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The Best Actress Under 40 Just Turned 18
by Jeanne Fay (Buzz - August, 1997)

Claire Danes - the movie star - shows up for an interview in a uniform. She's just come from school - Le Lycée Français, where she is, off and on, a senior. Hence lots of navy blue and charcoal gray, the blazer with crest, the knee length skirt she hasn't gotten around to shortening. Somehow you thought famous people didn't have to live by rules like this. But there it is, a uniform, and here she is, three days after her 18th birthday, wearing it in Santa Monica's hipster-teen mecca Urban Outfitters. "It's actually Galliano's new line," she jokes, a little defensively. She's not really embarrassed though, and it doesn't serve as any kind of disguise - she's immediately approached by a pair of preteens wielding dance-club flyers for her autograph. "Look," she says of the flyer, "my name is right over the word create. The girls are speechless. Danes is delighted. "These are my people," she says. "If anyone's going to ask for my autograph, it's going to be in Urban Outfitters." She leaves without buying anything. After all, she wears the same thing to school every day - and she's got a free wardrobe at home that Miu Miu, the Prada clothing line, gave her to promote Romeo & Juliet But stardom isn't about the fans or the free stuff. Claire Danes has a Plan.

The Claire Danes plan began, according to most accounts in 1982, in Manhattan. Danes was three years old. she decided to be an actress.

Her parents, a computer consultant and a painter, encouraged her with the appropriate creativity-enhancing school - P.S. 11, an elementary school where "everyone was completely deranged," Danes says happily. "We all understood we were freaks and got along smashingly." She then moved along to a "hippie school" and hated it: "You called all the teachers by their first names and you could do your math or your science assignment in the green room or on the floor or on your desk or on your chair in th hallway. It was the cliquiest, nastiest social scene I've ever been in because the kids made up for the lack of structure in that way." She started at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute at age 10; attended the Professional Performing Arts School; and spent one unhappy year at the impossibly preppy Dalton School, where she "felt like a total shrub."

But at age 13, Danes auditioned for the role of a mildly depressive, intensely analytical, occasionally transcendent 15-year-old Angela Chase, the central character in the high-school drama My So-Called Life. The passion that TV show inspired in its viewers, small in numbers but infinite in loyalty - Websites devoted to the show linger three years later - was credited mainly to its realism: the ability of the show in general and Danes in particular to accurately capture high school's pitfalls of friendship and perils of puppy love. When Danes won the role, she had never been to high school; even now, as a senior, she has spent only a matter of weeks there. In a lot of ways My So-Called Life was her high school.

"I did My So-Called Life when I was 14," she remembers, "and I was kissing [costar] Jared Leto every other day. He's this beautiful - I don't know how old he was - 22 year-old at the time. The director kept saying 'Kiss his face,' and I didn't know how to do that. I was like, 'Do people really kiss each other's faces? Where?' And Jared kind of taught me."

"What she knows cannot be taught," says Edward Zwick, the show's executive producer. Zwick, fluent in producer-speak, uses words such as "destined" and "essence" when he discusses Danes. "She comes from a place of truth, both as an actress and as a young woman."

He wasn't the only one impressed with Dane's guileless portrayal of Angela, angelic in aura if not behavior; Danes won a Golden Globe for her work on the show, and although the weakly rated drama was killed after 19 episodes, her reputation was made. The day after the last episode of My So-Called Life wrapped, she was on the set of Gillian Armstrong's Little Women, in which she plated the angelic, doomed Beth.

In the next two years, Danes did eight more films, playing small, daughterly roles in How to Make an American Quilt and Home for the Holidays and starring in the little seen, agonizingly sentimental To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. (She also starred opposite Jeanne Moreau in I Love You, I Love You Not, but the film was never released.) Then, last fall, Jared Leto's kissing lessons started coming in handy again. Danes starred with teen object of desire Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's heavily stylized, supergroovy update William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Critically, the film earned equal measures of vitriol and veneration, but it opened the door to the possibility of Claire Danes, love interest. Her Juliet was violent and tranquil and sobbing and beautiful, while most of the time soaking wet and liplocked with DiCaprio.

