind, for months and months to come. I don't know how long. But until they get weary of the fight, I can't move on. I just can't do."

This talk of pugilists in the noodle may sound a mite pretentious. But Lewis is so unaffected and so doggedly earnest that his talk about characters "occupying rooms in my head" becomes rather engaging.

"One of the worst things about having to do this film so quickly," he says, referring to his jump to "Stars and Bars," "was having to bring the ghost of {Tomaz} with me, and that ghost lives with me night and day."

Playing Henderson Dores, Lewis was aided by novelist Boyd's screenplay, O'Connor's deft direction and an offbeat cast. It includes Stanton, Spalding Gray, Martha Plimpton, Laurie Metcalf, Steven Wright, Glenne Headly, Keith David, Will Patton and Maury Chaykin.

"One of the most important parts of the time taken between one job and another is to do with the letting go, the severing, and if you don't have that time it's bloody hard," Lewis explains.

"You must be absolutely committed to the people that you're working with, and if you bring a kind of profound weariness with you at the very outset, I think it's dishonorable. And I had to do it with this. It's kind of shameful but it had to be, and Pat knew the conditions. He knew it was tough on me. But we both wanted to do this film very much ...

"On the whole," continues Lewis, "I think those situations are to be avoided at all costs. One of the wonderful things about having a lot of work is that you have the luxury of being able to choose, but along with that is the temptation to say this is a moment in time which may never come again.

"You know that the well isn't bottomless, you know that in a few months' time they'll be looking for a young Daniel Day Lewis or whatever. So the temptation is to take it, and say, 'I want this, I want to have this now.'

"But it's wrong, you can't work like that. You have to work in your own good time; otherwise it's gluttony and you get no nourishment from it at all. You just make yourself ill, sick, because you're feeding yourself for tomorrow, like a camel. Except -- "

Lewis pauses here, listening to what he's saying. "Camels drink, don't they? They drink for tomorrow."

He smiles.

"You know what I'm getting at. I'm like a camel."

The actor's work to date is an exemplar of diversity: a fruity Victorian-era sophisticate; a streetwise, lower-class gay; a spiritually distraught Czechoslovakian doctor; and an Englishman trying to shake off the heritage of a country where "they carry their inhibitions and their hang-ups to their grave." He's also played smaller parts, as a street thug in "Gandhi" and as the shipmaster in Roger Donaldson's 1984 "The Bounty."

Lewis, the son of British poet C. Day Lewis and actress Jill Balcon, was raised in Ireland and England. His grandfather was Sir Michael Balcon, the British filmmaker who headed up Ealing Studios, producer of numerous comedies starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

Lewis was "12 or 13" when he was struck by the notion of acting, in part thanks to a small nonspeaking role as a young hooligan in 1971's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." He performed on stage in school, and after graduation he was accepted into the Bristol Old Vic, one of England's finest repertory companies.

After a year there, he moved to London, thinking the jobs would come fast and furious.

They didn't. Only long spells of unemployment ensued, punctuated intermittently by small roles in theater and television. Eventually, though, his work became recognized. Lewis' big break came when he was offered the lead in the London stage production of "Another Country." The day after he finished, he flew to Tahiti for "The Bounty." Upon his return home, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then came "Laundrette" and "A Room With a View."

Perhaps it's the memory of those lean years, not very long ago, that keeps Lewis refreshingly humble when he surveys his current success. The actor says that along with the "bits of paper and lumps of metal" honoring his work last year for "Laundrette" and "Room" came a hefty dollop of cynicism.

"Actors tend to find any reason to undermine their own confidence," he says. "I got an immediate rush of pleasure from {the awards}, followed hard after by the thought 'Well, what is that if it isn't to do with timing?' Because although individually the films would have been recognized for what they were, and the performances would have been recognized for what they were, if they hadn't {been released} at the same time no comparison would've been made.

"It seemed to me that a lot of the attention I got was entirely to do with comparison {between the widely differing roles}. And I always thought that's a lot of nonsense.

"I mean, so what?" he asks. "Actors do play different parts, and if they can make audiences believe they come from different worlds, it just means they're doing their job."