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Hey, Nineteen
by Christine Spines (Premiere - October, 1998)

Already one of the brightest lights of her generation, Claire Danes is poised to be the next Jodie Foster (Yale education and all). But first she's going to have a little fun.

She slips off her black platform sandals, revealing perfectly proportioned toes that look as cute and helpless as five newborns lying in a hospital nursery. Her skin, pale and smooth, has been carefully protected from the elements. But Claire Danes's piggies have just reached the end of their pampered existence. Indeed, her feet are in for a character-building (if not fungus-building) experience.

It's a hot day after the Fourth of July, and Danes has come to a bowling alley sockless. There's nothing to come between her feet and the gym floors and shower stalls of all who've bowled before her. But Danes seems oblivious to the risk factor. She unties the laces on the pair of scuffed, size-seven shoes she's just rented from the tattooed guy behind the counter (a glass case containing bowling pins autographed by Janeane Garofalo and other celebs who've played here). She slides her naked foot into the red-and-white athletic shoe. "Nope," she says cheerfully, pulling it off without untying the laces, "too big."

The bowling alley -- open 24 hours -- is located in a seedy, sun-baked corner of Hollywood. Inside, the place is eerily empty: There are no raucous barflies, for Fred Flinstone-style league bowlers. The only sound comes from a small TV set that's broadcasting a Dodgers-A's baseball game, which no one seems to be watching.

A big fella behind the counter pulls out a pair of size six-and-a-halfs and sprays them with disinfectant before handing the shoes to the young actress. Bingo. "Those'll work just fine," she says, selecting a special featherweight ball from behind the counter and heading over to the lanes. Suddenly, a faint look of dismay comes over her face, but it's not the panicked realization one would expect. "I hope we can have fun here," she says. "I'm thinking it's going to be a challenge."

In her cutoff khaki pants and blue-and-white striped sailor shirt, Danes wanders out to the mouth of lane twenty, looks around, and tentatively rolls her little black ball down the floor and into the gutter. It's only her first shot, but already she looks mortified. She's still a little annoyed and disappointed by her Fourth of July festivities. "Yesterday I had a very patriotic Independence Day and went to see Armageddon, which was repugnant and misogynistic," she says. "My most memorable Fourth was when I was six years old and we were living in New York. My dad had built this little boat called the Winslow Homer, and my parents decided to pack it full of picnic stuff and take it out on the river for a ride. The whole family piled in, and after a few hours this big wave came crashing over the front and we capsized. We were all floating in the river, and we had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. I just remember being so cold and so embarrassed." The one characteristic that Danes has in common with most teenagers is that she's able to experience almost any situation -- even a family catastrophe -- as an occasion for humiliation.

Between gutter balls, Danes dutifully tries to work herself into the proper state of wackiness. bowling, after all, is an activity -- like New Year's Eve or bachelor parties -- where the pressure to have a rip-roarin' good time is palpable and oppressive. "Everyone always has fun bowling," she says, a little unconvincingly. Pointing out the cloth banner that says NO GAMBLING OR TANK TOPS!, she places and handful of vending-machine candy on the scoring table to use as gambling chips. She makes funny faces after her bad shots, and pops little celebratory kicks whenever she knocks down a few pins.

Just as the place begins to fill up, Danes loses the first game 27 to 42. She points out three young, strike-throwing dudes -- one of whom is sporting the dreaded tank top -- a few lanes down. "I keep seeing them look over here," she says. "They're all suck good bowlers. They're probably talking about how terrible we are." Overcome with embarrassment, she's strangely oblivious to her celebrity.

But Danes thrives under pressure. As the bowling sharks look on, she throws two consecutive spares. Each time, she does three perfect pirouettes on the shiny floor before returning to the scorer's table. "I think I'm becoming addicted to coffee now," she says. "Last summer I went on tour with my boyfriend [Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee], and we would both be lying in the back of the Buick while his manager drove us around the country. since he played at night, we both became really fond of sleeping pills. We were like two little crackheads in the back, sleeping and kicking each other for room on the seat. It got pretty violent at times."

Danes is very aware of her performance today: She's tired of being thought of as Saint Claire. And right now, as she starts to take control of her future as an adult, she is feeling particularly carpe diem about enjoying what little is left of her youth. She strides up to take her last shot and throws the ball so hard that it bounces toward the pins. Strike! She danes around the shiny wood floor. Then she stops twirling and pretends to narrate the kind of ham-fisted observation she's come to expect in pieces like this: "...the stark contrast between the graceful dance juxtaposed with the utterly graceless act of bowling..."

