For the essay portion of her college application, Claire Danes related a story that she thought best described the contrast between her New York childhood and her Hollywood adolescence. "I remember going to school on the subway, which I always hated," she explains at a cafe near her parents' condo in Los Angeles. "I'd be carrying a 40-pound backpack, and I'd be 11 or 12 years old, and it would be cold and rainy, and I'd be going to science class, and I'd have to face my science teacher -- who was miserable. And there'd be this airlines ad and a picture of the Caribbean and two people just hanging out and having lots of money, and for about 20 minutes I'd daydream about being in that advertisement." She pauses, takes a sip of water. "Now I really feel like I'm living in one of those ads on the subway, you know?"
She offers up the most recent example of this strange new fabulousness.
"I had this party a little while ago, and a friend said, 'You know, you can invite people you don't know."' She laughs. "Like, I could go look through a magazine -- now it sounds terribly arrogant -- anybody who is well-known could say, 'I want that guy's number,' and that's absolutely possible to do. And that's very strange." But, I venture, also pretty cool. "So. Cool," she agrees.
And it is. In the almost three years since Danes, now 18, delivered a dead on depiction of adolescent girlhood as Angela Chase, in the ABC drama My So Called Life -- she has become one of the most justifiably hyped young actresses around, starring as Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo in Baz Luhrmann's radical interpretation of the tragic love story.
This fall Danes's life gets even bigger. In October she appeared in Oliver Stone's U-Turn. This month she portrays an abused wife in Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker and next spring she costars with Gabriel Byrne and Lena Olin in Polish Wedding, playing a young tart who gets pregnant. "I had this hair, these extensions -- there was all this hair. Pounds of it," she says. "I've never played a sexpot. It was cool to have people know that I am capable of that."
Today, however, Danes looks like the college freshman she plans to become (she'll attend Yale next fall). She's wearing faded bell-bottoms, a fuzzy yellow sweater, and stylishly chunky boots. She is skinny but not distressingly so, and her cherub-faced beauty is striking but smaller in person, suggesting a grace that is still not fully formed. She regards the saucer that her iced tea sits on, which is already littered with half a dozen emptied-out packets of Equal. "This is kind of disgusting, isn't it?" she says. "And if it causes cancer, like, all of Hollywood's gonna be dead."
History has taught us that fame and adolescence go together like plutonium and diesel fuel. In fact, there are few creations of Hollywood more jerry-rigged for tragic, public meltdown than the teenage movie star. They are little monsters, asked to portray a sensuality and emotional maturity they are years away from fully understanding; unrestrained ids set free to operate motor vehicles while intoxicated and make insanely pretentious pronouncements about their "craft." But Danes is so guileless, so sweet, and so smart that it's fairly clear she is destined to be the rarest of child stars, the kind who makes a reasonably successful transition to adulthood.
"She was 14 when I met her, and she was exactly the same," says good friend and Little Women costar Winona Ryder, "really centered and calm. She doesn't advertise her intelligence or maturity, and she's not cynical or jaded." Once, after a long day on the set of Little Women, Ryder recalls, the cast retired to a local restaurant, and someone asked Danes if she wanted to drink. "She looked at the guy," Ryder says with a laugh, "and said, 'No. I don't drink. I'm 14."'
At the Academy Awards this year, Danes appeared as a presenter. The fact that halfway through the evening her outfit ripped does not seem to have fazed her one bit. "We're at the Oscars, the most photographed event in the world," says Ryder. "And Claire just laughed. We had to go backstage and bribe this woman to fix it, and she sewed it really badly, but Claire was like, 'Whatever.'
Danes credits her parents with the fact that she's turned out reasonably well. "Their philosophy was to throw us out into the world and trust that we would manage and come back home safely," she says. "It puts a lot of pressure on you when you're handed that kind of responsibility, but you do become more self-aware and mature as a result of it."
The resulting precociousness seems to be a point of both pride and frustration. "I've always felt really old," she says, adding that she feels younger now than she ever has. As a kid, she says, "I was on this whole perfection trip. And that's just totally boring. And arrogant! And fucking obnoxious, you know? I finally realized after years of therapy -- I'm 18 and I've already had years of therapy -- that you can encourage yourself to move further in a nurturing way. You don't have to be abusive."
Still, she worries. She is bothered by all the drugs she's seen at Hollywood parties lately, and by the way you can "just float into your own universe here and never see anything you don't want to see."
The fear of slipping into a sense of entitlement influences much of Danes's life these days. "I'm totally going through a rebel period right now," she says. "It's sort of waning, but...ach, I'm allowed, right? It's OK, right?"
After lunch, Danes suggests a visit to her house so she can play a song this guy wrote for her. The guy is the Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee, a 20-year-old indie-rock prodigy; sort of a Liz Phair for sensitive teenage boys. Inside her family's modest stucco and glass-brick triplex, her bedroom is littered with all manner of fashion, movie, and music-industry tchotchkes -- "People just give me stuff," she says -- but the room's overarching aesthetic theme is guys. "It's all about boys," she singsongs. "It's all about boys, it's all about boys." There are framed pictures of various male costars and ex-boyfriends, as well as several pictures of Ben Lee.
She walks over to the tape recorder and tells the story behind the song. Lee had flown from Australia for Danes's birthday, and that night, she says, "I stayed over at Winona's, and right before we were all going to sleep he played this song for me." She presses play. The song begins. "Hey there, I said it, I'm in love with you/But there's an ocean between us just like me, deep and blue." Danes is lost, transported, silently mouthing the words. For a moment she is nothing more than a standard-issue teenager, in love with a guy who lives really far away. The song ends. "All the way from the other side of the world to sing that to me," she says, switching off the stereo. "Like, kill me." It is pointed out that she has found the perfect boy version of herself. "Well, he's the king of teen angst," she replies, "and I am happy to be the queen."
Originally transcribed by: Todd Walke
© Elle 1997