In the light and space of a SoHo loft, she swung in a swing and played dressup. She was blond-haired, fine-boned, hazel-eyed, gymnastically agile and 4 years old, already gauging an image ofherself as she danced in front of a mirror.
The reflection in the glass of her lower Manhattan childhood home has cast itself into giant-screen splendor for Claire Danes, 5-feet-6, 112 pounds, broad-shouldered, long-fingered, Hollywood's darling at age 18.
She is gifted, grounded, smart she's Yale-bound next fall rich and awesomely young.
Her ninth film, Les Miserables, will open this spring. Her role as the French Revolution-tossed sweetheart, Cosette, follows her sensitive portrayal as the abused wife in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed The Rainmaker.
Before that came Little Women and Romeo and Juliet and the short-lived television series that in 1994 ignited Danes-mania, My So-Called Life.
Hollywood would have you believe her life is a perfectly scripted fairy tale, but Claire Danes is, at heart, a New York kid, the product of parents grounded in the arts and academia.
"Everybody says, 'at such an early age' when they talk about her," said Carla Danes, 52, who until recently acted as her daughter's manager. "I think there's this image of a child actress who's full-blown. . . .
"There's a myth that gets set up sometimes."
Among the biggest falsehoods: "She's never made anywhere near $3 million a picture," said Carla Danes. "Not close to it."
Carla was a textile artist who later ran a nursery school in the family loft. Claire's father, Christopher, 53, was an architecture photographer, now a computer consultant.
Carla and Christopher, who had met at the Rhode Island School of Design, were Vietnam-era Vista volunteers before they came as artists to an apartment in the Bowery. In 1974, with one son, Asa, they bought a building for next-to-nothing on Crosby St.
Claire, born in 1979, grew up learning family values. "I've been married for 30 years to the same man and I was her role model," Carla Danes said.
The daughter recently obtained a certificate of occupancy on a $1 million loft "Still raw space," says her mother that she is renovating in her old New York neighborhood.
"Claire just didn't spring up," Carla Danes said. "She was raised by the city."
Claire Danes attended Public School 3, PS 11 and middle school at the Professional Performing Arts School. She began high school at the private Dalton School.
"We were in elementary school together," said aspiring actress Bridget Barkan, 17, a PPAS classmate who also attended PS 11 with Danes. "We had a lipsynching contest and she did 'Wild Thing.' "
"She had, like, a little boyfriend a short-term thing, a guy named Billy Cherry," said PPAS classmate Stephanie Samaniego, age 20.
"She was more like a tomboy type," said PPAS secretary Carole Lunney. "She didn't like the frilly dresses."
"Like a lot of other little girls downtown, she took an after-school dance theater workshop. She took gymnastics," said Carla Danes. "She was so serious from the beginning . . . going on callbacks, auditions."
In the third grade, at PS 11, Claire learned about drugs.
"A male-female cop team came in and showed her class drug implements," her mother said. "They scared Claire to death, she couldn't sleep for days."
In fourth grade, she found out actors and actresses often made little money.
"She made up this fantasy," Carla Danes said. "She was going to be a psychiatrist and live in California with her best friend, Ariel, and they were going to share a swimming pool between them. They would both have husbands, and Claire would be an actress on the side for fun."
Two months later the 9-year-old approached her parents, Carla Danes said. "She was very dramatic: `Even if it means I have to be a waitress and be poor, I'm going to be an actress.' "
So on Saturday mornings, Danes learned "method" acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute.
"She was 10 years old when I interviewed her," said Strasberg Young People's Program director Nancy Collins. "She was very sophisticated, not the little-girl type at all. She was always the first one here in the morning, sitting very seriously on the bench outside my office, waiting for class to begin."
By Claire's sixth grade, at PPAS, things were really serious: "We went to a PTA meeting on how to get an agent," Carla Danes said.
When Claire was 12, her mother got her first glimpse of her daughter's self-imposed pressure.
"She was offered a job on a soap opera, and she said no," Carla Danes said. "She was afraid she'd learn `soap-opera acting' and not the other kind of acting, which she saw as more legitimate.
"She had a major head-ache from the stress of making a decision. That's when we realized this was a big deal."
By the time Claire was 14, she had landed the role of the angst-plagued teen, Angela, in My So-Called Life.
The plum part took her and her parents to live in Los Angeles. She departed New York after her first semester at the Dalton School, where in 1993 the academically gifted freshman had landed her first dramatic role, this one on the stage.
The Rhymers of Eldritch by Lanford Wilson," said theater teacher Bob Sloan, who directed Danes as a distraught grandmother witnessing the collapse of the American family.
"She was not the most talented theater actor in that play, but she was incredibly expressive," he said. "She had a very unique way of making you feel something. Trusting her instincts made her different. What she lacked in technique, she made up with this ability to be charged with feeling. That's the thing she brought with her to film and TV."
From California, with private tutors, Danes tried to continue her Dalton studies via E-mail.
"We sent the curriculum to her tutors; she committed herself to it very faithfully," said Dalton's high school director, Dr. Judith Sheridan. "We were hoping she would return for 10th grade. That was the initial plan."
But Claire Danes remained focused.
"We only saw two people for the part of Angela," said My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman. "Claire was the second. We stopped looking after we saw Claire."
Big names, by then, were looking at Claire.
A Career Takes Off
"I first met Claire when she was 14 and was kind enough to read the role of Mary Lou from 'On the Road' with me, Coppola said about his project to make the film version of the Jack Kerouac classic.
"I was totally taken with her. I felt a little guilty having her read some of the sexual innuendoes from the book. But even then, she handled it with lovely poise and was very touching.
"She has an intelligence and a natural sense of truth," Coppola said, "as well as a wisdom that reaches out far beyond her age."
Coppola went on to cast Danes in John Grisham's The Rainmaker, released last year.
She dated co-star Matt Damon, but today is the girlfriend of 19-year-old Australian composer-rocker Ben Lee.
She is headed to Yale next fall at the urging of another actresswho is her mentor, Yale graduate Jodie Foster.
The New Haven campus already is a place of memories. Her grandfather, Gibson Danes, earned his doctorate there in 1948 and is former dean of the School of Art and Architecture.
Twice-widowed, once by Claire's namesake, he ended his life in 1992 in a suicide love pact with his Alzheimer's-suffering third wife, artist Ilse Getz. He was 81 and she was 75.
"They watched her grow up," said Carla Danes. "Suicide is brutal for the people left behind."
But like her grandfather, Claire will follow the path of scholarship.
"She wants to play with the drama stuff," Carla Danes said. "She'd rather go to school, do something like psychology, sociology she's sure it will be in the humanities. She wants to save the work for work, education for education."
And Claire, who her mother says is currently filming in the Philippines, will be on her own.
"I read her scripts, but I'm not going to be on salary," Carla Danes said. "I had a percentage of the managing fee, but I'm not going to be part of the money stuff anymore. That's the way Claire wants it. We need to separate."
When Claire Danes moves back to New York, her parents plan to remain in L.A., where her father will continue computer consulting and her mother is enrolled in art school.
But Carla Danes keeps her memory of a 4-year-old in a loft. "She wants the same swing in her own loft," the mother said.
It comes down to this about the actress, Claire Danes.
"She's so far from that girl who dreams of stardom and goes crazy with it," said friend Bridget Barkan. "I think she's kept her sanity with all the hoopla. Everybody I know says she's the best teenage actress out there. But she's still Claire."
Carla Danes hopes she stays that way.
"You're always afraid for your kids," she said. "Claire's got a job where people look at her all the time. Like the sun, it can scorch you the exposure."
© New York Daily News 1998