At seventeen, Claire Danes is only three years older than Shakespeare's Juliet, her latest role. Keri Goldenhar meets a star in a high-school class of her own.
Apart from the telltale crescent remnants of baby-blue polish that streak her fingernails, it's hard to believe Claire Danes is still only seventeen years old.
We are sitting in her local coffee house in Santa Monica, California, and as Danes picks at a fat-free cranberry muffin, I notice that there's not a dab of make-up on her fresh complexion. Her hair, lightened from natural auburn, is short with jagged edges; her eyes are sky-grey and they draw you in. Danes is intelligent, trusting, and more comfortable in her skin than anyone her age I've seen. But then, this young woman has led anything but a typical teenager's life. "I remember," Danes says, "jumping up and down on the bed when I was five years old, imagining I was Madonna on TV. I knew I wanted fame, but I wasn't sure which medium it would be in."
At six years old, she started dancing lessons, followed by acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and a stint at the Professional Arts School. At the age of thirteen, after a variety of theatre roles and TV appearances, Danes relocated with her parents from New York to Los Angeles to star in My So-Called Life - a successful TV series for which she was awarded a Golden Globe for her portrayal of angst-ridden teenager Angela Chase.
Although the series ended by the time she was fifteen, Danes' extraordinary talent had not escaped the notice of Hollywood, and the young actress found herself more in demand than ever. She went on to play some small but compelling parts in Home For The Holidays, How To Make An American Quilt and Little Women. In the latter two films, Danes worked alongside her good friend and mentor, Winona Ryder. "A number of older actresses have sort of adopted me, and I am very flattered and honoured." says Danes, referring both to Ryder and Jodie Foster, who directed her in Home For The Holidays. "Winona is a close friend and she really helped me to grow. She wanted me to be in Little Women, and fought for me to get it. She is really good at listening to gossip, and figuring out who would be good for which role. She is good at making the right choices for her career, which has also helped me a lot."
This month, Danes appears in her first starring role - as Juliet, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, in director Baz (Strictly Ballroom) Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. It's a slick, sex-and-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll rendition of Shakespeare's big-daddy of romantic tragedies. Luhrmann chose Danes after considering many of her peers, including Natalie Portman and Alicia Silverstone.
Though Danes found most Hollywood scripts paled in comparison to the poetry of the great bard, she has now completed five films, all during her last two years at high-school. She can next be seen playing the daughter of Michelle Pfeiffer in the tearjerker, To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday. Following that, Danes play a promiscuous Polish-American girl who becomes pregnant in Polish Wedding. Lena Olin and Gabriel Byrne play her respective parents in the Holocaust drama I Love You, I Love You Not, and there's a cameo role (which, Danes tries to convince me, doesn't really count) in Oliver Stone's Stray Dogs. Is she knocked out by it all? "I'm fried - I've been in three films since September. It's all been a bit overwhelming. But now I'm on holiday and I can just sleep." And what is her idea of a holiday? A one-week breather from playing a battered wife in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker. It's Danes' first Saturday off and she is on her second interview of the day. Next on the young star's agenda - in the great tradition of her idol Meryl Streep and friend Jodie Foster - Danes plans to squeeze an Ivy League education into her busy movie-making schedule. But for now, while she still has some holiday left, she's going to do the most teenage thing she can think of: she's going shopping.
Originally transcribed by: Solvi Anette Sneen
© GQ 1997