Even by the glamorous standards of Hollywood, Claire Danes has it all. An award-winning actress (she won a Golden Globe for best actress in My So-Called Life), Danes has starred in 10 films, including literary classics (Romeo and Juliet, Little Women and Les Miserables), has appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, Saturday Night Live and the Late Show with David Letterman (they discussed lamp posts), and numbers as her friends Winona Ryder, Molly Ringwald and Jodie Foster, who became a mentor while directing Danes in Home For the Holidays. "She is really amazing. I have so much respect for her," says Danes, who has her own Internet fanclub. All this at the ripe old age of 19. And then there's the fact that she's poised to finally begin her first year at Yale, a move Jodie Foster, who also attended the hallowed university, applauds. "She keeps calling me and saying, 'Claire, I swear if you don't go to school, I'll kill you'," claims Danes.
But right now she is suffering the effects of an encounter with her dentist, who whipped out her wisdom teeth. Not that it detracts at all from her gentle voice, which hums down the line from Los Angeles, where she is living while she wraps up her latest film, Mod Squad. She plays the part of ultracool Julie, made legendary in the late 1960's by Peggy Lipton, which delights the often childlike Danes. And so she giggled a lot during rehearsals, keen to chill out before beginning school, a place that, quite frankly, has her scared silly. "I'm really nervous about going to school. I have to live in and share with a room-mate," she confides, already having deferred for a year in order to make Brokedown Palace in the Philippines. Unlike her friend Ryder, who put off college indefinitely as roles kept coming up, Danes is confident she will eventually graduate without damaging her acting career.
Not that it shows any sign of slowing down. As Shakespeare's "bright angel" Juliet, she shot herself in the head with a semiautomatic at the end of Baz Lurhmann's hipper-than-hip take on Romeo and Juliet, which fired both her and her co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, to movie stardom. She declared later that Juliet's dying scene was eerie, surreal, not least because between takes, while lying on the deathbed, DiCaprio was checking his messages on his mobile phone. But Danes was used to playing the tragic heroine. As Beth in Little Women, she was an invalid who tapped listlessly on her piano while her sisters pursued life and love. In To Gillian on her 37th Birthday, she supported her father (Peter Gallagher) after the death of her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer).
All work and no fun in such wholesome flicks, can, however, taint a girl's sparkle, not to mention her sex appeal. So, these days, Danes is choosing to immerse herself in the steamier side of life with such roles as Kelly, in Francis Fod Coppola's The Rainmaker, a woman driven to kill her brutal husband with a baseball bat before falling into the strong arms of Matt Damon - Danes also dated him off screen, but has since been stepping out with Australian musician Ben Lee.
As Cosette in the upcoming film version of Les Miserables, she defies her father (Lian Neeson) to take up with a revolutionary. The films also stars Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, whom Danes adored, as the dastardly Javert. In Polish Wedding, she is an adolescent sexpot who gets knocked up by the local policeman.
Pretty grown-up material. How does she find the emotions to play such roles? "I think abour the people who are close to me," says Danes. "It's really helpful if I have a couple of months to prepare. I spend the majority of the time doing most of this work subconsciously. Once I commit to a project and decide to invite a character into my life, my psyche, I immediatley begin working on it. Maybe a week before we start shooting, I'll work on the role in a more physical way. I'll go into the privacy of the bathroom and really work out who she is and make up stories about her - what she's experienced before she enteres the story, how she walks, stuff like that."
The angst-ridden, introspective Angela Chase from the short-running television series, My So-Called Life, is Danes' favorite role to date. "I've had some good ones, sure. But it was neat to be able to figure a character out and dig deeper and deeper and deeper into who she was. I was exactly Angela's age. We were in an extremely similar place in our life," she says. The role won her an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe, as well as the praise of such directors as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, who, after directing her in The Rainmaker, declared her a "prodigy". Baz Luhrmann, who casr Danes as Juliet after a worldwide search, says, "She's wildy more mature than her age. Leonardo is rather like Brando in that he's an incredibly instinctive actor, whereas Claire is a Meryl Streep. For her, it's more of a precise craft. Jane Campion was the one who suggested Claire Danes. I met with Claire and that was it. The thing that's remarkable about her is that you're with her for five minutes and you forget her age. It wasn't until we'd been on set in Mexico for three months, and things were getting pretty intense, that we had to remember that Claire was only 16 years old.
I was in London recently for the BAFTA awards and in his speech, the Minister of Education commented that Shakespeare had declined in populatiry in British schools until Romeo and Juliet reinvented it, particularly Claire's creation of Juliet. Her Juliet is stong and active and an inspiration for all young girls. She's pegged as the Juliet of our times." Other industry insiders, such as The Movie Show's David Stratton, though, are more cautious when commenting on her abilities, preferring to wait until she has proven her mettle with a few more large movie roles.
But Danes is a thoroughly modern movie star whose appeal to the younger generation is undeniable. "The best thing I like about Claire is her vulnerability. Every time she performs, you can see right into her soul," gushes a fan on her website. "She is just so emotionally available and can take herself to so many places emotionally as an actress." Another loves her eyes - "the single most mysterious, intriguing thing about her". When I ask Danes what it feels like to be the object of such adoration, she seems bewildered and shy. Has she ever visited her own website? "I don't like to go there because I don't really want to know what everyone says about me," she admits.
Part of her steadiness can ben attributed to her parents- her mother was a painter and teacher, her father a landscape photographer - who met at art school and encouraged their daughter's interest in the arts. She grew up in a loft in SoHo with her older brother, attended schools in Manhattan and, by 10, had enrolled herself in the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute to study method acting. Rumor has it that she ran away from high school and, at 12, was offered a part on a soap, but turned it down because it wasn't a serious enough role. Despite such ambitions, she lived by the familt motto: "You're not the only pebble on the beach," and, until recently, her parents were her agents. Nowadays, though, she's keen to stretch her wings. But she still meditates for 20 minutes, morning and night, to centre herself and, if she remembers, she'll exercise. "I'm lucky that I'm young and everything works," she says. "That's wonderful."
So what does the girl with everything wish for? "I want to continue to grow as a person and be true to myself. I want to be able to help someone or make them feel better. I want to be a mother and have a husband." She pauses for a second, "Most of all, I want to be happy."
Originally transcribed by: LeoLover
© Harpers Bazzar & Mode 1998