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At 18, Claire Danes has stardom's number
by Cindy Pearlman (The Chicago Sun Times - November 18, 1997)

Sonoma, calif -- Some kids her age would ask a guidance counselor. Others would spend hours on the phone discussing it with their friends. When Claire Danes, 18 and arguably the best actress of her generation, has a major life question, she doesn't fool around.

She gets out her credit card and calls a psychic.

We're not talking about Dionne Warwick's bevy of psychic pals--please. "Get a clue!" wails Danes, who still sounds like the girl who sat next to you in high school algebra. Danes consulted with George, a soothsayer of sorts who has "offices" in Sydney, Australia.

George had good news for Claire. Bad news for Hollywood.

"George said that I might retire from acting because I'm going to marry my boyfriend, Ben, and have twins," says Danes, curled up in her Napa Valley hotel suite.

Dressed in white jeans and a T-shirt, one of the stars of the film "The Rainmaker" (opening Friday in Chicago) could be any girl her age who drapes her legs over a chair. And like her peers, the future is very much on her mind.

"So I said to the psychic, 'George, is it going to work out?' He said, 'Yes, Claire, it's all very boring, but there is only one marriage for you and a great career, and everyone will hate you for having everything.' "

Actually, she seems to have it all already. Danes is at the top of the A-list for young actresses. She has a musician boyfriend (Ben Lee). And she hangs at the mall, where her Limited Express credit card has no limit.

"Am I lucky or what?" she sighs.

In Hollywood, she is dubbed Great Danes. She broke your heart as doomed girls in "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" and "Little Women," causing one critic to write that "there's something in her eyes that pierces through you and arrests you." She also transported you back to all that high school angst in her short-lived, cult favorite TV series "My So-Called Life."

Now, she appears busier than Al Pacino with a slate of projects on their way to theaters. Suddenly, she bolts upright to announce, "Ba da bing, ba da boom. It's the Claire Danes Year, which is cool, cool, cool."

Then a look of torture. "I've got to stop using that word. I sound like a moron."

At least she doesn't sound like 18 going on 40. Danes plays her age on screen in the winter drama "Polish Wedding," where "I'm a blond, long-haired vixen." And in Bille August's "Les Miserables," due out in February (co-starring Uma Thurman and Liam Neeson), she is a character only Danes can describe.

"OK, I'm the virginal heroine who is all good, but she does run off with a revolutionary, so she can't be that good, right?"

In "The Rainmaker," based on John Grisham's best seller and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Danes plays an abused wife.

"The girl has had the life beaten out of her when the audience meets her. She is so cut off from love. She's waiting to die," says Danes, who sounds like Meryl Streep Jr. But the kid inside lurks. Ask her what it was like to work with Coppola, and she gushes: "Totally awesome. He cooked totally cool dinners for the entire cast."

It might be the last decent meal she gets for some time. Danes is enrolled this winter as a freshman at Yale. She is pulling a Jodie Foster and will happily ditch Hollywood for higher education. "I'm going to study philosophy, art history, psychology or whatever," says Danes, who is already juggling movie moguldom with homework.

"Honestly, I am really looking forward to being with kids my own age and talking about ideas and reading books."

What about missing the movie business? In Danes' own words, "Yeah, right.

"I think it's important to empower yourself by cutting yourself off from this business every once in a while," says the Manhattan native, who decided to act at age 3. Her parents, a computer consultant and a painter, approved. Danes was enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute at age 10. She juggled classes there with a year at the Dalton School, where "I felt like a total shrub among all those preppy prisses."

At age 13, she auditioned for the role of somewhat depressed, reflective Angela on "My So-Called Life." At 14, she got her first kiss during a scene with Jared Leto, who played her boyfriend, Jordan. "Oh, I was such an idiot," Danes recalls. "Jared is gorgeous and 22. The director told me to kiss his face. I didn't even know where to start or what to do. I actually said, 'Do people really kiss each other's faces?' Jared had to teach me."

When it came to acting, she could have taught him. "All this 'best actress of your generation' stuff is flattering, but it's also a pressure," she says. Danes admits that she grew up too fast.

"The problem is that I always took myself way too seriously," she says. "Now I realize I should have lightened up. I should have taken it slower." She pauses and shakes her head. "Can you believe it? I'm 18, and already I'm thinking, 'You should have taken it slower.' I'm reminiscing already. What am I going to be like when I really get older. Like when I'm 30?"

The business side to being Danes has gone through some growing pains of its own. She recently broke with her mother, who used to run the show.

"I wanted to draw the line between family and business," she says. "I mean, it was amicable. Everybody knew the day was coming. It wasn't a shock. But I can't help but feel a little guilty because I've affected the dynamics of our family so dramatically."

Danes admits that now she's a little nervous. "Nobody is holding my hand anymore. Now it's just little old me."

The new Claire has kicked off the new era with a well-deserved vacation. She hasn't worked since wrapping "Rainmaker," opting to go on tour with her musician boyfriend, Lee, 19, who has his own band. The two met in a strange way. "My friend gave me his album. I called him, and we talked on the phone," she says. "Then for my 18th birthday, my friend Winona flew him out to surprise me." Yes, that would be movie star Winona Ryder.

On tour with Lee's band, Danes started to realize just how popular she was on a global basis.

"Like we go to the Louvre museum in Paris, and I'm accosted. I'm standing in front of a Van Gogh painting, and people are blinding me with flashbulbs. Me! I'm like, 'No, no, take a picture of that work of art.' "

With that kind of fame, she knows Hollywood is going to keep calling.

"Maybe I'll do a movie during the summer. Maybe not," she says with a shrug. Like that's the last thing on her mind.

"Maybe I should ask my psychic what I should do," says Danes. She pretends to dial the phone. "Hello, George, they want me to star opposite Leonardo again? Can I fit it in before the twins are born and after the classic lit mid-term?"

© The Chicago Sun Times 1997