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Her Own Person
by Jacqueline Austin (react magazine)

It's way before school on a gold-green, Los Angeles day. At the Danes family's condo, early morning sun spills across white walls, a gray rug, and a litter of scripts and magazines. It's a typical day.

In the dining room, Claire Danes' dad, Chris pores over Web stuff on the computer, while mom Carla slaps paint on canvas. (Claire also has a brother, Asa, 22 who still lives in the family's former home base, New York City.)

Claire, 16, comes bouncing downstairs, ready for school in navy sweats and a white t-shirt -- her uniform on gym days. Her angular, red, Angela-on-My-So-Called-Life bob has been exchanged for a soft, sun-bleached 'do.

Claire has the flu. But she looks great -- no flu-ish at all. She's been sick all of one day, and Claire has no time for it. Tommorow, she and her mom are off to Mexico City for two months to shoot a new movie, Romeo and Juliet. It's a modern day retelling of Shkespeare's tragedy, scheduled for release this fall. Claire is Juliet. Leonardo DiCaprio, the teen-idol-turned-film-critics'-darling, is Romeo.

The week has been a whirl of classes (Claire is in the 11th grade at a Los Angeles private school_, driving tests, meetings and parties. One of her last duties before she leaves for the trip is to do this interview, answering questions all celebrities have to answer -- like "Do you think you're beautiful?"

Claire rolls her eyes at the idea. "No. Well, maybe once a week, I'll look in the mirror and be pleased."

She believes an actor's image is a group project. "It's created by hair people, lighting people and photographers; it's not fake, exactly, but it's nothing personal," she says.

When the real Claire looks in the mirror, here's what she often sees: "eyebrows the need to be plucked, a nose that's bigger sometimes than others." But scrutinizing herself doesn't seem to be a negative experience. "I goof around in the mirror," Claire says. "I play parts."

When she talks, Claire's eyes change from hazel to gray. In fact, everything about Claire changes when she talks -- her hands, her body. She curls up, and then expands. she throws herself into what she is saying. she thinks it's because she's a teenager.

"I'm changing so quickly. My friends too," she says.

Asked if she has a group of friends, Claire bristles a bit. "I always had a hard time with groups. I'm not a joiner," she explains. "I won't follow people who I don't think are doing admirable things, and when you're part of a group, you sign yourself off to it. You sacrifice part of yourself."

Claire has followed a group at least once. In fifth grade, "I tested out the popular crowd," she says.

But she didn't like it. "It's all about power," Claire says. "They would isolate somebody and make them feel bad about themselves. I didn't do actual picking on people, but I didn't stand up for them -- the fat kid, the girl who smelled, whatever. I hated myself."

If picking on people is the wrong kind of power, Claire finds the right kind at work. Claire loves being in front of the camer, but, she says, "[that] is a very small percentage of the time and energy I put into it."

"It" -- acting -- is a 25-hour-a-day job. Even on this early morning, the family's phone is ringing off the hook. A famous director calls to offer a starring role in a big movie. Claire says maybe. There's a calendar on the fridge scribbled with phone numbers and question marks, with extra pieces of paper tapes on and sticky notes over it all. It's a far cry from Claire's first taste of acting at 9 years old, when she was just another kid going to auditions.

These days, Claire is in demand. She travels so much for her career that she finds being home exotic. Once home from a shoot, "I collapse," she says. "No -- I take off my makeup. Maybe turn on the TV and flip through channels." and then call [a] friend. And do homework. and do more homework. And call another friend."

These are long distance calls. Claire still has friends in Los Angeles from My So-Called Life. But the ones who are from so long ago that they're family are still in New York.

"I carry their pictures with me when I travel," she says, explaining what seems to be the downside of being a popular, respected actress. "I miss my friends deeply. Immensely."

© 1996, react Photo of Claire Danes by Albert Sanchez/Outline