"I grew up in that movie, I really did," Danes says, and everyone else seems to agree. There was a striking chemistry between her gun-toting Juliet and the skinny sexiness of DiCaprio's Romeo; Danes attributes it to "having a lot of male in me, and he has a lot of female in him." (As for those rumours circulating about DiCaprio's sexuality, Danes says, "He's paranoid now because everyone think's he's gay. He's not gay." She leans forward into the tape recorder to emphasize it. "He's not gay." Suddenly sweet, innocent Claire Danes was on the cover of Premiere, all vampy nails and seductive stare, draped across an open-shirted DiCaprio. The chaste Websites devoted to My So-Called Life morphed into heavy-breathing chat sessions about her back-only topless scene.

Her upcoming roles abandon the angel and work the kissing angle, at least for now. This winter she plays a 15-year-old who gets pregnant, to the consternation of screen parents Lena Olin and Gabriel Byrne, in Polish Wedding. "I kiss more boys in that," she sighs. And she'll kiss another in The Rainmaker, Francis Ford Coppola's John Grisham adaptation (Danes, deadpan: "It's a coming-of-age story about a lawyer"). But this fall, she has her first real comedic role, in Oliver Stone's U-Turn. Although Stone had never heard of Danes before she showed up to audition, he was impressed enough with her work to write her college recommendations. "Oliver kept saying, 'Claire, you look too good. I want you to look like adesert rat. And I was like, 'Really? She doesn't have any redeeming qualities at all? Not just a little bit attractive?' 'No.'"

In fact, Dane's appearance is completely fluid. She is an X-Files alien, a shape shifter capable of a thousand different faces and sizes and forms, and only one of them is and angel. Even today, sitting in a Santa Monica deli a few blocks from where she now lives with her parents, it's impossible to describe her in any concrete way: her eyes are gray, or maybe some kind of blue; she's small, except when she's not. Danes can play the desert rat as easily as the glamour girl; her utter devotion to character erases any concern she may have about looking beautiful all the time. "That would be too distracting." she says. "That one tear dripping down from your left eye..." She strikes a pose, but even as she mocks the look, she summons it up: For that second, she is gorgeous.

In person, this ability is disconcerting; on-screen it is staggering. But it makes sense: Danes has always named as her acting idol Meryl Streep, virtuoso of developing character. This may be what ultimately separates Danes from other actresses her age; while there is certainly an identifiable Alicia Silverstone type, it is harder to pin down a Claire Danes type. And with the roles she has coming up, it's going to get even harder.

She's about to leave for Prague to star filming Les Misérables, in which she plays the aristocratic Cosette. Director Bille August wanted her for the role after seeing Romeo & Juliet; he rhapsodizes that watching Danes at work is "like listening to Mozart - she has that childlike simplicity and clarity and purity of mind that's combined with serious depth." Danes isn't singing in the film - it's a spoken version - but she is going to attempt an English access (as opposed to French, to jibe with costar Liam Neeson), which she's been wrestling with under the direction of a dialect coach. "I can't even speak normally, let alone...it's just terrible...ugh," Danes croaks, starting on the first of what will be three Diet Cokes in an effort to stay alert. Her voice is shot; she's working on two days with no sleep. all week she's been dealing with casting sessions, photo shoots, her birthday party, her homework (designing a poster on Betty Ford - the first lady, not the rehab clinic). "Things will wind down eventually," Danes says, but she's not fooling anybody.

What turning 18 means for Danes more than anything else, more than the great party her manager threw her and all the great presents she was give, is that she's free to become the workaholic of her dreams. No more enforced on-set study hours, no more tutor. And no college, at lease not right away - she's delaying her first year at Yale to do a "really exceptional project," she explains. She knows how this sounds. "I need to stop working, I really do," she says. "But at the same time, I can't afford to pass up these opportunities. They're too fabulous. I want to go with it. I know it won't always be like this, so I want to take advantage of it."

