Claire Danes walks into her Manhattan hotel suite, ready to talk about her latest film, Les Miserables.
She kicks off her shoes and gets comfortable on the couch. Her powder-blue sweater set and the short, stylish way she wears her hair say she's a serious young actress.
But the red toenail polish and a fake tattoo on her forearm scream teen.
"I try not to take myself too seriously," Danes says.
With a resume like hers, it's hard to imagine the 19-year-old actress being anything but serious.
She endured high school as Angela Chase in My So-Called Life. Her tragic characters in Little Women and Romeo and Juliet did not live long and happy lives. And in the The Rainmaker, she played an abused wife. Her role in Les Miserables, the latest film adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic novel, is equally dramatic. Danes plays Cosette, the illegitimate daughter of Fantine (Uma Thurman), a factory worker in the small town of Vigau.
Cosette lives with a family in another town, but when Fantine's boss hears of the girl's existence, Fantine is fired for being a bad influence on the other female workers. She becomes a prostitute to support her daughter and is arrested. The mayor of Vigau, Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson), steps in to save Fantine, who now is deathly ill. The two fall in love and Valjean vows to take care of Cosette after her mother is gone.
Cosette is raised by Valjean in Paris before the July Revolution of 1830.
"The novel was very political," Danes says. "It was about socialism, about the revolution. Hugo stapled on to that story a really juicy, romantic, engaging story with heroic characters and multiple romances. It tackles really huge, exciting feelings and ideas. Issues of love and death and redemption and justice."
Danes was a senior in high school when director Bille August offered her the role of Cosette. Danes made her preparation for the film part of her schoolwork. "I was working with a tutor at the time and I asked the school if I could incorporate the novel into the curriculum," she says. "I killed two birds with one stone. I did my homework for school and research for the film at the same time."
Danes has two other dramas, The Polish Wedding and Brokedown Palace, set for release this year. In May, she starts work on a project that certainly will show fans her less serious side -- the film version of Aaron Spelling's late '60s-early '70s hit TV show Mod Squad. She plays Julie Barnes (Peggy Lipton's role in the TV series), one of three young detectives who make up the Mod Squad, an undercover unit of the Los Angeles Police Department.
"Everybody involved with the movie is really cool and really young and smart and talented," she says. "You know, it's going to be really entertaining. That'll be a contrast to the other things I've done. It's just going to be really fun."
After that, it's off to start her freshman year at Yale University.
"I'm really nervous about it," Danes says, picking at her fake tattoo (the Celtic design had to come off before that night's Les Miserables premiere anyway). "Not because I'm afraid my career will suffer or anything, it's just that I'll be entering a new world, a new institution. I've just begun to feel comfortable in the business. I know how it works and I know what my place is in it. To learn the rules of another environment is going to be tricky."
The soon-to-be psychology major adds with a laugh, "I'm a mess but I can't wait to be with kids my own age and, like, read books and talk about them. It's important to do that."
© Hartford Courant 1998