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Woe Is Her

Claire Danes is a melancholic. There is just no escaping it. She will stare off distractedly one moment, the next sit back on her chair, pull her thighs to her chest and rest her chin on her knees. When you ask her if she is happy, she simply smiles sweetly and shakes her head.

"At this moment I'm certainly not happy, but its for a whole bunch of reasons," she sighs, her pretty girl-child face beautifully downcast. "I miss having friends. There's not much fun in my life. There's no time for me. I don't want to sound whiny and lame. I have moments of happiness. But right now, for instance, it's been a week since I've seen a person of my own age."

That age is 17, which is easy to forget because Danes - who bagged the plum role of Angela Chase in the short lived but highly cherished television angst soap My So-Called Life at the age of thirteen before launching into a movie career - is possessed of an almost unsettling self awareness and composure for someone who will not be able to buy a Stateside drink legally until the millennium. It's a confusing period for the actress. Sure she has things that most 17-year-olds don't, like an agent, two managers (one is her mother), a publicist and an accountant. She just lacks other essentials, like a driving licence.

"I live in an adult world but I am a kid," says Danes. "There are a lot of opinions coming at me from different directions. It's insane. People my age really need to have downtime, to chill, to be really pretentious and talk about pseudo-intellectual ideas."

The "adult world" in which Danes dwells is the kind most would consider fairyland. Born in Manhattan, at an early age she showed a penchant for performing - first modern dance then acting. She took it seriously enough to study at Lee Strasberg's renowned Theatre Institute. Then she landed the coveted role in My So-Called Life and moved to California with her parents. Even though the school drama fell foul of TV cancellation, Danes had done more than enough to get noticed. Indeed, she snagged a Golden Globe for that very TV show before she was sixteen, and Steven Spielberg, who has yet even to work with her, has hailed her as "one of the more exciting actresses to debut in the last ten years".

And so began her so-called movie life. First there was the sickly Beth in 1994's Little Women, then a couple of small parts in How to Make an American Quilt and Home for the Holidays, and now a big, nay legendary part - that of Juliet to Leonardo Di Caprio's Romeo in Baz Luhrmann's hectic modernisation of Shakespeare's tragic lovefest.

"It wasn't an easy movie," says Danes, her mood hardly lifting. "We were in Mexico for four months and I was the only girl. The movie's also about gangs, so there were a whole bunch of little boys running around causing havoc. It's a very different thing when you're talking to them one-to-one. When they get together, it was just a lot of fart jokes, a lot of making of boogers with prosthetics from the make-up trailer, a lot of mooning. I was not exactly in my element."

She does, however, admit to being pleased about working with Di Caprio, whom she says she likes and respects, and describes as a "genius".

"He taught me how to have fun. It's a really important lesson to learn."

The irony of her playing Juliet is that it is Danes' love-life as much as anything else that seems to have rendered her young heart so heavy. Stuck in a long break-up with her boyfriend Andrew Dorff (brother of Stephen), Danes is caught up in a battle between her heart and her head, all the while on the lookout for someone who will make sense to both.

"I don't know where to meet boys," she says. "I have all these boy actor friends, and they go into a club and within two seconds there are swarms of drop-dead gorgeous women and they're hanging on them and swooning and giggling. I walk into a room, and forget it, there's no guy around. Certainly not seventeen of them sitting at my feet. But I would love to have it happen. I want a boy very badly right now - I need a boy, because I love being in love."

All of which makes Danes throw herself more passionately into her work. To Gillan On Her 37th Birthday (in which she stars with Michelle Pfieffer) is next out, and she has already finished filming Polish Wedding with Gabriel Byrne, Stray Dogs with Oliver Stone and is currently shooting Rainmaker with Francis Ford Coppola. Given the calibre of both actor and director who wants to work with her, she has the luxury to pick and choose - she recently turned down the chance to play Joan of Arc. Which distances her even further from the normalcy she is desperate to get back to.

"The things that are good are often the same things that are bad," says Danes enigmatically. "It is really fun to go to these different countries and meet all these different people. And I love the work, I really do. But because I'm working in all these places, I no longer have a core group of friends to hang out with regularly. I can't belong to any class or study group. No way could I be on a sports team, or anything like that. It's hard..."

Originally transcribed by: Andy Murphy

© Empire Magazine 1997