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Claire Danes
by Gigi Guerra (Jane - March, 1999)

Claire Danes is a Yale student who's just trying to finish a paper and fight a cold so she can hang out with her boyfriend. Gigi Guerra almost forgets who she's talking to.

There are a couple of big things brewing in Claire Danes' life right now. Sure, she's working on some new films, but that's not what she's talking about. Claire is much more motivated these days by seemingly pedestrian stuff: going to college, chilling with her boyfriend -- things that are all hers and don't belong to the public. (Well, until somebody like me writes about them.) "It's real stuff," Claire says, getting pretty amped about her normal life. "I'm not carrying around any alter ego right now, any character. I've really exfoliated for a little while." Hmmm... her skin does look really clear.

Just kidding. Claire comes across as a typical 19-year-old college freshman as she sits next to me, eagerly eating her lunch. We're dining at Nobu, a bamboo-decorated Japanese restaurant in New York's TriBeCa. "I'm developing bad eating habits," she says. Claire is referring to her less-than-healthy dorm diet -- lots of candy, sometimes with a freeze-dried astronaut-ice-cream chaser -- as she munches a more nutritionally balanced $19.98 sushi special. "My roommate's boyfriend supplies us with truckloads of Gobstoppers, and we feast on them for months," she says. "Our room is known for its candy supply. It draws a lot of people in."

When Claire first arrived at Yale University, where she's a freshman, she says people on campus pestered her more than they do now. "The issue of my being an actress has started to lose its authority," she comments. "People get it pretty quickly that there's no magic involved." Claire says her roommate, a "sophisticated" New Yorker who Claire was paired with at random, doesn't seem to care that she's living with a celeb. "She wasn't fazed," Claire says. "She was like, 'Wow -- should I be concerned? Should I be excited? In awe?' "

But there are still a few wackos out there. "Some guy from a college in Wisconsin called my roommate -- he got her number somehow," Claire explains. "Apparently he had gotten all the wardrobe from the film Romeo and Juliet from 20th Century Fox, and wanted to fly both of us out to Wisconsin we could attend his Romeo and Juliet party." She sighs, rolling her eyes. "Like, sure."

Maybe I'm wrong, but I hardly think sweets -- or drama -- are the only things attracting people to Claire Danes' dorm room. Sure, she's just another freshman who hasn't picked a major yet and is fighting a finals-induced cold as we speak. ("I had an allergic reaction to my antibiotics," she mentions casually, "and I ended up in the Yale Medical Center. My lips and ears were huge. I had, like, third-degree burns.") But I have a feeling people are flocking to her dorm room for, uh... her.

CLAIRE, AN ARIES, was conceived and raised in her artsy parents' loft on Crosby Street in the SoHo section of New York City. Her dad didn't want to have another kid -- they already had a son, Asa -- but Claire tells me her mom convinced him otherwise. A good thing, because it's hard to imagine William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where she wore big angel wings and played an ethereal, reserved Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio's brooding Romeo, without her. Actually, it's hard to imagine Les Misérable, Little Women, To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, Polish Wedding and The Rainmaker without her, either. But it was her dead-on portrayal of Angela, a confused ninth-grader who wore grunge flannels and hated the word swab in My So-Called Life (the critically acclaimed ABC drama for which Claire won a Golden Globe at 15) that probably makes many of you glad Mr. Danes gave procreation a chance.

In fact, as Claire suspiciously inspects a piece of roe sushi, it seems likely that she'll bust out, Angela-style, "This is so unfunny," in reference to the gnarly-looking eggs wrapped in seaweed. "They look like little eyeballs," she finally observes, placing her chopsticks down delicately and sipping her seltzer. She smiles awkwardly at me. It feels like we're on a date.

"THE WAY CLAIRE ACTS in real life is exactly how she acted in drama class," says Dierdre Sinico, one of Claire's Professional Performing Arts School classmates, circa eighth grade. "She was always really serious about what she did. She never geeked out. She would always hesitate before saying her lines, thinking about what she was going to say next. It would come across as incredibly real, and I'd be like, 'Wow, she's good.' When Claire became famous, she blew all of us out of the box. Now she's (A) getting props, (B) got mad money in the bank and (C) popular. But she's always just seemed real down-to-earth.