A heightened self-consciousness pervades everything Danes does. Whether it's something as silly as a bowling match or as serious as reflecting on the hazards of growing up in Hollywood, she manages to be an active participant while still providing a steady stream of astute background commentary. In a sense, she is the omniscient narrator of her own existence.

It was Danes's ability to be awkward so naturally that made her the prototypical '90s teen on My So-Called Life, the one-season-and-out high school drama that MTV wouldn't let die. She went on to imbue her characters in Little Women, Home for the Holidays, and William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet with unexpected depth and intensity.Young audiences continue to respond to her as a more authentic role model than the Spice Girl's school of saccharine empowerment, reflected in movies such as Clueless. Danes's popularity seems to stem more from girls' relating to her than idolizing her. It's all about the integrity of her persona, not the size of her role (small, in the case of John Grisham's The Rainmaker and U-Turn) or the success of the project (nonexistent, in the case of Les Misérables and Polish Wedding).

But with her upcoming pair of star turns as reckless, feisty iconoclasts, Danes is ready to expose the she-devil within. In Brokedown Palace, due early next year, she plays a wanderlusty American who travels to Thailand with her best friend (The Last Days of Disco's Kate Beckinsale) and gets thrown in prison on drug charges. To counterbalance the Strum und Drang of her third-world incarceration, she just completed her first glamour-girl job, reprising Peggy Lipton's sex-kitten crime solver in the movie version of The Mod Squad.

"She's iconographic," says Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000, which is releasing Brokedown Palace. "Young women identify with her. She's complicated; you see her working it out onscreen, and that's very much what is appropriate for her age. It's not even like she's been in all that much, but she got traction right away. She engaged."

Ever since 1996's Romeo & Juliet reintroduced Hollywood to the moneymaking potential of the youth audience, Danes has been thought of as the Meryl Streep or Jodie Foster of her generation -- studied, serious, and intense. "On Polish Wedding we used to say, 'Claire's the most immature 35-year-old I've ever met,' " jokes actor Daniel Lapaine, who also worked with her on Brokedown Palace. In life she can be a bit like a teenage Hamlet, says Romeo & Juliet director Baz Luhrmann. "Everything is 'To be or not to be?' and 'What's the point?' And that's not in the negative sense. Claire is very probing -- you don't get off very lightly with her. She's not someone who goes, 'I'm a vessel. Fill me.' She's very strong in her need to question, to analyze, to challenge."

But even for Danes, all that maturity and self-reflection can become tiresome. She has spent a good part of her teenage years surrounded by adults -- working with them on the set, being managed by them. Now, however, her full-time companion is no longer her mother but the 21-year-old Lee. The two movies she just completed -- Brokedown Palace and The Mod Squad -- were her first without Mom standing by on the set. She bought her first home, a SoHo loft, which she has spent several months remodeling. And taking a cue from her Home for the Holidays director, Jodie Foster, she's decided to put her career on hold and trade in a rented Beverly Hills pool house for a shared dorm room in Connecticut, where she'll attend Yale University in the fall. She's determined to step off the fast track, learn about the world beyond the movie set, and occupy herself with having some frivolous fun -- a terrifying prospect to Danes, whose precollege mantra is, "I'm just so nervous!" On the verge of being thrown in with a bunch of kids her own age -- many of who spent the summer working at the local Ben & Jerry's -- Danes is finally learning how to act her age and enjoy it.

During the three-month shoot of Brokedown Palace in the Philippines, Danes got a crash course in third-world misery. Because of the script's tourist-deterring elements, the filmmakers were told they didn't stand a chance of getting permission to shoot in Thailand. Manila turned out to be a cheaper alternative. The shoot was plagued with malaria and hepatitis outbreaks, and production had to be shut down for several sick days. " It was just so hard," Danes says, now comfortably ensconced at a Beverly Hills lunch joint, where she's gobbling up a plate of extra-rare ahi. "The place just f*cking smelled of cockroaches. There's no sewage system in Manila, and people have nothing there. People with, like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth. We shot in a real [psychiatric] hospital, so takes would be interrupted by wailing women -- like 'Cut! Screaming person.' Rats were everywhere."

