Claire Danes is not your typical college slacker. She's just completed a year at Yale. She just finished another movie (Brokedown Palace). She's starred in a television series, reached cult status, and been banned from the Philippines. She's 20. Two, zero. What had you done by 20 besides flunk out of junior college, alphabetize your record collection, amass an extensive bong collection, and make a "really killer fake I.D.?" Wise beyond her years, grounded, and with her personal life in order, Danes proves her so-called life is far from ordinary.
IT'S NYC'S FIRST OFFICIAL "HOTTEST DAY OF THE year," an oppressive 98 degrees in the shade. Despite the tropical swelter, Claire Danes arrives at the SOHO eatery Lucky Strike looking coolly fetching in a pink flowered sundress.
The 20-year-old star of screens both small and silver is enjoying her first summer break as a full-fledged member of Yale's Class Of '02. Having just concluded her freshman year in New Haven, Connecticut, Danes is currently residing in her million-dollar loft just around the corner from where she grew up.
"I'm feeling so insecure," she announces as she slides into a corner booth, "because I haven't acted in a year and a half I guess I'm still an actress. I think I am. The last thing I did was The Mod Squad, but that was so cartoonish I don't even qualify it as acting. I don't regret making it, but it's been a while since I made a film that I really cared about."
The daughter of artists, a nine-year-old Danes studied The Method at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute and at 14 nixed a part in Schindler'sList because it would interfere with her education. She took on the role of precocious, pubescent Angela Chase in My So-Called Life and next thing she knew, the radiant everygirl ingenue was an instant teen icon.
"You're never allowed to say what I got to say on that show," she says. "To be able to be so vocal and say 'I'm miserable right now and I want everybody to recognize that,' that's all any teenager wants."
My So-Called Life is the font from which all late-'90s teen art emerges, capturing the raw emotions and tumultuous faux-adulthood of adolescence. The series effectively kicked off the new teen aesthetic, but Danes has no interest in appearing in flicks like She's All That et al.
"I've said pretty much all I've got to say about high school," she says. "I really did. I'm not really in the mood to revisit it. I think a lot of those movies are exploitational, and I'm not very interested in doing that kind of silliness."
Danes has tried to establish herself as a serious thespian from the get-go. Her cinematic career truly kicked off with lead roles in a pair of hit Cliff Notes classics: Little Women and Romeo and Juliet. These highprofile performances were followed by a number of prestigious character turns, including "a beaten wife" in Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker (with ex-boyfriend Matt Damon) and "a freak" in Oliver Stone's U-Turn. She's kept busy, taking on yet another classical role in Bille August's Les Miserables, played a trampy teen in the barely released Polish Wedding, and went camp for The Mod Squad, but soon realized that the time had come for a vacation from the biz.
"I had no life," Danes frowns. "I was 18 years old and I had no life. I needed to backtrack a little bit and that was my priority"
With that in mind, Danes bailed out of Hollywood for the academic life in New Haven. For this child of SOHO and Santa Monica, suburban Yale offered a bit of a culture shock.
"I tried to think of it as an extension of the city, like another borough of New York," she giggles. "I just assumed if it wasn't L.A., it was New York, which is sooo silly."
Danes is currently debating her major, with the choices being English, psychology, or art ("Everybody hates psych majors," she laughs. "What's that about? There's such a stigma. Even my English teacher, he said, 'Who needs another psych major?") Her studies have also opened her eyes to her own Hollywood life. She recently read The Day of the Locust, which definitely struck a familiar chord.
"It's sooo relevant today, it's astonishing," Danes says of Nathaniel West's cynical masterpiece. "I've always seen L.A. as a dark comedy, that's how I've always described it. It's so extreme, you have to laugh."
One stabilizing effect on Danes' life has been her long-term relationship with Australian indie-pop tunesmith Ben Lee. Danes recently accompanied her guitar-slinging beau on tour across America, sleeping in grungy Motel 6s and seeing the world from the back of a Buick.
"It was interesting," she says, piling lettuce and tomato onto her turkey burger. "It was really good for me to see. It's such a fun fantasy to indulge in, especially if you don't have to play. I'm glad to know a little bit about that life. It's really fun ... from a distance."
