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Great Danes

Romeo and Juliet
by Christine Spines (Premiere - October, 1996)

Don't say I never did anything for you.
Love, Claire.

The words are scribbled in messy ballpoint on the side of a white paper bag. Inside are two exquisite chocolate eggs--a gift from Claire Danes to Leonardo DiCaprio. The awkward attempt at affection disappears into the air as DiCaprio frantically rips the bag to shreds and digs inside. "Oh, cool," he crows, palming one like a softball. "These eggs are the bomb." Danes looks at first hurt and then relieved by DiCaprio's indelicacy. DiCaprio just looks determined to get the damn things unwrapped and into his mouth.

DiCaprio is about to take Danes on a jaunt around Griffith Park, a lush slice of the Santa Monica mountains that houses a few of DiCaprio's favorite things: the zoo, and a couple of museums--one devoted to trains, the other to cowboys and Indians. He's dressed in a baggy T-shirt, baggier shorts, and some ugly Shaquille-style Reeboks that he got for free, just for being himself. DiCaprio loves getting stuff for free. Danes hates the hassle of star-hustling to save a few bucks. Her shoes (black platforms) are paid for. Technically, this pair is supposed to be conducting a dual interview; but forget technicalities, the reporter in the backseat is feeling more like a chaperone on an awkward first date.

The first stop on the tour is the train museum, which can't come soon enough, as it's starting to bake inside DiCaprio's silver BMW coupe. He nervously points out the notable sights as he speeds through the park's narrow roads. "Uh, there's the observatory, where lovers sit in their cars and smooch,'' he says with a wave. He seems jittery.

"Oh, let's go there, since that's where they shot Rebel Without a Cause," says Danes, and then, with mock enthusiasm, "Leo is the next James Dean."

DiCaprio keeps driving, silently accepting the needling. He reaches for one of the many pairs of $5 sunglasses strewn around, opting for the mirrored ones. His backseat is covered with a layer of arrested-adolescent detritus: bubblegum chewing tobacco, empty Fruitopia bottles, a map of Six Flags Magic Mountain, a weight-lifting belt.

The conversation is flowing like gallstones. Ahead, some big fellow at a bus stop has the misfortune to be sitting next to one of those cardboard signs movie-production location managers put up to show the crew where to go. It reads simply, BEAVER.

The car screeches to a halt, down slides the driver-side window, and out pops DiCaprio's head. "Hey, dude, where's beaver at?" In a roar of laughter, he peels out. An unfortunate, desperate moment for DiCaprio, who was grabbing for an icebreaker and panicked. All passengers in the car roll their eyes. Danes slumps in the passenger seat with her nose to the window. In her black T-shirt and mirrored wraparound sunglasses, she looks vaguely dangerous. Terminatoresque. Finally she lets out a small sigh.

"I feel all this pressure," blurts DiCaprio. "I don't know if you're having fun. I feel this responsibility to be a good little tour guide."

He pulls up to the abandoned train yard, where on their tracks the steel carcasses seem like great tombs. In between the locomotives, there's a tiny patch of grass surrounding one small picnic table. The dusty smell of sage is everywhere. "That's where I had three birthday parties," DiCaprio says proudly. "And every year all my friends would climb up on that trolley car and hang off of it while my mom took a picture."

"Do you still have the pictures?" Danes asks.

"Nope."

"Do you still have the friends?"

"Nope," DiCaprio answers. "Are you still friends with people you knew in elementary school?"

"All my best friends in New York are from my elementary school," says Danes proudly.

"Oh yeah, once I became famous, bam, I just dumped my old friends," he jokes. "I just laid down the law: 'Hey, I'm sorry you can't be a part of my new cool life.' You just gotta be firm with those people." DiCaprio steps on the gas and spins the wheel, briefly bottoming out on the road's soft shoulder. He drives with the abandon of Speed Racer on a caffeine jag. Danes doesn't even have her license.

When Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director of Strictly Ballroom, decided to make William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet his second feature, he was determined to make it fresh, sexy, vibrant--in short, a hot ticket for the rebellious youth it was about.