Amid the difficult working conditions, Danes discovered her power on the set, and how to use it. she says she knew the experience would be her own Outward Bound-style rude awakening. "I totally tested myself," she says. "I wanted to see if I could survive the worst, and I did. I didn't have to do it in such a harsh way, but I was being very dramatic."

what attracted her to the role was the complex friendship between her character, Alice, and Darlene, Alice's high school best friend. What she didn't expect was that she'd take such a hands-on role in shaping the final film. When the original director, Carl Frankin (Devil in a Blue Dress), dropped out because the studio was insisting he case a known actress (namely Liv Tyler) in the best-friend role, Danes became the only tentpole holding up the production. At that point she involved herself in the search for a new director and costar. They settled on Jonathan Kaplan -- the man who directed Jodie Foster to her first Oscar, in The Accused -- because of his widely acknowledged ability to get good performances out of women and his hippie-backpacker street cred. "He totally got that title from a Grateful Dead song," says producer Adam Fields (Great Balls of Fire), who came up with the idea for the film while travelling in thailand. "No one else was ever asked; no one ever questioned it."

Still, not all was mellow when it came to dealing with Fox. There were battles over the phone from Manila. "I knew what story I wanted to tell, and I knew the best way to tell it," Danes recalls. "I didn't want it to be about two hot chicks in Thailand wearing tank tops in prison. It very well could have been like that."

The other major point of contention was how the movie should end. There was disagreement over whether to keep the end as scripted -- not entirely heartwarming. "Power was just up for grabs on the other side of the world, so I was like, 'Oh, all right, I'll take it,' " says Danes. "I was on the phone with the studio about script changes. I was like, 'Wow! This is not acting.' But nobody else was an eighteen-year-old girl, so that really gives you the upper hand."

In reality, the power structure on the set was dictated by Hollywood convention -- the top-billed star tends to get the juiciest role. "I was the fiery, sexy, cool character, and [Kate] was the bookworm, and that was no fun," says Danes. "She's complicated. She's prickly. She's a good writer, too, and if there was a problem with the script, I could really work with her to make it better."

Danes has a girlish admiration for the 25-year-old Beckinsale, and she went into the project hoping they would become good friends. "That was wrong," she says, still visibly wounded. "We didn't." (Beckinsale declined to be interview for this story.)

The strife during filming helped Danes get into the mind-set of a prisoner. "Claire had this good idea where she saw the movie as a challenge," says Bill Pullman, who plays the girls' scrappy lawyer. "She had a sense of being alone in tough circumstances, where betrayal is a constant, like in prison, and I think she used the circumstances to amplify [what her character was going through]."

Near the end of the shoot, Danes finally broke down, in a moment that could have been created by David Cronenberg. "I had all these defenses up throughout filming, but in the last week I just started t crumble," she says. "I was on the phone to Ben at four in the morning and I saw a cockroach on the wall. Then I saw another one crawling toward me, and I just started screaming like a maniac. I was afraid to move. And Ben was like, 'Just turn on the lights.' Finally, after half an hour of discussing the situation, I went screaming into the bedroom and turned on every light and ran back panting, 'I did it, I did it.' I was so afraid. I was going to have to hotel staff turn the lights on for me, but I braved it. I didn't sleep the entire night."

oddly enough, Danes claims she was most upset by the prospect of leaving the chaos of Manila and returning to the comforts of her so-called life. "I was in prison; I really felt like I was," she says, in a rare show of teenage hyperbole. "It's really hard to leave prison once you've been in it. You don't wanna go, 'cause you feel comfortable in this safe place.

Back in New York, she was still unable to shake the experience. "I was very aggressive, and I just felt like a cowboy or something," Danes says. "I remember we were at the Moomba [the West Village restaurant-lounge], and somebody called Ben a f*ckin' a**hole. And I turned to [the guy] and yelled at him, like, in front of my parents. I almost got into three fights that week."

Danes has a habit of playing armchair psychologist to herself. "I think [being imprisoned] is such a great metaphor," she says, with a slightly self-mocking smirk. "Like, adulthood is so frightening, it's tempting to just check yourself into a hospital. It's like, "No thanks. I'm gonna just sit here in this closed space and not leave. Retard my growth a little bit."

Her first growth-prevention measure was to take a lead role in The Mod Squad, an adaptation of the '60s TV show about a trio of hip and groovy ex-criminals who become undercover cops. The movie, which costars Omar Epps (Scream 2) and Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) as her partners in crime-stopping, is a whiffle ball of a campy action flick -- a far cry from Danes's usual tragic heroines. Writer-director Scott Silver (johns) was surprised that she was even interested. "When her agent said, 'How about Claire?' " Silver recalls, "I was like, 'Claire would never do this movie. Why would she do The Mod Squad?' But when Claire did become involved, she gave the movie a legitimacy. Now you know it's not going to be some sort of cheesy remake."