It's funny: Claire played an honest, emotional, hyper-observant student on TV, and now she's reprising the same role -- but this time it's in real life. "When I'm not making a movie and not going to school, I have time to worry about trivial things," says Claire. "I have time to worry about what a magazine says about me. It's nice to have a focus in school; now I'm working toward a goal and being fed by what I'm doing. It sort of fleshes my life out."

As much as she wants to separate her actress life from her school life, Claire inevitably ends up making correlations between the two, probably because she's grown up on TV and movie sets. Exhibit A: "I make a point of going to a normal restaurant off campus once a week, maybe after a test or something," she says, slurping her miso soup. "It's so critical to gain perspective. It's very similar to making a film: You're completely isolated, you're in strange environment, you develop really intimate relationships with people very quickly and work so hard to achieve something that has nothing to do with what the rest of the world is concerned with."

Claire has a bunch of homework due, but she's taken a break from working on it to meet with me. "This week is difficult," she confesses, adding that all-nighters are often on her agenda. "I have two papers to write, two art assignments and a final on Thursday. But it's liberating and thrilling to have access to so much information." That last bit may sound kind of canned in print, but I swear, in real life she doesn't come across that way.

In case you're wondering, Claire's course load includes art history, psychology and a basic drawing class, among other things. She starts to tell me about another class, but her voice gets so crackly and soft -- "I'm living off TheraFlu," she notes, sniffling -- that she kind of trails off. I become concerned that her gray Daryl K hoodie and beat-up chocolate-brown cords (which have a just-out-of-the-hamper vibe, much like the majority of my wardrobe) aren't providing enough warmth for her waify frame in the draft restaurant. "I love drawing people," she asserts. "My professor makes fun of me because it's all I'm interested in. We had this assignment where we had to take pictures of ourselves and different body parts and put them in our sketchbooks to create a whole, complete image."

Claire has an intensely close relationship with her boyfriend of two years, roo-rocker Ben Lee. I've gathered as much, since it seems to be the only thing she wants to talk about. To fill you in, Ben's from Australia and, at 20, an established musician. The two cohabit on the weekends in Claire's newly renovated, $1 million SoHo loft, which reportedly has a big swing in the living room and sounds much more comfortable than the dorm (although Claire says she and her roommate lucked out in terms of dorm space, they still have to squeeze into uncomfortable single beds when their boyfriends visit). For Claire's last birthday, Ben gave her a mammoth photo collage of his native town, Sydney. "It was elaborate, very intricate and beautiful," Claire comments wistfully.

Ben's quirky gift-giving is par for the course: The first time he met Claire -- they were introduced by friends -- he showed up on her doorstep in Los Angels clutching a banana. "I told him it was so phallic and bizarre," she recollects. "But he said, 'No, no, no. I'm just thinking of your health.' He didn't even want to come in." What happened to the special banana? "I saved it for later," she replies, pausing for thought. "I wasn't hungry. For a banana." For a second I think she's making a sexual reference, but her face is pretty blank.

Right after the fruit incident, Claire and Ben meandered over to a mutual friend's house, where they watched an episode of Dr. Katz and he played a ditty on his guitar. Claire says of the day: "I was like, 'Ben's here! He's from Australia! Let's touch him!'" Oh, to be 19 and in love.

RANDOM CLAIRE FACT: She wore a wig in both Romeo and Juliet and Les Misérables. In Polish Wedding, she had extensions, about which she says: "It was fun to have long hair, but it was really heavy and kind of annoying. It was like having a pet or something."

"WE HAVE A SERENDIPITOUS history," says Peggy Lipton, the original Julie from the famed '60s TV series The Mod Squad. She's referring to her relationship with Claire, who plays an equally aloof Julie in the '90s movie version, due in theaters this April. As a reformed delinquent, Claire infiltrates the dodgy underworld (as in, rave clubs) in lots of Urban Outfitters-looking jackets and boot-cut pants. Along with hot sidekicks Giovanni Ribisi (Lisa Kudrow's brother on Friends) and Omar Epps (Jada Pinkett's piece in Scream 2), Claire makes law-abiding look like a trendy jeans commercial. "I lucked out," says Claire of her experience with Giovanni and Omar. "When there's gangs of boys together on a movie, and cars blowing up and stuff, sometimes there's a tendency for things to go haywire." Note to Claire-obsessed guys who might be reading this: She shows a bunch of midriff in the flick.