In Luhrmann's view, Romeo and Juliet is the story of two kids whose love is a rebellion against all the hatred surrounding them. "The feelings are so extreme: falling in love for the first time, being trapped by your parents and by the rest of society," says Danes, a poster girl for the young, and disenchanted ever since MTV syndicated her discontinued high-school angst show, My So-Called Life . "There was no casual scene where she's talking to her best friend about a science test."

This daily psychic workout fueled a bacchanalian need for some to let off steam after work. The set was filled with a planeload of Hollywood's young, gifted, and rakish, who would spend their off-hours boogieing in local raves, turning themselves into prunes in the hotel pool with epic matches of Sharks and Minnows, playing Taboo in DiCaprio's room, and, of course, videotaping hotel-room parties. "I think it was maybe a little more wild than it needed to be," says Paul Rudd, who plays Paris, Juliet's other suitor. "DiCaprio's best friend walking around the hotel naked, asking the security guys for a key to his room, and we're all sitting there filming it. It was insane."

While Mexico City might be a little like Romeo and Juliet's violent hometown of Verona, its terrors and consequent partying are a lot like Hollywood's. DiCaprio and Danes couldn't possibly have more divergent attitudes on acting, fame, major cities, life. DiCaprio is the natural actor and celebrity studying and learning the art of courage; Danes is the naturally courageous person studying and learning the arts of acting and stardom. Both have been called the most talented actors of their generation. Each one's survival seems, in small part, dependent upon taking what's essential about the other and putting it to use in a world that's seen too many young talents fall from the exact perch where they now sit. Danes could use a little of DiCaprio's playfulness and perspective on the industry; DiCaprio could benefit from Danes's wisdom, maturity, and openness.

This is only the second time they have seen each other since they spent three of the more intense months of their lives intertwined as Romeo and Juliet. The Mexico City location only added to the wild ride, with plenty of real-world revenge--Montezuma's and others--to go around. The two young actors puked their guts out with dysentery, worried about a colleague who got kidnapped by thugs, and watched friends get beat up by overzealous security guards. But despite their obvious differences, there's nothing like a little adventure spiked with a good dose of discomfort to promote a shared sense of machismo, tenderness, and, let's just say it, bonding.

"Our Romeo and Juliet is a little more hard-core and a lot cooler," says DiCaprio. "Because I wouldn't have done it if I'd had to jump around in tights. If you never read Romeo and Juliet, it's like this classic story, blah-blah. But if you really study it, you see Romeo was, like, a gigolo who falls for this girl, Juliet, who says, 'Look, if you've got the balls, put 'em on the table.' It's about those things that carry you in a certain direction and you can't stop; like when people run off to Vegas and get married. That's the beauty of it. They both were people who had guts."

Guts--or cojones, to be more precise - were never in short supply during the shoot in dirt-poor, polluted Mexico City. Once they start talking about their adventures there, specifically, about an attack on one of DiCaprio's tag-along friends--their first-date clumsiness is broken by a jolt of electricity.

"Oh man. That night at that nightclub was insane--that security guy just picked a fight with one of Leo's friends who was visiting from L.A.," says Danes, a smile playing at the corners of her large, smirky lips. "My best friend from the set and I went inside and..."

"...I went in after you once I saw things heating up," says DiCaprio. "And when we got back out my friend was messed up. His ribs were broken. It's a good thing I was inside or I would have been all fucked up too."

"Everyone was getting stomped on for no reason," says Danes, really amped now. "That was the same night that guy got kidnapped."

Danes is referring to the crew member who was hospitalized after a taxi he hailed to take him home from a different nightclub was cab-jacked by three men who apparently slammed his head against the pavement and threatened to kill him if he didn't produce $400 fast.

"A lot of weird stuff happened that night," says DiCaprio, glancing over at Danes as he sails through a red light. "It must have been a full moon."

At the cowboy-and-Indian museum, DiCaprio calls Danes into a room full of enough guns to arm the Chiapas' front line. "Man, I can't believe they had automatics back then," he says, pressing his face against the glass cabinet. "That gun is the shit."

"This is the weirdest thing. Look at this little gun that you rotate with your hand," says Danes, peering in at a western diorama. "It's like the first machine gun. This is really spooky and I'm feeling sick to my stomach."