Danes admits she had to lighten up. "I needed to have a little frivolity in my life," she says. "When people found out I was doing Mod Squad, they were so appalled. So I thought, if I'm getting this reaction for even flirting with the idea of doing this movie, I absolutely should. It's like, Do you really thing I'm that earnest, that serious? I can be camp."

But learning to be frivolous took some work. "It made me feel really insecure," Danes says, twirling a stick-straight strand of blond hair around her index finger. "It was like, Who am I to be playing the ultrahip California girl? So I spent the first three weeks feeling very unworthy and nervous, but by the end I was starting to believe."

Growing up in the avant-garde art world of 1980s SoHo, Danes saw herself as something of a pariah. "In junior high I was so damaged because I couldn't relate to people," she says in what could be a voice-over for My So-Called Life. "All of a sudden I didn't get along with anybody. I didn't like anybody. And every school I went to, there was another girl who would persecute me. I assumed it would be that way forever."

She and her older brother, Asa, were raised in a nurturing bohemian household -- their mother Carla, ran a preschool (she's now an art student); their father Chris, was a photographer (he's now a computer consultant). Outside those comforting walls, New York was a constant threat to Danes's sense of security. "I was chased a couple of times," she says, opening a packet of sugar and sucking it off her finger. "The first time, it happened in the subway, which is probably why I don't ride it now. I heard footsteps behind me, and they started to go faster, and it was like, Am I really being chased? And I truly was. I started running, and then he ran after me and started, like, groping my ass and stuff. So I hopped into a subway car and the doors closed on him. I walked home with such a fury. I've been flashed so many times: some guy jerking off in front of my friend and I...it's weird. I expected things like that to happen."

which may be why her concerns about financial security kicked in at such a young age. "When I was about six or seven, I knew that acting was my calling," she told Premiere in 1996. "Then I realized actors don't make any money, and I decided to be a therapist and live in California and work in theater workshops on the side. I thought about it seriously for a good amount of time, until I decided I've gotta be true to my art, money or no money."

From that point on, Danes approached her craft with fierce determination. She enrolled at a performing-arts school and spent her weekends taking classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, where she was the one ten-year-old who always showed up to class early. "She was very analytical," says Tim Martin Crouse, her main drama teacher at the Institute. "Yet she was very free in the sense of [experimenting as an actress]. It was clear to me she was serious about having an acting career. She just ate up any information I could give her about any of the career stuff."

She couldn't have chosen a better calling card for herself than the role of Angela Chase, in My So-Called Life. In 1995 Danes scored an auspicious first-movie lead, signing on to play Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's romeo in Luhrmann's modernized version of the Shakespeare tragedy. Although the movie launched her nascent career, the four-month Mexico City shoot was marked by a kind of reckless mayhem -- a crew member was even kidnapped during the production. "It was really hard," Danes says. "I freaked out a little while ago when I thought about what I was like then and the things expected of me. I wanted to rush back to that place and hold my hand and baby-sit myself...I realized that bad things happen, that people hurt other people. I became very disillusioned." She pauses to take a sip of her coffee. "Whenever you lose your innocence, it's traumatic and painful."

Danes's painful rite of passage, however, is what made her Juliet iconic to so may young women. As a result, she has shot to the head of a class of rising actresses -- Christina Ricci, Neve Campbell, Anna Paquin, Kirsten Dunst, Natalie Portman -- who are reaping the benefits of Hollywood's current youthquake and the sudden availability of more substantial roles for young actresses than ever before. Danes seized the opportunity to work with such directors as Bille August Les Misérables, Oliver Stone (U-Turn), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Rainmaker). Sometimes the roles looked better on paper than onscreen. "I was the damsel in distress," she says of her Rainmaker turn as an abused wife who falls for Matt Damon's do-gooder attorney. "My character was limited. I didn't need to do anything but be desireable and abused."

Apparently, she had desirability to spare, which overflowed into a short-lived off-camera romance with Damon. Now their lives are intertwined again. "Well, he's going out with my best friend," Danes says of Damon's liaison with her Little Women costar Winona Ryder. "It's cool. They're both wonderful people. So yeah, I'm very, uh, happy for him right now." She does a giant roll of the eyes. "It's weird."