Which in a roundabout way brings us to Danes' most recent picture, Brokedown Palace. The film (directed by Jonathan Kaplan) stars Danes and Kate Beckinsale as tourist girls who wind up in a Thai prison for unwittingly smuggling heroin. The production was restricted from filming in Bangkok, so Manila was chosen as the tropical alternative. From all accounts, the set was an absolute nightmare, with cast and crew enduring ridiculous humidity, outbreaks of dengue fever, and unhinged inmates in the dilapidated mental hospital used for filming. After production was finished, Danes made some honest but negative comments about the experience in Premiere and Vogue, thus setting off the proverbial firestorm of controversy
"It's so fucking hard to talk about," Danes says after a long, thoughtful pause. "It was just bad, bad, bad news, literally and figuratively. It's so painful even to touch on. [Long pause] I mean, I'm never at a loss for words. I really cared about the character and I really liked the story I've
kind of forgotten about the things that attracted me to the story because it's become something else. It's become political, it's become about the process of making a movie, things that are ultimately not that interesting, but they've clouded my memory"
The Manila city council was incensed by Danes' declaration that their city was "disgusting," and "smelled of cockroaches." Lest we forget, the Philippines is a country where wives can be purchased over the Internet and religious fanatics crucify themselves for the tourists every Good Friday. Nevertheless, the actress was officially decreed to be persona non grata, banning her past and future films from Manila's movie screens.
"I didn't say anything that bad," she asserts. "It was wrong for me to say certain things, and I apologized. I was in no place to talk about that film and that experience in a rational way. I was lashing out and it was wrong. It was a silly move on my part and I'll never do that again."
The incident has left a very bad taste in Danes' mouth about the interview process and journalists in general. She dared to express herself and it came back to bite her on the ass.
"The writer had done another article about me and she was very kind, so I thought, 'She likes me, she's going to be supportive and cool and I can loosen up and sound interesting.' I was so dumb. So dumb. Again, I apologize to everybody that was offended, I was wrong, but Jesus, enough already..
"It could've been a great movie," she says regretfully, "and that's what's so upsetting. It was very rich and there was a lot that I wanted to say with it. It was about growing up, that moment where you say, 'Oh wow, I really have to be responsible for myself' So it's so tragic. It's heartbreaking. That's really what I was wrestling with and experiencing and what I wanted to comment on."
The irony here is that Danes' real life adventures of late have forced her to confront exactly the issues she set out to dramatize in Brokedown Palace. Her work has consistently displayed a poise and grace beyond her years, but when you strip away the makeup and put the lights back in the truck, Danes is just another smart young woman trying to figure out her place in the world.
"I'M 20," she says, sucking cappuccino foam from her thumb. "I know a little bit about how to make a movie, probably more than your average 20 year old would, but I'm just starting to grow.
"My career was always the most important thing. I was not interested in experiencing real life. Adolescence? No thank you! I'd much rather escape into the safe world of play-acting. I had this concrete idea of who I was at 15, but then I started to mature and it was like, 'Whoa! There's more.' Life became so much more complex, there was so much more for me to think about. Now I'm starting to change my mind and I'm anxious to get back to work. I feel like I'm going through a mid-life crisis at 20"
While three more years at Yale beckon, Danes has begun to pursue movie projects once again. Among the possibilities on her plate is Flora Plum, a Depression-era circus romance to be directed by her mentor/idol, Jodie Foster, with whom she has been likened many, many times. ("If I went to Princeton," she says, "I'd be compared to Brooke Shields.")
"I just want to make good movies," Danes says. "I want to make
movies that have something to offer, that are surprising, that have something going on. Everything seems so familiar lately, just regurgitating old ideas, and that's a little bit irritating.
"I'm going to do good stuff, believe you me," she avows. "I'm focused on it now. For a long time it wasn't my priority. I was much more interested in figuring out who the hell I was as a person. I wasn't ready to leap into another character and comment on myself or my life. I had no sense of it. I had been working like a dog, that's what I do. So I've been scrambling to put a piece of a life together, and I'm satisfied with it and now I can make a movie."
Leaving our corner booth, Danes spots my shiny white Adidas Superstars.
"Are they new?"
"Yep," I reply
Grinning, she steps on them with her white sandals, planting a gray smudge across the rubber toe. Sure she's a Yalie and perhaps our most promising serious actress, but really, Claire Danes is just a kid at heart.
© Flaunt 1999