In 1999, Claire Danes more or less quit Hollywood for the rarefied realm of YaleUniversity.But now, it's her studies she's put on hold to accept parts in the black comedy Igby Goes Down and a surprising one, this Terminator 3.
It's a rainy New York day, but luckily Claire Danes is dressed for it. Gamine in a belted mac, she strides to the back of Soho's Lucky Strike restaurant, pausing only to tut at her product-slick hair and made-up face in the mirror. 'I look ridiculous,' she says, grinning. The slap is courtesy of Time Out's photoshoot, for which she's been representing the Deadly Sin of Lust an idea the modest actress finds hysterical. 'I should have been Sloth, lying in bed, surrounded by magazines and trays of food.' She's only been back from Cannes a day (she was promoting Terminator 3, of which more later), but if she's tired she doesn't show it. On the contrary, she's sparky, funny company, unafraid to display the cleverness that took her, in 1999, out of the Hollywood spotlight and into Yale University. Danes had a good Cannes, though she was too busy pressing flesh to see as many films as she wanted. 'I saw that Britpop documentary, "Live Forever", which was really interesting. I was going to see some French movie but was too exhausted in the end and couldn't bear to subject myself to another flash. So we Danes and her long-term boyfriend, Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee hired a car and took a road trip around Provence for a couple of days and ate obscene amounts of food. I'd never been outside Paris, so it was nice to see the countryside. We kept inadvertently ordering foie gras. Ben's not a vegetarian, but you know He ordered this steak and it came dripping with foie gras.' She wrinkles her nose.
Some scary facts (for older readers): Claire Danes is 24.
That means it's nine years since My So Called Life, the masterly high-school TV drama in which she played neurotic girl outsider Angela, and seven since she reduced entire cinemas to a bawling mush in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet. Since then there's been The Rainmaker, Les Misirables and Brokedown Palace, among others. Her last film before Yale, 1999's The Mod Squad, missed out on a theatrical release here, which explains why her cameo in The Hours as Meryl Streep's daughter felt like a comeback to UK audiences.
Indeed, so exclusively did press for that film focus on the three leads that, when I saw it at Brixton's Ritzy, a murmur of approving surprise greeted Danes's appearance, as if people hadn't quite realised they were getting her into the bargain.
'That's so nice!' she laughs. 'But you know, I essentially played the one character who wasn't overwhelmed by depression or trauma, so people were relieved to have me there.' She has fond memories of working with Streep. 'She was very focused. With most great actors, they have a staggering ability to concentrate, but she's playful and experimental too.
Because she's confident and relaxed, she's willing to make mistakes and take risks. I mean, she's incapable of really making a mistake, but if she faltered at any moment she didn't question herself or interrupt the take, she just saw it through and teacherly voice. That was a valuable lesson. For me. To learn. Ironic dreamy swoon She's the ideal, really!' Fast-forward to the present and Danes has two movies out imminently over here, at least. The first, Igby GoesDown, was released last year in the US. The deeply personal dibut of writer-director Burr Steers, it's Wes Anderson lite; a smart, coal-black comedy about a teenage boy (Igby a charmingly charmless Kieran Culkin) who rebels against his privileged East Coast background by running away from the military school to which his pill-popping mother (Susan Sarandon) has sent him. He ends up in Manhattan's arty loftland, where he develops a planet-sized crush on Rilke-obsessed wannabe bohemian Sookie Sapperstein. Guess who?
'I really enjoyed that part, ' says Danes. 'Sookie Sapperstein! I mean, her nameis bloody Sookie Sapperstein!
What a great place to start! She's wildly pretentious and delusional about who she is. It was ripe for parody and tempting to turn her into a cartoon character, but I wanted to avoid that and try to support her with complexity of some kind. It was nice. We shot it in my neighbourhood, which rarely happens.
It was great to roll out of bed and find myself on the set.' It's the kind of movie you admire simply because its tone is so wilfully inconsistent.
'Yeah, it's not easily definable. It read funnier on the page than it turned outto be. It was much sparser and more sinister than I anticipated, but it worked in that form also. The tagline they came up with, which I'm not sure if they'll use in the UK, is "insanity is relative". I remember thinking that was surprisingly clever.' Some of your more hardcore fans may be surprised to see you in a Terminator film.
