Fresh out of high school and already hailed as the Juliet of her generation, Claire Danes is shaking off her dutiful daughter image for the roles of battered wife and trailer-trash tease.
In the space of just three years, 18-year-old Claire Danes has gone from being a cult pin-up on the walls of American teenagers to a fully fledged movie star for the MTV generation. "Sometimes I resent the fact that I've been thrust into an adult world and forced to assimilate, " says Danes in her slow and deliberate way. "But at the same time I've had such a tremendous amount of opportunity. This is what I want to do, you know."
Not many people need to be convinced of that any more. It was the unexpected success of 1996's feverish update of Romeo and Juliet that really confirmed Danes as an actress to reckon with. A gun-toting Juliet for the Nineties, her impassioned work had the Hollywood establishment raving over her performance as much as audiences around the world did. Steven Spielberg described Danes as "one of the most exciting actresses to debut in ten years ", while Jodie Foster and Winona Ryder offered some sisterly career advice as well as solace from the pressures of newfound fame.
All of which Danes was happy to accept, because what's happened to her over the past 18 months would be enough to disorientate anyone. She's completed four more films, including The Rainmaker for Francis Ford Coppola, U-Turn and Les Miserables, graduated from high school and has had to get used to seeing her face on newsstands everywhere. "It's a bit of a blur, " she says. "I just sort of became numb to a lot of it. I mean, I went from Detroit to Memphis and then Prague. I was all over the place. It was very exciting but also quite draining, so I just took six months off and I'm like, gaining some perspective. You kind of drown in the work when you're working that rigorously, so it's critical that you take some time for yourself, time to run around and be free."
Danes needed the break. As a result of her hectic schedule, she recently fainted from exhaustion in LA. She seems tired now as we speak at the Niebaum-Coppola Vineyard in the Napa Valley, 50-odd miles north of San Francisco. It's where she came to rehearse the part of the battered wife she plays in The Rainmaker. Coppola has used the vineyard as a base since buying it in the mid-Seventies but it's also a working winery, and as tourists wander past the display cases containing his Oscars for The Godfather, Danes sits at one end of a long room that's lined with huge vats of his latest vintage. Very pale, with striking blue-grey eyes, she's smaller and more fragile than she appears on screen, but despite the fatigue, she's engaging, articulate and just a little precious.
She didn't find it easy to switch off and start behaving like any normal 18-year-old. "When you stop working, you go through maybe three months where you enter into panic mode and it feels like your world is unravelling. You don't really know where you stand because there's no schedule or routine to confine your life and you think, 'Oh, wow, well I guess I'm in control of my life now'. I suppose I am responsible for making my own decisions and it's important to do that, to start thinking for yourself, to not be so automatic in the way you run your life."
If that sounds like Danes is trying to convince herself to be assertive, it's because she is. She has been at the beck and call of directors ever since she took the lead role in the TV series My So-Called Life when she was 14. Even before that she was dipping her toes in acting - she made her debut opposite Dudley Moore in the pilot for his abortive sitcom, Dudley, when she was 11 - so while her contemporaries messed around at school and irritated their parents, Danes was getting up at six in the morning to go to work. When she did attend school, she found it difficult to fit in. "By the time I stopped going regularly, I was in junior high and I was miserable. I was totally alienated from everybody, it seemed. I found it very hard to cope with the social scene because kids can be very mean. " Danes is just getting started here. "Like I was really hot until I hit fifth grade and then there seemed like there was one girl in every school - I went to four different schools - who picked me out of a crowd and decided it was going to be their job to ruin my life. You know how catty girls can be. They'd spread rumours that would rally up pretty much the whole school and find some way to accost and attack you."
This all sounds a little extreme and, when pressed, Danes is honest enough not to try and deny that she's embellishing the story a little. "OK, I am being dramatic, " she admits. "I should have stuck it out in school, I think, but it's a rough time. Everybody feels incredibly insecure about themselves and everybody is petrified that their bodies are changing and their minds are expanding and their initial reaction is to lash out at other people. I thought I'd be able to escape all that by losing myself in the business and I did to a certain extent, but those issues still pop up every once in a while."
The blend of dispassionate analysis and bruised emotions is essential Danes, and she can go from sounding like someone far older to using the latest slang in the space of a long sentence. It's also the reason she's such a convincing actress. There's an almost disarming truthfulness to Danes's acting and, like Jodie Foster before her, she seems to have been born with an instinctive ability to reveal what's going on beneath the surface of the characters she plays.
Foster directed her in Home for the Holidays and she has been a mentor and role model ever since. Danes followed her to school at the Lycee de Francais in LA for a brief period and also plans to attend Foster's old college, Yale. "It's going to happen, " insists Danes, who's already delayed going for a year so she can make Brokedown Palace, the story of two young women who are arrested for drug smuggling in Thailand. She's not certain what she'll study yet, but is confident that the four years she'll spend there won't affect her career. "There'll always be films to do. I want to do a movie a summer - that's the plan - and if it works out, I'll be stoked."
College life will be very different from the temporary camaraderie that's peculiar to movie sets. "I love the process of making films. I love how you become attached to this group of people and they become your family for a couple of months, " says Danes. "It's great to feel like I'm part of a community. The same faces pop up and the world becomes smaller and smaller. It's wonderful to feel included. " It also means that she grew up a little bit quicker than her future classmates at Yale. "It's always easier for me to get along with people who are a little bit older, " she says, before adding, "I am excited to be with a group of people my own age in college next year."
