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Faire Claire
by Alex McGregor (Live - September, 1996)

It's not just the wings sewn to the back of her white dress that make Claire Danes look like an angel. It's the way she floats through the crowd of debauched revelers gathered on a Mexico City soundstage to recreate the Capulets' masquerade ball. This is Claire Danes as Juliet, pursued across a packed dance floor by the besotted Romeo, played with suitable anguish by Gen X hearthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. It's entiredly appropriate that the role of Shakespeare's girl-woman heroine in Strictly Ballroom Luhrmann's production of Romeo and Juliet was given to the 17-year-old Danes. She, too, is on the cusp of womanhood, blossoming from adolescent television star to mature film actress--and without leaving her teens.

But Danes denies that she has much in common with Juliet. "In the play, Juliet is the one who makes the decisions," says Danes. "She knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it. I've never played anyone as confident as Juliet--much more so than I am."

One wonders if, in the words of Bard himself, Danes doth protest too much. Her film career started with the frail Beth in Gillian Armstrong's Little Women, she appeared in Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays and held her own among a who's who of actresses in Jocelyn Moorhouse's How to Make an American Quilt. She worked with Michelle Pfeiffer and Peter Gallagher in the weepy To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. And all that was before she started Romeo and Juliet. She's garnered credits that would have kept most actresses busy ofor a decade, all in the two years she was finishing high school.

This is Claire Danes in a Santa Monica health-food restaurant, the picture of New York slacker elegance [she grew up in SoHo] in jeans and soft leather coat over a T-Shirt, with an appetite for salad and talk--as long as it doesn't get intimate. When converation strays into ther personal, what surfaces is the awkward teenager at odds with the self-assured actress. This is also the day after her graduation from high school, the mention of which provokes smiles of pride and relief. Danes' Golden Globe--winning protrayal of the angst-ridden Angela Chase, heroine of ABC's My So-Called Life, established her as the quintessential high school student of their generation. The role launched her career, but Danes confesses that growing up in front of a television audience wasn't easy.

"I was experiencing things that same time Angela was," she says. "That was hard, because [sometimes] they were issue that I hadn't resolved in my own life." Still this is what Danes has wanted since she was five, when she first announced her acting ambition. "It was kind of out of the blue, because nobody in my family acts. At nine, I heard that actors don't make any money, and I thought maybe I would be a psychologist [to] earn my living and work in theather companies on the side. Then I thought, No, I must be true to my art, even if there might be no money."

And true she has been, revealing herself with a emotional intensity that belies her age. Asked about the wide range of feeling's she's exposed on sceen, Danes is matter-of-fact. "It's always hard, but it's what I do." And no role has been harder than Juliet. "It was just so extreme. One night I was gettng married, and then the next night I was dying, or there was some other huge choice I was makiig, every day. There were no casual scenes."

Nor is there anything casual about the way Danes approaches her work. She speaks of each film as if it were a master class and her fellow actors-including Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon--her professors. "It's neat to see how far I've come in the past couple of years," she says. "Now I have more of a clue. I iuderstand the ratkoknship between commerce and art. I understand what publicity means, the price of fame, what's expected. You think this job is jsut about acting, but it' not--and I didn't know that when I started." This is the Claire Danes who, with her feet on the ground, still manages to soar like an angel."

© 1996, Live