Did you get to use a gun in the movie?

"I just shoot myself in the head," deadpans Danes, who turns and walks out of the cowboy exhibit and into Indian territory. "I'm going to look at the pelts."

A small frown washes over DiCaprio's brow as he watches his colleague stride out of the room, clearly unamused. He readjusts the headband holding back his blond hair, then turns back to the pistols and grins. "These guns are so cool. I loved working with them. I got pretty good at it too." His voice goes from a grumble to a know-it-all squeak mimicking the possible tone of this article. " 'Claire Danes is so civilized, and cool and thoughtful and humanistic,' " he recites. " 'And Leonardo is such a gun-loving, down-with-the-Mexicans, immature kid.' "

There's no denying that Leonardo DiCaprio is a punk. Despite what must be hours of coaching from his publicists, he can't contain the wisenheimer within. On another day, DiCaprio shows up an hour late for a cover-story interview with a buddy in tow. DiCaprio, in blue shorts and a blue T-shirt, one of those retro '70s jobs with an iron-on '3' on the front, looks as long and sleek as a deer rifle. His friend Jerry, who barely looks old enough to buy cigarettes, sits at the next table reading a book about dungeons or dragons.

During the Romeo and Juliet shoot, DiCaprio passed time between takes doing Michael Jackson impersonations and imitating the rest of the cast as they tried to say their Elizabethan lines with some realism. "I'd walk in front of the camera, and Leonardo would do my line all screechy, 'Thou or I must go!' So the next time I'd become really self-conscious," says costar John Leguizamo, with no real acrimony. "I just hated him, because it came so easy to that little blond, happy, golden-boy motherfucker. He'd smoke a cigarette, do some laps, do Michael Jackson, go on the set, and there it was."

DiCaprio makes no apologies for his mischief-making, and some feel it's the key to his talent. "People say that Marlon Brando was a constant practical joker, and with D you might see 30 characters come out of him in a day," says Luhrmann, using DiCaprio's pet name from the set. "A regular sport with Leonardo is to impersonate me in fairly cruel, uncompromising ways. But acting is playing, and all that fooling around is keeping him in a constant state of playing."

"It comes very easy to him," says Lasse Hallström, who directed DiCaprio's Oscar-nominated performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. "My only theory is that he has a connection to the four-year-old inside."

DiCaprio hasn't really stopped working ever since his breakthrough performance, his heart-crushing portrayal of a boy surviving his stepfather's abuse in the otherwise disappointing This Boy's Life. All of Hollywood was rhapsodic about him after What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Then came a series of intense roles in edgy, mostly unseen movies: his wailing junkie in The Basketball Diaries and his turn as the self-destructive French poet Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse. That film marked two firsts for DiCaprio: his first homosexual love scene and his first bad reviews.

DiCaprio squeezes every last drop of juice out of his celebrity. After all, even Elvis reveled in the Elvis treatment. "All the Mexican girls were going mad over him," says Leguizamo. "They were hunting us down. We were trying to throw ourselves in their way, hoping that he would rub off on us."

DiCaprio is a well-known party hound around Los Angeles, and gets considerable play in the gossip columns for being a constant attendee of fashion shows and any and all functions involving models. "I'm written up in tabloids because I go out a lot to places," says the 21-year-old DiCaprio, who claims to be currently involved in a yearlong relationship with someone who's not in the industry. "I won't stay cooped up in my hotel room. Most famous people aren't out except in, like, their bullshit little dive bars or whatever. I don't want to become a strange person. I don't want to give up the life I already have. My career should adapt to me, and if it doesn't, then..." He goes into a zone as he recites his rap on celebrity. "Fame is like a VIP pass wherever you want to go," says DiCaprio, who then reveals he learned his reap-all approach from the expert. "I worked with Sharon Stone once [in The Quick and the Dead ], and she gave me a good piece of advice: 'When you're famous, you gotta accept it as an advantage. It will only make you stronger.' "

DiCaprio is the opposite of the tortured artist. He's the gleeful prodigy. All Mozart and not a drop of Beethoven. "I would have a nervous breakdown if I had to go through a movie for three months and be that character on and off set," he says. "I know what I'm doing, but when they say 'Cut,' I'm fine. I can joke around. I don't go hide in a corner and yell at anyone who tries to speak to me."

