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Romeo and CLAIRE
by Nick Gaffney (NYU - November, 1996)

Danes discusses well-done 90s Romeo.

We've all either been bored or enlightened, or something in between, by Shakespeare in high school. You probably read A Mid-Summer Night's Dream, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet, and hopefully walked away with a vague understanding of Shakepeare's characters, his poetry, and hopefully some greater, underlying theme that ran throughout. At least enough to pull a B+ in a term paper.

Now imagine, if you will, being 17 years old, SAT, a senior in high school, and not only do you have to read, say, Romeo and Juliet, you also have to understand it so well that you'll be able to perform it on the silver screen in front of millions, along side some of today's more accomplished film actors. Scared yet?

"I was really intimidated to tackle this classical acting role," says 17-year-old Claire Danes on starring along side Leonardo DiCaprio in director Baz Luhrmann's Miami Beach-esque, gun-totin', gangsta' take on Romeo and Juliet. "I took a class in high school where we studied A Midsummer Night's Dream, so I knew a little Shakespeare." Don't we all.

In this new, quickly-paced, "buzz-bin" version of the classic tale, we are presented with the fictional Verona Beach (updated from Shakespeare's just-plain-Verona) where hip-hop, R&B, and punk blare from just about every place imaginable, everyone carries a semi-automatic, and the tasteful mix of black leather and loud Hawaiian shirts is practically uniform. Sound audacious? Profane even? Enough to make your high school English teacher faint? Oh yeah, but only in the best sense possible.

Other than the quick editing, guns, and all around modernization, what we are given is a pretty straight version of the timeless tale, with the language intact. The Capulets and Montagues are still at it, though heads of households Brian Dennehy and Paul Sorvino look a little more like Mafioso than Shakespeare would have imagined. The performances, especially the ones by Danes, DiCaprio, and John Leguizamo as the frightening Tybalt, might play a tad unorthodox, but I doubt The Royal Shakespeare Company would blend in under these flashy circumstances. Luhrmann risks a lot with this unorthodox adaptation, but, by going at it full steam, he pulls it off.

We're thrown by the first image of a TV screen, with the gussied-up anchorwoman reciting "Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona (where we lay our scene)." But, after the initial shock, through and incredibly (and literally) explosive encounter with the younger members of both family, we're ready to let the film take us anywhere.

But, it shouldn't be forgotten, after all, the this is Shakespeare, and, where ever it takes place, in whatever time period, you're going to need to get some sort of grasp of the language. And, as Danes pointed out at a recent screening of the film, it didn't come to her right away. "I wrote about three essays on [Romeo and Juliet], though nothing to do with my character. But, I was getting a general sense of what the story was and how Juliet fell into it. So, I just had to do something to get past that initial fear. And, then I worked with Baz and Leonardo [DiCaprio. And we went through the text, line by line, word by word, decoding the language. And went through the gist of the play, and really figured out what we were saying specifically.

"You think you get the general gist of what Shakespeare's talking about, and then you realize 'Oh, no. That's not what he's talking about.' ...the actors have to learn to do their homework. Once you figure out what ideas you're trying to get across, hopefully, if it's a good performance, the audience gets it without having to do all the research."

It might be easy for some critics to point out Danes' age as being a large barrier between her and the role. After all, how many 17-year-olds are literate enough to get about 1000 on their SATs, much less understand Shakespeare?

But, Danes seems unusually mature for her age, a strange combination of innocence and world weariness. She's seen it all, but is still raring for more, and genuinely wary, yet cocky, about the challenges presented to her by the Bard. "When I first learned about Shakespeare, I read As You Like It, and wrote a paper on it freshman year of high school, and I was just compeltely awed by his words. It was unbelievable...It doesn't have to be tedious to read his works. You should be able to enjoy it. And yeah, he's making some really profound points, talking about some really intense issues. And, that can come across when you're reading it."

And ultimately, it's her and DiCaprio's perormances that make or break the film. The film's supporting cast could be the best around (and it's pretty darn good), but without two strong leads, there wouldn't be very much to support. And, thankfully, it does work. Danes' experiences as the everyteen on the much-lauded television show My So-Called Life, have, unconsciously or not, influenced her work here, again as a troubled teen who doesn't like her parents. And, DiCaprio is wonderful as the swaggering, quick-witted Romeo, playing the role with enough charm and rebelliousness to make James Dean blush.

"It's hard," said Danes about working with her co-star, "because it's really instense stuff that you're doing. Leo really took to the relationships, I think, because we weren't doing a lot of special planning...we had one of the most classical stories of all time on our shoulders. Sometimes we just tried not to feel what was happening. We'd ignore each other, and then, there we would be on the set, crying together or marring each other. Leo's a good guy.

"My favorite scene in general was when Leo's killing Tybalt. I though Leo did some really good work with that and [I] was just so impressed by what he was doing."

Danes seemed a little more self-conscious when talking about her own performance, but was able to name a couple of her more interesting moments. "I really like it when I'm breaking down after my father has disowned me, abandoned me. That was really fun to play, because, all of a sudden, she was losing her marbles, and that was a really change for her."

"I also liked the death scene...it was scary doing it. And yeah, it's make believe, it's not the same [as real life], but when you're living inside this character's body, you can't help but be affected. I remember shooting that scene. I kept making up all these excuses to start over, and I wasn't even aware I was making up these excuses. I was like 'I keep slipping off the bed, maybe we should start again,' for like half an hour. Finally Baz took me aside and said 'Claire, are you scared?' and I was like, 'Yeah.' And then I just did it, but I"ll never forget that feeling of being so vulnerable. It's pretty incredible to live vicariously through a character who's so dramatic."

She did, however, try to quell the parallels to Juliet and My So-Called Life's Angela, pointing out that she tends to enjoy working on films more than TV. "On TV, you're always given the script the night before, and there isn't much you can do but go with our gut reactions with the character. In film, there's more time to try different things."

Wherever she ends up these days, though being in the #1 movie in the country usually spells out a pretty secure film career, she seems raring for success. It's rare to see such a young actress jump into a role so well: Culture Shock can't wait to see what she'll do next.

Originally transcribed by: Erin Podolsky

© 1996, NYU