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Claire Danes
by Bart Mills (Biography - April, 1997)

Making movies is more fun than chemistry class. The 18 year-old star talks about life in the very fast lane.

When Claire Danes speaks, her voice sounds hesitant, as if she hasn't yet found her niche in life. When she appears on screen, her still-un-formed features can be alternately plain and beautiful, sometimes within a matter of seconds.

The star of the 1994-95 television series Mo So-Called Life, Danes, who turns 18 this month, has become a standout among the new generation of actors that also includes Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Edward Furlong. Not yet adults but certainly no longer children, they excel at unmannered portrayals of underage saints and victims.

"She has that special truth barometer," says Michael Pressman, who directed her in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday.

Her face is a blank canvas for emotions. She can't be acting, we think, as we watch her nail her dreamy, sensitive character in My So-Called Life. This must really be Claire, we marvel, as her character, Beth dies so selflessly in Little Women.

Everyone should have a daughter like Danes, we wish, as her character struggles to bring her grief-stricken father back to reality in To Gillian. Or a daughter like Danes in Home for the Holidays, the only sane creature in Holly Hunter's family. She has also played paragons in How to Make an American Quilt and in the upcoming I Love You, I Love You Not. Oops, she gets herself pregnant in Polish Wedding, but it's a comedy. As for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, her emotional honesty shines through all the dazzle.

Is Danes actually perfect in every way, or is she just a great actress? She has no fear of interviews, because all she has to do is act naturally. People will see what they want to see when she says, "When I have an emotional scene it's like hell, and I can wait for it to be over. But I love to make believe. I love to do that a lot more than balancing compounds in chemistry. I'm a 17-year-old who's living in an adult world. Somewhere along the line, I'll catch up with myself."

Growing up in New York City's artsy Soho district, Danes knew from the age of five that she wanted to act, she says. "Then when I was eight I found out that actors didn't make money. I found out you wouldn't necessarily be a star, to say the least. I thought I'd learn to be a therapist and move to California, where I'd live, like, next door to my best friend and do workshops when I needed to act. Then I changed my mind and decided I'd sacrifice good living for my art." She enjoys a good horselaugh at her youthful naïveté.

Danes' parents had met in art school, so there was plenty of encouragement at home. Dance classes led to enrollment at ten in Lee Strasberg's Theatre Institute and then work in the theatre and in student films. She attended junior high school at the Professional Performing Arts School and enrolled briefly in the Dalton school, but work took first place. She appeared in several TV movies and series (including Law & Order) before getting the part in My So-Called Life.

Her acting career launched, and her older brother Asa having finished college, Danes and her parents relocated to Los Angeles. "My father's contracting company went bankrupt so he had to start over anyway," she says artlessly. "My mother wanted to paint more." Dad has since become a computer consultant and Mom is Danes' manager.

Once in California, her parents wound up becoming her best friends by default. "I have a great relationship with them," she says. "In fact, I'm spending almost too much time with them. Dad's a nut. He's really smart, warm, kind, and fun. My Mom is with me on the set all day. It's so tempting to become friends with your mom because there's no one else around. You understand each other so well and you do love each other.

"It gets bad when you slide into that and you're trying to separate at the same time. The bird needs to leave the nest. I fly away and come back. Sometimes I get farther than I did before." Danes' mother, Carla, whose older child is now 24, says from experience, "They come back to you. I can't wait until Claire is normal again."

Danes was late getting her driver's license, but once she did, she was off in her Blazer. Even so, she says, "I was more independent three years ago than I am now. Living in New York, I took subways everywhere, and I was on my own a lot more than I am now here in Los Angeles."

Most of her secondary schooling has been with tutors on TV and film sets, though she is enrolled for her senior year at Le Lycée Français in Los Angeles. She says, "My school sends me work. It's hard working with a tutor and it's even harder when you get back into a classroom trying to figure out how your teachers work.

"You're floating between two different realities. You have an adult job and you're hanging out with grown-ups. Making a film is like going to summer camp, but instead of going canoeing you expose yourself and become raw and open. It's hard work and it's an adrenaline rush.

"Then they yell, 'Wrap!' and it's a shocker, because you're back to real time again. I'm playing softball in P.E. with other kids. It can be confusing. It takes time to switch over, during which I go insane briefly."

She is sheltered not so much by her parents as by her own retiring nature. One fling with Andrew Dorff, brother of actor Stephen Dorff, constitutes Danes' public boyfriend action to date. Her bare back in bed and multiple smooches with DiCaprio in Romeo and Juliet may be sufficient to make her an object of youthful desire. Her good-girl roots go deep.

As for rebellion, this, apparently, is as far as it goes: "I got drunk for the first time in my life to play a scene where I was supposed to be drunk [in To Gillian]. It was a memorable night, very funny. I have pictures. I was a mess, and I had the greatest time. I loved everyone. I thought I was so funny. Then I threw up twice."

Danes won admiring reviews as Juliet - "Danes has somehow found a way to enunciate the Shakespearean lingo and make its meanings lucid and accessible," raved Variety - and she has moved on to make U-Turn with Sean Penn for Oliver Stone and The Rainmaker with Danny DeVito for Francis Coppola.

For her next trick, she wants to go to college, "probably in the East, in a city" - someplace like Columbia, where she worked in student films half a lifetime ago.

"What if something happens and I can't act?" she wonders, pondering her future. "Education is my freedom and I need to have it. There's no way I'm going to go to college part time. I had enough of that in high school. I want to immerse myself in just one role."

© 1997, Biography