With other actors ping-ponging in and out of drug rehab, DiCaprio is acutely aware of his party-boy image. "I mean, I haven't gone crazy yet, and I really do think I'm pretty well balanced being in the position I'm in," he says, straining to stay still and never once lifting his eyes from the ground. "I think it has to do with me not investing everything in my job. All these actors think that the blood through their veins is fueled by acting. I'm happier when I'm not working, hanging out with my friends, doing something I love."

There is, of course, a hitch: "You just get the feeling all the time that, like, you've gotta have more," he says, looking up. His small eyes are as blue and impenetrable as lapis lazuli. "And no matter how good it is, it's never enough. It's weird - I think the public expects that from you. They want you to keep going, otherwise you could fade away."

If DiCaprio is protective of his position, it's because he can still remember what it was like growing up with his single mom in a dangerous stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. "We were in the poorhouse," says DiCaprio. "I would walk to my playground and see, like, a guy open up his trench coat with a thousand syringes. I saw some major homosexual activity outside my friend's balcony when I was five. To this day it's an imprint on my mind."

Then one day his life changed. His stepbrother got a Golden Grahams commercial.

"I asked my dad how much Adam made from it," recalls DiCaprio. "He said, 'About $50,000.' Fifty thousand dollars! It just kept going through my head: My brother has $50,000 dollars! And that kept on being my driving force. I just remember for, like, five years thinking my brother was better than me because he had that."

It's not hard to imagine DiCaprio's reputation on the playground - hooligan, troublemaker... Romeo. He never took any theater classes after elementary school, and his whole attitude about acting was bottom-line: Keep your eye on the cash, go to a ton of auditions. Occasionally he'd get a commercial. But nothing really hit for him until he scored the urban-urchin role on the last season of the stomachache-inducing sitcom Growing Pains.

While DiCaprio prides himself on climbing his way out of his modest beginnings, he clings fast to his childhood. He lives less than five minutes away from his mother, Irmalin DiCaprio, and just about as close to his father, George, a luminary in the underground-comic world. His parents split up before DiCaprio turned one, but all three are still close and they don't live far from the bullet-riddled neighborhood of DiCaprio's youth.

Growing up in syringe-alley Hollywood was nerve-racking, but DiCaprio seems to have developed a taste for death defiance. He spent this past summer river rafting, bungee jumping, and general adrenaline pumping.

"I like to do things that scare me," he says, still queasy from a skydiving trip gone wrong. His first parachute didn't open, so he had to free-fall until his backup chute kicked in. "Skydiving is just the sickest thing. I made a little video afterward, where I look into the camera all jittery and go, 'Leonardo, if you're watching this, this is your last time skydiving. It's your first life-and-death experience. I want you to learn something from it.' "

DiCaprio rambles on about his summer as he drives Danes across the park. "I've had my ultra amusement-park summer," he says. "I've gone to Knott's Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, Raging Waters, and Universal Studios three times."

Have you heard that Michael Jackson went to Magic Mountain on his honeymoon and his favorite ride was the Batman ride?

"Oh reeaaallllyyy ," says DiCaprio, genuinely intrigued at this confluence of two of his favorite cultural phenomenons.

"Did they close the park for him?" asks Danes, spinning the Batman lollipop she bought at the train-museum gift shop.

"What do you think!" yells DiCaprio, incredulous at Danes's ignorance of the rules of celebrity power tripping. "They could never have gone otherwise. Michael Jackson is a monster star!"

Danes is not fazed. "Did they close down the park for you?"

"Are you crazy ? Don't you know anything?" he screeches. "It's hard enough getting in for free ."

While DiCaprio has to jump out of airplanes to test his courage, one gets the sense that everything - from going out to breakfast to preparing to shoot herself in the head onscreen - is a courageous act for Claire Danes. Take an innocuous question, such as What was the happiest moment of your life?