Getting back to the Peggy Lipton story: "Years ago, when Claire was 15 or 16," continues Peggy, "I was in Vancouver doing a movie. I was working-out in the hotel gym at the same time as Claire, and I didn't know who she was. While she was on the treadmill she said, 'Are you Peggy Lipton?' She told me she was an actress, and we became friends. I was the same age as her when I started acting. I feel a little motherly toward her. She's a very intuitive and technical actress." I ask Peggy what Mod Squad-y word best describes Claire, hoping she'll answer with solid. "Oh," she laughs, "groovy. She's a groovy girl." Okay, that works too.

CLAIRE SWEARS SHE'LL WORK on films only during her Yale breaks -- preferably the June to September ones. "I miss acting already," she says. "I'm going through withdrawal. As exciting as it is to use different parts of my brain, I do love to act more than anything else -- I think. When you're working on a film without any break, it can get boring. But once you catch your breath, you realize how much you love it." Claire is currently involved in a new project with Jodie Foster, a remake of All About Eve, the classic 1950 film about a sweet-on-the-surface theater fan with a hidden bitchy agenda. Claire has the title role.

It seems like Claire's tendency to take on confused-teen roles is shifting. IF her stronger, more confident characters in The Mod Squad and All About Eve remakes are any indicator of a mature Claire, it's her new film, Brokedown Palace, that convinces me she's definitely not the naive Cosette from Les Misérables that she once was. Brokedown Palace, the grammatically incorrect name of which comes from the title of a Grateful Dead song, is a tale of two friends (Claire and Kate Beckinsale) who sneak off to Bangkok for kicks without telling their parents. Once in Thailand, the pair gets framed for smuggling heroin and end up doing hard time in a very grungy jail. "It scared me so much," is all Claire will say about the experience. It's not surprising: After wrapping the movie, she made some controversial statements about Manila, one of the shooting locations, which led to a ban on her films in the Philippines' capital city.

A WHIRLWIND OF PRAISE for Claire: "I think she's sweet and grounded. Most of all I admire her for going to school." --Liv Tyler. "I love her. She's really dedicated to what she's doing." --Cameron Diaz. "When you meet someone that young and talented, you can't help but be awed. She's a good dancer." --Dave Piner of Soul Asylum (Claire was once in his band's video when Dave was dating Winona Ryder and she was tight with Claire). "The older she gets, I find that she becomes more classically beautiful. She seems like an old soul to me." --Molly Ringwald, who I think was the '80s Claire Danes. Or maybe Claire is a '90s Molly Ringwald. "I think she's great. She's got a long career ahead of her." --Gretchen Mol, from a quote written down on a cocktail napkin when I was drunk, with a pen borrowed from Lisa Loeb, who I forgot to get a quote from.

"NAME-DROP," SAYS CLAIRE. "You know, drop those names," She's referring to the approach she takes when Yale guys try to pick her up -- she drops Ben's name, just to make sure they know she's not on the market. As Claire pokes at a chunk of pineapple in the fruit boat we're sharing for dessert, I ask her how long she and Ben dated before they started fooling around. "It was a long time before we were -- you know ... getting some booty," she admits sheepishly. "I've certainly gone the other way." I wonder if she's making a reference ot her past relationships with either Matt Damon, her costar from The Rainmaker, or Andrew Dorff, Steven's little bro, but I'm afraid to ask. "With Ben, it was nice to have it on hold and take it kind of slowly."

At the end of our meal, Claire excuses herself to "the loo" -- Australian for the facilities. The Wall Street suits dining at an adjacent table turn to watch her pass and look as though they're trying to place her face. Her tale about her recent palm reading comes to mind: Supposedly she'll have two kids, can easily influence people and has a strong hate line, whatever that is.

WHILE LYING IN BED that night I think about Claire and her strong hate line. It bothers me. The following morning, I consult a palmistry book I happen to have at work. There's nothing about a hate line. So I go to Barnes and Noble and look it up in another book. Nada. I ask a palm-reader friend if such a line even exists. She's never heard of it. Then it dawns on me -- I probably didn't hear Claire correctly because she was so congested. She was referring no doubt to her "fate" line -- the one that indicates drive and talent and how much control you have over your life; the one that ties every other line on the hand together. That one that -- in Claire's case -- ultimately speaks as much about her ambition and talent as the 2613 words I've written here. I could have saved myself a bunch of work if I had just looked at her hand in the first place.

Originally transcribed by: Myra Wong

© Jane 1999