Danes wasn't pushed into acting by stage-struck parents. As a young girl growing up in fashionable SoHo in downtown Manhattan, she made the decision herself. "I knew I wanted to act since I was five. I did a whole bunch of things as a kid. I drew, I played piano, I danced, I did gymnastics, but I was most excited by acting and seemed to excel at that the most. " By the time she was ten, Danes had cajoled her artist mother, who's now also her co-manager, and her father, a computer consultant, into letting her take classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. She also put in time at the Professional Performing Arts School. "What made me jump the gun and decide I wanted to do it? I don't know, but I did and I had no clue how far it would take me."
It was 1994's My So-Called Life that brought Danes to LA. An antidote to the fantasy world of Beverly Hills 90210, it was a high-school drama set in an ordinary town that won a small but dedicated following among teenagers. Ultimately cancelled due to poor ratings, it still made Danes the hottest 15-year-old actress around, and the day after she completed the last episode she was on the set of Little Women playing opposite Winona Ryder. From then on there was no going back to SoHo. "I had no idea that my whole family would be shipped to LA and I would have this completely different lifestyle. It was fairly traumatic, " she says.
The three years she's spent living in Santa Monica with her parents has left its mark. Danes now punctuates her conversation, like any self-respecting Californian, with the inevitable "like ". But she's just bought an apartment in New York and plans to move back there in the spring. "That's difficult, I mean I've just begun to sever the ties that I have with my family, as you do with your family when you become more grown-up, and it's painful all round. You can't help but hurt some people's feelings, but at the same time it's healthy, it's natural. It's what I need to do in order to become a strong, independent person."
She's been making moves in that direction for a while. Danes is no longer the young girl who would turn up to interviews dressed in her school uniform, babbling about anything that came to mind. Today she's in a smart black trouser suit and keen to talk about the love of her life, boyfriend Ben Lee. Although there were reports that Danes had a brief fling with Rainmaker co-star Matt Damon, and previously went out with Andrew Dorff, the musician brother of Stephen, she couldn't be more enthusiastic about Lee, an Australian singer-songwriter who's signed to Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys label. "I want to be in love always, " says Danes with a big smile. "It makes life more colourful and you have a partner in crime, who you know is going to give you a cuddle when you need one. That's great."
It was Lee's music that made an impression on her first. "I asked Baz Luhrmann, the director of Romeo and Juliet, to put one of his songs on the soundtrack but it didn't quite work out. But Ben was in LA making an album and he faxed me and said, 'Thanks so much for spreading the word. If you want to get a coffee, we should.' So... " Danes isn't concerned that he lives in Sydney or that she earns considerably more than he does? "That causes a little tension, sort of, but things might change, you never know, " she laughs. "We just make it work. Whenever we get the chance, we fly across the world. It's terribly romantic."
Danes hadn't had too many opportunities to show off her lighter side on film until Oliver Stone cast her as trailer trash tease Jenny in U-Turn, an idiosyncratic thriller that's part film noir and part western. "I'd never played a character part or a comedic role and it's so much more exaggerated and less subtle than some of the other performances I've done. You know, Oliver kept saying, 'More, more, more, we want flailing limbs', so I gave it to him. It was actually much tamer on screen than I thought it would be."
As she gets older, Danes is also getting the chance to break away from the dutiful daughter parts that have been her lot in films such as To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday and How to Make an American Quilt. Brokedown Palace will give her the chance to play her first genuine lead role since Romeo and Juliet, but she also faces far more competition as she goes after adult parts. LA can be an unforgiving place and there are a lot of young actresses who are jealous of her headstart.
"The people who are going to be malicious and catty and calculating and who are going to try and tear me down, I'm going to avoid. The ones who are going to help me out and be supportive, I'm going to embrace. That's been pretty much my tactic so far and those caring, secure people do exist. There have been plenty of female actresses who've been very encouraging and good to me, " says Danes.
One of those has been Ryder, another precocious talent who faced envious colleagues who had to slog their way up the Hollywood food chain via sitcoms and soaps. The two share a fondness for cheesy Eighties movies such as Footloose, and Ryder seems to have appointed herself as Danes's guardian angel. "I feel very protected by Winona, " she says. "I feel like she's been through the rounds that I'm about to embark on and survived them. " Of course, Danes has already been around long enough to be able to look back on her past films with a degree of objectivity. "Rarely do I think that I do a terrific job, but I do a decent job. I've become more forgiving of myself. I think the only way to go about judging your work is not to obsess too much over it. Look at it and appreciate it for what it was, know in your heart that you tried your best and move on to the next thing."
As far as the immediate future goes, she wants to squeeze in at least one more film after Brokedown Palace before heading to Yale. She's hoping that being away at college will act as a brake and slow her life down a little, so that she's no longer running between film sets and airports. She isn't certain she'd let any child of hers begin acting as early as she did. "No, I wouldn't. Well, it would depend how excited they were about it and how passionate they were. I'm not sure. I'd have to cross that bridge when I came to it. " So does that mean she regrets what's happened to her over the past couple of years? "Every new step involves different challenges and everybody you meet and work with has something new to offer. It's just a treat to be able to act, I can't wait to do it again, " says Danes. "I'm pretty happy with where I am in my life right now."
© The Times 1998