Such one-degree-of-separation snafus are unavoidable when you're part of Hollywood's teen elite. Danes constantly alternates between being completely blasé about her celebrity and being very aware of its potential to corrupt. "I feel it's a service I do: I supply this fantasy to the world. "Last year I was voted one of the cleanest celebrities [in a poll by Bioré, makers of the nose-pore strip]. Sometimes you are just so shocked at people's perceptions of you!"

While supplying that fantasy has brought her more wealth and success than most nineteen-year-olds would know what to do with (she made $2 million for The Mod Squad), Danes heightened awareness of the dangers of her situation is what keeps her sane. "I don't want to commit suicide," she says. "I wanna enjoy my time here and just try to avoid as much suffering as possible."

Besides, she's already made it through the hardest part of growing up famous. "I'm very hard on myself," Danes says. "I've relied heavily on that way of thinking and living, and I've struggled not to fall into that habit again. Now I have much more confidence; I'm a grownup living on my own, and I'm in love.

Lee and Danes met two years ago, when she suggested that Luhrmann consider one of Lee's songs for the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack. "I listened to his music obsessively," she says, struggling against the big, goofy grin that's begun to take hold of her face. "It didn't quite work out [for the soundtrack], but he was making a record here in L.A. and faxed me when he heard I was promoting him, and said, 'Thanks, we should hang out.' And we did."

Her eyes widen and her cheeks flush when she talks about her main man. Danes's self consciousness takes on a new dimension when it comes to love: She becomes and admiring observer of her own sentimental journey. "We are kind of disgustingly cute together," she gushes. "I'm not supposed to talk about him, but I love him so much. Once we were separated for a month, and that was not good." She attempts to stop talking about him. Then, a big eruption: "I went to two psychic, and both of them said I was going to have twins and one other child with Ben." Pause. "Lovely boy!"

It doesn't take a psychic to predict that college is not going to be easy on the relationship. Danes is nervous but optimistic. She's already put in a call to her future roommate -- Allison from Manhattan -- to feel out the situation; Allison wasn't home. "[I'm going to miss] privacy," Danes says. "My boyfriend and I have a life together that I like, and that's going to be disrupted."

Danes has managed not to obsess about whether leaving Hollywood will damage her career. Her precollege jitters are limited to the usual social and academic fears of not measuring up. "I'm petrified of writing," she confesses. "I'm not a bad writer; it's just I would have, like, fits when I would have reports to do. I express myself better drawing and communicating visually."

She did, however, write her two college entrance essays. "One was about Sophie's Choice -- you know, the baby scene, where she had to give up one of her children -- and how inspired I was by Meryl Streep," she says. "And the other one was about me. It's a story about how I used to ride the subway when I was in junior high, and it was really uncomfortable carrying around my 40-pound backpack, and it was smelly and there were lots of stairs to climb, and it was gross and crowded. And I remember looking at this Parliament ad on the side of the car and imagining myself on the Greek island [that was featured in the ad] and wanting to be there so badly. But I wrote about the fact that I kind of got myself there, and I feel like I'm living that ad now, and that's great. I don't want to go back to that train car."

Both essays are tinged with a sense of world-weariness that one doesn't expect from a sought-after young actress. Hopefully, Yale will take care of Dane's premature maturity. "It'll be nice not to be the youngest person around," she says. "I've crammed a lot of growing up in there." Then she pauses to reconsider. "But there was a lot of play during that time," she asserts, wistfully. "Being youthful..."

After Danes wins the third and final bowling match, 72 to 24, she plops down on the bench and scoops the rest of her candy into her mouth. Sugar is totally taboo on this protein diet everyone's doing, but I can't ever give up sugar," she says, grinning at the though of her win. How much do you think the top bowler in the world makes? Maybe I should give it a try." This is the most relaxed she's been all day. Then her eyes fix on her sockless feet. It finally hits her. 'Oh, no," she exclaims, laughing. "Is this just totally disgusting?"

Even though that last round of bowling is long over, she's not quite ready to leave this cool, dark place. "I am so glad that I don't have to make another movie for a year," she says, propping her feet up on the scorer's table. "Next summer I think I'm doing this movie that Jodie's directing. It's about a trapeze artist in the '30s who working in this carnival. She gathers up her torn jean jacket and furry leopard-skin purse and heads for the door. "It'll be nice to fall into the arms of someone who can relate and kinda of hold my hand."

Outside in the glaring July sun, Danes's assistant is waiting to drive her back to Beverly Hills. As she climbs into the black four-wheel-drive, I wish her luck. "It's my big adventure," she mumbled nervously, like a girl going off to the first day of school.

© Premiere 1998