This one does sound pretty good - it's Brokedown Palace, a sort of teen Midnight Express directed by Carl Franklin, of Devil in a Blue Dress and One False Move fame. He waxes just as spiritual about her as everyone else does. "she just has this amazing strength and kinetic power," he says. "There's something in her eyes - remember how it was seeing Al Pacino in The Godfather? There's something in her eyes that pierces through you and arrests you."

Danes, describing the film, sounds as if she's talking about some cool flick she's just seen rather than one for which she's been spending hours in casting sessions. "Two girls graduated from high school and go on a trip to Thialand and they meet this really mysterious guy who convinces them to go on a trip to Hong Kong with him and plants heroin in their bags, and they're framed, and they get caught at the Thai airport and sen to Thai prison for life, and it's very cool," she says.

Danes is really big on stuff being cool, and she fully acknowledges that her life falls into that category, the drawbacks of overscheduling and exhaustion aside. "These are good problems to have," she says. "I'm not going to sit here and moan and groan because I have one too many fabulous perks. It's hard, it's really hard to act, but people say it's not a glamourous lifestyle, and it absolutely is. There's no question in my mind that it's glamourous, and I love glamour. I always have."

So there are the designers throwing free clothes at her and the cool boyfriends ("Another fabulous perk!") when she has the time for them (Andrew Dorff, musician brother of the inescapable Stephen, and 27-year-old Rainmaker costar Matt Damon, for example). But there's not much of what you would expect from an 18-year-old with access to glamour - no stories about shooting up with Bijou Phillips in the bathroom of Skybar or drinking herself blind behind that mirrored wall in the Viper Room. And she's surprised if you ask her why. "I don't need to escape in that way," she says. "I can do it in my work; I have that as an outlet. I have a plan. I gotta stick to it to accomplish what I want to get done."

It's this - the Claire Danes Plan, the intensity and perfect seriousness with which she approaches her work - that is the key to her reputation as being knowing. And turning 18 probably isn't going to change what people say about her most, which is, as she recites "She's so mature for her age," because she's agelessly mature; it's why people start to sound like Scientologists when they talk about her, her clarity, her focus. she's not being ironic when she complains about the kids in her performing-arts junior high who - at 13 - "weren't talented and weren't focussed on their art." And although she speaks of her current classmates with genuine affection, Danes appears to have outgrown them. "I've actually made friends with the kids at school now," she says. "It's so great when kids start to get a clue."

Her aura of authenticity stems, in large part, from her surprising lack of slippage between Claire Danes, movie star, and Claire Danes, teenage girl; she manages to balance all that with a genuine innocence, an actual firstness with which she experiences her roles and life. She's preternatuturally straight forward - she's blabbed to interviewers about sex and therapy and the first time she got drunk without a shred of self-consciousness. Her honesty, she concedes, is somewhat calculated. "I use it as a defence," she says. "If I put it all out there, nobody can really pick at any insecurity that I'm keeping secret. You're just more vulnerable that way."

And when she admits vulernability, it's with a gin of gentle self-mockery. "It's my biggest fear that I'll have a party and nobody shows," she says. "Can you imagine? You're in your little pretty pick dress in the corner, just sort of waiting? For hours?" She lets out a little scream of horror. "There's nothing more pathetic."

Right, like That will ever happen. Any tendency toward self deprication that Danes may have is tempered with an awareness of her own magnetism. "People used to accost me in the street when I wasn't famous," she says. "I've always stuck out for whatever reason. Not because I'm exceptional-looking - I think there's just something." So you're not sure whether she's fishing for a complement or just avoiding the inevitable when she asks who your favorite young actors are and adds, "Don't say me - even if you mean it."

© Buzz 1997