She cackles. 'I'm surprised to see me in a Terminator film! I just thought: Why not? Why not make a big shoot'em-up picture and be superhuman? Which I'm not. If I were ever to do a big blockbuster, "T3" was not a bad one. It's man versus machines so the violence isn't exploitative we're only targeting inanimate objects. My character isn't objectified or sexualised in any way. I wasn't running around in a little tank-top. Nothing was bouncing that shouldn't have been.' Danes hasn't yet graduated from Yale, and isn't sure now if she'll even go back.
'I'm kind of a flunky. Didn't mean to be. I had a wonderful time, all my expectations were fulfilled. But it had been three years since I acted and I wasterribly homesick for it. When I started school I blithely assumed I could sneakin a movie a summer. That was an unrealistic expectation. The industry doesn't function like that.' She says Yale was as important to her socially as it was academically; that years of one-to-one, on-set tuition (she's been acting professionally since she was 12) had left her 'inept at socialising'. Seriously?
'I really was!' It's hard to believe.
'Well, this I was okay at giving interviews and stuff. The more absurd forms of socialising I was old-hat at. I could walk on to a film set with grown-ups and feel very at ease. But if I found myself in a room full of teenagers just hanging out I was inexperienced at that. So I concentrated on it for a while and I have great friends now, friends who are ironic singsong not affiliated with the entertainment industry ! So! I created a reality for myself outside of film-making. I learned stuff, too. I can write more confidently now, and read more discriminatingly ' Her sortedness is compelling. ('We're a block away from my house. That helps.') How many other Hollywood stars would rationalise their fanatical internet followings as detachedly as this: 'You can't get involved with other people's perceptions of you. It has nothing to do with me. It's their projection and fantasy, though I'm happy to supply the material for that.' Did you ever need professional help maintaining a private/public distinction?
'I was in therapy when I was six. Off and on. But that was because I used to see ghosts and things. One in particular was a gargoyle I saw in the pipes on the ceiling in the loft. It used to follow me around, make me do things like remain in a contorted position for half an hour. Classic OCD stuff. Then there were demons coming out of the shower; you know, straightfaced it was really interfering with my life. So I went to therapy for that, and in the end I was far more scared of my therapist than I was of the ghosts. Then I just realised that I was creating the madness, and once I did that I knew it was in my power to stop it.' She pauses, frowning. 'People say I'm grounded and I don't know howto respond. Who's not grounded?' She answers her own question almost immediately. 'Okay, so I'm not dating a new person every two weeks.
I'm not shaky from some sort of drug ' The painkiller addiction's under control then?
'Yeah, yeah, ' she deadpans. 'That's under wraps. I'm careful to keep all that madness at the door. It's no fun. No fun at all. I'm at that comfortable level of celebrity where I don't have to audition for roles in the same way I used to, but I'm not bombarded by rabid fans. I've known people at the peak of their fame and it's torturous. It's fine when people say, "Hi, I really like your work"; less fine when they go, "You know, you're a lot uglier than I thought you were."' People actually say that?
'Yeah! Really vile things. People want to test you. And to an extent I get it, because I recognise that images of celebrities invade the everyday person's space all the time, and it's strange when it's not meant to work in reverse. That's a really abstract reason, but you know, you can't help but form personal relationships with actors and musicians. I do. I share a sense of intimacy with them, and it's confusing when that doesn't translate into real life. But my instinct when I see someone well known is just to look at them covertly and squeal to myself. I can never imagine actually going up to them.' While a project she's long been linked with, Jodie Foster's Flora Plum, loiters in limbo (shooting was cancelled when Russell Crowe injured his arm, though Ewan McGregor is now attached), Danes is coming to London to make Compleat Female Stage Beauty with Richard Eyre; then she's off to LA for Shopgirl, based on Steve Martin's novel. ('I'm doing the films back to back deep, actorly voice as they saaaay .') London, I muse aloud. That'll be nice. You can join our burgeoning US celeb expat community.
'Is it burgeoning?' Well, there's Madonna. And Gwyneth Paltrow.
'Oh, ' she says. 'Well. I don't know if I'm going to move permanently, but we'll see. Dreamy, swoopy voice Maybe it'll work its magic on me too! Time will tell!' Igby Goes Down is out on Friday.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is out on August 1.
© Time Out London 2003