Born in London, England, Daniel Michael Blake Day-Lewis is the second child of Cecil Day-Lewis (A.K.A. Nicholas Blake) (Poet Laureate of England) and his second wife, Jill Balcon. His maternal grandfather was Sir Michael Balcon, an important figure in the history of British cinema and head of the famous Ealing Studios. His older sister, Tamasin Day-Lewis, is a documentarian. His mother's family were Jewish immigrants (from Poland and Latvia), and his father was of Northern Irish and English descent. Daniel was educated at Sevenoaks School in Kent, which he despised, and the more progressive Bedales in Petersfield, which he adored. He studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic School. Daniel made his film debut in Un dimanche comme les autres (1971), but then acted on stage with the Bristol Old Vic and Royal Shakespeare Companies and did not appear on screen again until 1982, when he landed his first adult role, a bit part in Gandhi (1982). He also appeared on British TV that year in Frost in May (1982) and BBC2 Playhouse: How Many Miles to Babylon? (1982). Notable theatrical performances include Another Country (1982-83), Dracula (1984), and The Futurists (1986).
His first major supporting role in a feature film was in Le Bounty (1984), quickly followed by My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Chambre avec vue (1985). The latter two films opened in New York on the same day, offering audiences and critics evidence of his remarkable range and establishing him as a major talent. The New York Film Critics named him Best Supporting Actor for those performances. In 1986, he appeared on stage in Richard Eyre's The Futurists and on television in Eyre's production of Screen Two: The Insurance Man (1986). He also had a small role in a British/French film, Nanou (1986). In 1987 he assumed leading-man status in Philip Kaufman's L'insoutenable légèreté de l'être (1988), followed by a comedic role in the unsuccessful Un Anglais à New York (1988). His brilliant performance as "Christy Brown" in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot (1989) won him numerous awards, including The Academy Award for best actor.
He returned to the stage to work again with Eyre, as Hamlet at the National Theater, but was forced to leave the production close to the end of its run because of exhaustion, and has not appeared on stage since. He took a hiatus from film as well until 1992, when he starred in Le dernier des Mohicans (1992), a film that met with mixed reviews but was a great success at the box office. He worked with American director Martin Scorsese in Le temps de l'innocence (1993) in 1994. Subsequently, he teamed again with Jim Sheridan to star in Au nom du père (1993), a critically acclaimed performance that earned him another Academy Award nomination. His next project was in the role of John Proctor in father-in-law Arthur Miller's play La chasse aux sorcières (1996), directed by Nicholas Hytner.