"When I was four we used to have a swing in our loft, and I remember swinging back and forth in my little T-shirt and underwear. And we had these big, huge windows, and in the morning the light would just flood in and everything was really safe and wonderful," says the New York–born actress. She's being interviewed - without DiCaprio - over lunch, and tears open three packets of NutraSweet to pour into her iced tea. "I have favorite moments, like waking up in the arms of my boyfriend and the feeling of touching somebody else's skin on mine."

Then she strains to give the question its due. She pauses and grabs her forehead, reaching for the best feeling she can. She looks up, grinning. "I had a really fun night. This is going to sound really bad, but the first time I got drunk - I actually did it because I was preparing for a movie and I was paying really close attention to how it would feel - and I was with people I really loved." Her voice breaks and she stops for a moment. "So it was the first time I experienced being completely out of control. And it felt liberating. Almost scary how much I liked it. That shouldn't be one of the best feelings, but it was." A small tear moves from the outside of her honey-colored eye and falls out of view. Danes doesn't mention it, but she doesn't wipe it away either. "So what did Leo say was his best day?" she asks.

Something about spending a Saturday with all his friends shooting paint balls at each other, swimming in a lake, then spending the night watching Dr. Strangelove.

"That's cool," she says. A flash of embarrassment flickers across her face. "It's a better answer than mine."

It's this inability to manufacture cool, this vulnerability, that sold her as Angela Chase, the conflicted teenager she played on her critically acclaimed TV series, My So-Called Life . It's the same honesty that shone through in her small but compelling parts in Little Women, How to Make an American Quilt, and Home for the Holidays.

The success that followed does not sit easily with Danes. "Juliet is much more secure than I am," she says. "She doesn't put herself down, she respects herself - and maybe that's because she's more of a child. I mean, she's pretty and smart and she has a lot going for her and she's okay with that. I'm not."

Juliet is Danes's first starring film role, and, in contrast to her costar's blithe detachment, the actress is still feeling the effects of her journey to the extremes of love and death. "I was sitting there about to go and do the famous balcony scene, and I was, like, What am I about to do? I'm about to say, 'O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?' " says Danes. "And I'm thinking, This is a joke, right? How am I going to do this in a fresh way?"

Luhrmann picked Danes for the role after reportedly considering nearly every young actress in her age range, including Alicia Silverstone and Natalie Portman. He knew he had found his Juliet, precisely because of her emotional intensity. "She was strong with Leonardo and was someone you could believe was discovering the overpowering force of the love drug for the first time," he says.

In other words, she was not doing Michael Jackson imitations between takes. "Claire usually wanted to cry in every scene," says Leguizamo. "It was so passionate, it just made her weep all the time. I mean, her whole life was devastated as Juliet."

Her childhood penchant for self-expression led Danes's artist parents to enroll her in Lee Strasberg's Theater Institute. "All the other kids would just run around," says Danes, mocking her own self-seriousness. "I was trying to feel the moment ."

Then there was a series of acting classes and a stint in a Fame-like performing-arts junior high before a photographer, who was renting darkroom space in her parents' loft, took her head shot. "The first manager I met is the one I'm still with now," says Danes, who soon thereafter landed her first paying role, in a Dudley Moore pilot. "I played the angst-ridden teenager, of course, because that's what I do," she says throwing up her arms in defeat. "Even on a sitcom I had a morbid role." About a year later she landed My So-Called Life and the family Danes packed up and moved to Los Angeles.

"I walked into this business rather blindfolded," she says wearily. "I mean, I always knew I wanted to act, but I had no idea what Hollywood was all about."

This past summer, Danes was doing her best to unburden herself of Juliet: She took the SATs in time to apply to Columbia University for the fall of '97. And she finally learned to drive. She had failed the test three times.

Jodie Foster, who directed Danes in Home for the Holidays, is intimately acquainted with Danes's driving impairment. "Claire got behind the wheel of the car in the airport scene, and she plowed into an extra's car and almost took him out," says Foster. "It is very sweet, because she's this wiser-than-her-years-seeming person and yet she's really, really, really a baby. And you forget, because she's this beautiful, demure lady."

Foster, something of an expert on the hazards of growing up on sets, isn't a bit worried about Danes. "She's so down-to-earth," says Foster. "She has the emotional strength to take her celebrity for what it is, see it as a small sacrifice, and move on."

