Watch This Girl!
by Maureen (Sassy - August 1994)
This is a story about a chick you've never heard of, a show you have yet to see and why I am imploring you to pay attention.
First meet Angela Chase, the 15-year-old protagonist of My So-Called Life, a new show which chronicles her arduous coming of age in suburban Pennsylvania. By far she is the coolest, most realistic teenager ever to flicker through the scary glass box. In the first episode, she dyes her hair a punk red, dumps her best friend, runs around with the school hipsters, develops a crush on a luscious dumb boy, quits yearbook because she can't take the hypocrisy ("If you made a book of what really happened," she says, "it would be a really upsetting book"), gets hauled home by the cops after trying to sneak into a club, and discovers her dad is cheating on her mom. Angela's also going through existential confusion, trying to figure out who she is and who the people around her are. As she puts it, "It seems like you agree to have a certain personality to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, how do you know it's even you?"
My So-Called Life, with the intelligent, soulful Angela as its core, fills a gaping black hole in the otherwise mindless TV universe. If 90210 is all bright lights and primary colors, My So-Called Life is dark and somewhat somber, shot in tones of brown and gray. The high school halls have an ethereal quality; you feel uneasy looking at this shadowy picture. And unlike other moralistic shows aimed at teaching you a life lesson, this one doesn't confront a huge trendy social issue -- STDs, date rape, universal health care -- in the space of 53 minutes. Instead, it deals with smaller, much more honest moments -- like Angela's dad's flustered reaction when she talks to him wrapped only in a towel. Her home life is free of grating Walshesque blitheness and pass-me-the-insulin cheer. There's none of that over-the-top ersatz angst ("I just don't know what to do, Brandon!") or high melodrama ("Brenda, come quick! I think Laura's gonna hang herself in the theater because she didn't get the part in the school play!"). Actually, My So-Called Life goes out of it's way to avoid preachiness -- as when Angela gets away with lying to her parents to hang out on school nights at clubs and parties. No punishment, directly or indirectly, comes down. Angela's just a girl who's trying to figure out why she hates her mother, why she sometimes feels inexplicably sad, and, on the whole, what her deal is.
Now meet Claire Danes, who plays Angela. The day I see her on the set, she's preparing for a few tough scenes. "In one, I'm in a social worker's office," she explains, "and I'm very upset because a gun went off in school. And there's a note being passed around that Angela and Jordan [the boy she likes] had sex." Of course, Angela's more worked up over the note than the gun -- see why this show is so damn brilliant?
Claire herself has just turned 15, and in almost every way seems to be Angela's polar opposite. She was raised in New York with her older brother and bohemian parents (Mom's a painter and Dad was a photographer). She was dancing, she claims, at age 2, and grew up in the dingy Lower East Side theaters, doing "these small artsy-fartsy things." At 10, Claire decided she wanted to try acting, so she enrolled in the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. "they had us do these weird exercises," she says, "like 'Pretend and egg was cracked on your head and feel all the places on your body the yolk touches.' I loved it." She landed a part in a student film, playing a molested kid. "My parents decided it would be OK because I had a really firm handle on it." She was all of 11.
She did a few made-for-TV movies, and enrolled at Dalton, a cushy private school in NYC. But then she spent a week in LA going on auditions -- one of which was for My So-Called Life. All of the sudden she felt caught between this new job waiting for her in LA and the life she would leave behind in New York. "When I found out the show was getting picked up," she says softly, "I was like, forget this. So I put up this wall. I don't let people get too close, because I know I'm just gonna have to settle and leave and settle and leave."
Angela declares high school "a battlefield for your heart." I ask Claire how true she thinks this is. "Adolescence is such a torrid time," she says. "Every emotion is heightened, and a pimple is the end of the world, and if a guy dumps you, it's the worst. And you're having these sexual feelings for the first time. That's hard."
Not a bad description of what it's like to be a teenager -- yet it really doesn't sound like it came out of the mouth of one. Claire talks in this real adult way that doesn't quite fit her: she tells me she's gonna have to make a real effort to meet people "outside the business" (that phrase makes me cringe) and how important it is for her to have a "peer group." She adds, unashamedly, that she used to love Sassy, back when she read (she confesses to not reading anything now, which I feel I must subtract points for). And she admits that a few months ago, if she had been asked to be in Sassy, "I would have been screaming. Now I'm sort of jaded." But I really feel for her when she talks about how lonely she gets. She misses her friends, walking through the park gawking at cute boys, riding the subway. An hour later, though, she's being wrapped in bear hugs by other cast members as she finishes one of her scenes.
When I speak to Claire a few weeks later, she sounds kind of down. She tells me she probably won't be going back to Dalton and her parents are looking for a house in LA. But she's psyched about all these other incredibly cool opportunities: She's spending her break up in Vancouver, shooting Little Women with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (she plays the ailing, selfless Beth). Claire surprises me a bit with her Zen-like attitude; she says that she's not necessarily losing anything. "I'm just exchanging one reality for another. This," she says, "is my normality now. Besides, the kids at school are all on the teams and they go to the homecomings and that's their whole lives. That's not my reality. You know what I mean?" Yeah. Angela would too.
© Sassy 1994