She has A-List fans (Spielberg, Sarandon), a way-cool beau (rocker Ben Lee), Yale on her resume, and a wardrobe to die for. Claire Danes is on a roll.
Here's how Claire Danes seems a lot like most of her freshman classmates at Yale: She eats junk food, she worries about her school work, she e-mails her long-distance beau obsessively. And here's one way she's different: She worries about wearing sneakers. "I promised myself at the beginning of the school year that I wasn't going to disintegrate into a sloppy, gross, smelly mess," says Danes, who has gotten used to having gowns custom-made by her pal, designer, Narciso Rodriguez. "And I wasn't going to wear sneakers. But it happened. I don't know how. I guess it's really thrilling to be able to wake up and not have to worry about what you're going to wear."
Adjusting to a life of Nikes may not seem like a challenge to most college students. But then Danes -- who reportedly pulls in $3 million a picture, played Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo onscreen, and has been described by Steven Spielberg as "one of the most exciting actresses to debut in 10 years" -- isn't your typical 20-year-old, or even your typical 20-year-old actress. This is, after all, the precocious creature who signed up for the prestigious Less Strasberg Theatre Institute when she was 10 and turned down a soap opera role at age 12 because "I didn't want my acting style to be tainted," she says. ("You know," she adds with a laugh, "I had some integrity when I was 12.") She also declined her first movie offer (in Schindler's List, no less) because schooling wouldn't be provided on location.
All of which makes her sound preternaturally poised. But when Danes entered college last fall, she was less self-assured than you'd think. She's spent her life being guided by supportive parents -- whom Danes calls "warm, smart, creative people" -- as well as various advisors. "I didn't hang out with people [my own age], Thirty ad above, I was cool," she says. So when she went to Yale, it was with an eye to receiving more than an education -- and with a bit of trepidation. "I...need space to exercise my individuality," she says, between bites of her egg-white omelet at Soho's Canal House restaurant, not far from where she and her brother Asa, a law student, were raised by their bohemian parents. "I was so dependent on so many other people, I wanted to have to stand on my own two feet."
Danes admits to a few nerve-racking moments -- "the fits I had when I had to write a paper!" -- and she still faxes term papers to her father, a computer consultant, and to her mother, an art student who managed her daughter's career until a few years ago, when the actress decided to make their relationship purely personal. The choice was a difficult one, she says. "I don't even know where to begin describing the intricacies, you know of family relationships. And business is confusing too, and they overlap, and you don't know where you are. And feelings are inevitably hurt."
But now it seems her declaration of independence has finally paid off. When asked how she will have changed when she returns to Hollywood after one year at Yale, Danes says, "I'm more confident. I know that I have just as much mental equipment to do what I want as any media executive." Susan Sarandon, who has been an admirer of Danes ever since they worked together on 1994's Little Women, says, "It's not easy to become so visible so young, when you're still trying to figure out who you are, but she's come through it all with dignity."
Her grades, in courses with such highbrow titles as English Modernism in the City and Computer Science as a Modern Intellectual Agenda, are A's and B's. And Danes has also found time to promote two movies, last spring's The Mod Squad and Brokedown Palace, opening this summer. In fact, she has found the pressures of Yale easier to cope with than those of Hollywood, Danes says. "Here you're supped to mess up. In Hollywood, they'll let you make a few mistakes. [Pauses] But they jot them down."
Not that Danes, whose career has purred like a Porsche since she was 14, has had to deal with very many low points on her path to stardom. Critics were impressed from the beginning, with her first, surprisingly nuances work on the TV series My So-Called Life (a cult favorite, which four years after it's demise is still drawing traffic to Web sites from idolizing cyber-fans). Sarandon, who played Marmee to Dane's fragile Beth in Little Women, recalls being bowled over by the young actress's work in that movie. "The scene where she comes down the stairs and see the piano and she's moved to tears -- it was very rushed, and she was asked t do it several times. But each time, the moment was so full. I don't think anyone [else] could have done what she did with that scene. I still remember it vividly."
But Danes, who Sarandon calls a "great, spirited, thoughtful gal," has hit one painful bump on her professional road. While in Manila last year shooting Brokedown Palace -- about two high school grads in Bangkok on a lark who wind up in jail for drug possession -- she was quoted as saying the city "smelled of cockroaches" and was full of "people with, like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth." She was immediately taken to task by journalists and civil rights activists, and though she later apologized, the experience clearly stung. When she's asked about it now, her smile fades, and she suddenly might cry. "I've been wounded from so many ends," she says, adding, "I probably shouldn't talk about it." Were her remarks misunderstood? "Absolutely, I'm very angry about that." She falls silent for a moment, saying finally of the Manilla experience: "I felt very desperate the entire time."
At Yale, at least, Danes can slide into her favorite brown corduroy Levi's (which are "starting to get a bit of a hole in the bottom") and slip into the crowd without having to be a role model. Though in a recent student production her classmates poked gentle fun at having to deal with her dazzling presence, "they're not daunted by [my Hollywood status], Danes insists. True, she sometimes misses the sophistication of Hollywood and New York, where she has a downtown loft decorated in a style that reflects its owner's elegant yet whimsical taste. "I've been salivating over clothes lately because I haven't been close to them fo so long," says Danes, who, along with the latest offerings from Gucci and Prada, favors sparkly, streamlined pieces from Rodriguez, the young, oozing-with-cool designer she has known for more than three years.
The feeling is definitely mutual. "When you meet someone with that kind of focus, who's that well grounded, it's inspiring," says Rodriguez. Recently, he dressed Danes in a gown of this own design for the White House Correspondents' Dinner. "I'd seen it on the runway, of course, but when she put it on, it came to life," he says. "Clothes are just a frame for that magnificent personality. It fills the room." As for Danes, she says, "[Clothes are] a signal. You can either raise your feathers or not. I like to go both ways."
But when it comes to her boyfriend, Aussie rocker Ben Lee, Danes is definitely committed. Once linked with Matt Damon (during the 1997 filming of The Rainmaker), she now raves about Lee, 20, and eagerly shows off her wallet, adorned with a sticker of the two smooching in a New York City photo booth. (Though they've vowed to see each other once a month while he's on tour, she says, "When I have a choice, I never leave him") "He's an absurdist," she says, "That's what I think is the most fun about him. We're both really curious, and we both like to figure things out. We're like two naughty kids at your parents' social events." She giggles as she recounts a recent escapade in which Lee ordered a kit he'd seen advertised on TV detailing how to become a private eye.
The couple met two years ago the way famous people do ( he faxed her agent after Danes sent him a fan note) but fell in love just like everyone else. And though they make no secret of their affection, they've proceeded cautiously, she says. "I fell in love with his spirit before he -- before I was familiar with his body." While she finished up the school year, he was touring to promote his new album, Breathing Tornados, and bringing her gifts from the road: Japanese magazines, glittery bangle bracelets from Australia, a silver ring set with a sea-blue stone that she fiddles with constantly "because I feel like I'm calling him when I twist it."
Though Danes says her favorite phrase, cribbed from a friend's journal, is "You need to secret yourself sometimes," there's something impetuous and heartfelt about her that's always rising to the surface, something she can't hide in her petal-smooth face, whether she's talking about acting -- which she says she "craves" -- or about Lee. That same quality animates her performance in Romeo & Juliet. when she leans towards DiCaprio on th balcony for one last triumphant kiss. This summer, the woman who soars through life may also soar through the air: She's considering the unlikely challenge of learning to be a trapeze artist for a possible movie role. When asked what she'll do after graduation, she smiles and answers delightedly, "Something brave -- though I'm not sure what that is."
© InStyle 1999