The Foster-Danes approach to fame stands in contrast to the love-thyself, love-thy-celebrity school espoused by Sharon Stone and DiCaprio. "You get a lot of attention," says Danes. "And if you don't have a great self-esteem, you start feeling like you don't deserve it. Like, why would anybody be caring about you this much?"

Leaving the cowboy-and-Indian museum, DiCaprio takes out his pocket-size pot of lip balm. Glossy. In an inspired moment of chivalry, he thinks to offer some to Danes. She beams: "Don't mind if I do. You know I have a problem with dryness." She digs out a wad of lip goo. Eruption of loud giggles all around. The first of the day. It's contagious and they can't stop snickering. "Oh, don't I know it," says DiCaprio. "That dryness, it's a killer." They fall silent with Cheshire grins across their faces. DiCaprio gives Danes a mosh-pit hip check. She barely loses step.

Watching the two of them together, you have to wonder: Just how close did they get during the emotionally intense filming of the Holy Grail of love stories? "I think they had crushes on each other but they kept it very professional," says Leguizamo. "Nothing was ever done. And that's great, because when you consummate an attraction you totally defuse the tension on the screen."

Besides, DiCaprio has a girlfriend and Danes was only recently jilted by her longtime boyfriend. Indeed, they both seem to embody the romantic, obsessive tendencies of their screen counterpart.

"My most devastating girlfriend was in junior high," says DiCaprio. "We were totally in love, and we finally went out on a date to see When Harry Met Sally... I was so uncomfortable. I remember her eating this French-dip sandwich and the only thing I knew how to do was make fun of her and she got all freaked out. She didn't talk to me for a long time. Every two weeks she had library study, and I'd ditch class 'cause that's the only place where I knew she'd be. Her name was Sessie. Sexy Sessie. It sucked."

Danes is no stranger to the torments of unrequited love. "There was this boy named Chaplin in elementary school," she confides. "He was so afraid of me, because I had such a thing for him. He would run away, because I'd be, like, 'Chaplin!' I sent him a letter one time and I just wrote this big hi. It was so corny. Chaplin. He was a goofy kid. He was smart. He was funny. He wasn't a follower."

"I tease girls and try to get some power trip going and show them I'm the dominant one," says DiCaprio, explaining his method of dealing with amorous groupies. "I haven't had my heart broken in a while, which feels good."

Danes's heart, of course, still aches. "I just got my first taste of heartbreak and it was terrible," she whispers. "It was the other person just going crazy, having a lot of family problems. It's not like there was another woman. He still loved me, but that doesn't make it any easier. This was my first time truly in love and I'm looking forward to the next time."

But not with Romeo. After endless workdays spent smooching, consuming caseloads of Certs, and declaring their soul-deep desire for each other, DiCaprio and Danes were actually getting a little sick of each other. "There were arguments," says Luhrmann. "Sometimes they were like two kids on holiday and sometimes it was like you were dragging your children through a desert and they were starving and suffering. But because they were so young and in the middle of such extraordinary events, I think they came to rely on each other, which was a great thing to behold."

DiCaprio jingles the keys, signaling it's time to go. He peers over the roof and asks, "Why is it that everyone makes it seem like all the great cities - L.A., New York, Paris - have degenerated into shadows of what they once were? Like they were sooo great ten years ago and we missed it?"

Danes tosses off: "Yeah, but we're kids and we're supposed to be cynical, so it gives us something to complain about."

DiCaprio breaks the silence on the ride home when he inserts a Bill Withers CD into the player. After the tentative first few bars of a song mount up to the chorus, the odd couple in the front seat begin to sing under their breath independently of each other. Their voices finally rise above the music: "Lean on me. When you're not strong, I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on.... "

DiCaprio pulls the car into a coffee-shop parking lot, where Danes's slightly peeved limo driver waits to drive her home to Santa Monica. DiCaprio apes big claps and stomps his feet to the song, each time pounding on the floor where the scraps of Danes's note from the chocolate eggs she gave him are scattered. He will never say she never did anything for him. Neither will she.

© 1996, Premiere Magazine