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Pretty Baby
(Total Film - April, 1997)

TV star at 13. Much touted "actress of the future" at 17. Success is getting on top of the latest big-screen Juliet.

Delicious Claire Danes, just 17 and current role model for Miss Teen America, is in a very frank mood. "A few weeks before we started shooting Romeo and Juliet, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown. I woke up at three in the morning, my heart racing, the walls closing in... I thought I was having a heart attack. I went down to see my mum but that didn't work, so I went into the living room and watched Grease 2 instead. That pacified me completely."

But the prancing of a young Michelle Pfeiffer wasn't so restful that Claire didn't invest in a therapist soon after. The pressures of becoming a film star at such a tender age are obviously weighing heavy on Miss Danes. Still, she says that accepting the Juliet role - and the subsequent self doubt, sweaty bed linen, and analyst fees - was worth it.

"Everyone was nervous because we were taking such an alternative approach. But I'm glad we did. When you're passionate about something, you push yourself, and your greatest work can come out of it. The problem was - and I'm not putting myself down - if you've never worked on Shakespeare before, if you've never uttered a single line, you simply don't think you can do it. But Baz helped me. He was like my fairy Godmother."

Danes' performance holds the film together. Certainly she's been feted in the American Press: USA Today and others have been nothing less than ecstatic, moved by the way she conveyed "inner pain", and claiming that "by herself she makes the film automatically worth seeing". Steven Spielberg has called her one of the great new talents for the Millennium. Crikey.

So who is this goddess? After all, despite an impressive CV, it's quite possible you've never seen her before. Intense and grave as a child, Danes developed a penchant for modern dance at Lee Strasberg's renowned Theatre Institute before landing the role of Angela chase in the critically favoured TV drama, My So-Called Life. At which point her forward thinking parents decided the time was right for her to move to California. She was 13. Though the show didn't last, My So Called Life was good - good enough to win her a best actress Golden Globe, and smooth her move to the big screen. Her movie debut was as frail Beth in Gillian Anderson's 1994 version of Little Women, which she followed with the well-received Jocelyn Moorhouse yarn How To Make An American Quilt and Jodie Foster's family comedy Home For The Holidays. She recently completed Polish Wedding with Gabriel Byrne and Lena Olin. Not bad for a wee lass.

And now, of course, the breakthrough, in Romeo and Juliet. Until Baz Lurhmann's radical reworking came on the scene, all her roles had been in high quality but fairly predictable chick flicks - R&J has been the one to make people sit up and take notice. Claire won the part after Jane Campion recommended her to Lurhmann. Intimidatingly, she had to pitch to Leonardo DiCaprio.

"Leo is brilliant. I'd seen a lot of his work and he has such talent. When I auditioned I knew I'd have to make an impression, so I really fired off lines from the scene into his face, and kept his eyes locked to mine. He later told me I was the only girl who'd used that method to effect. We were like brother and sister by the time we were through."

So, what's next? Currently the future is bright but fuzzy. The strains of being a rising star at the age of 17 (she'll be 18 this April) are beginning to show. "I've had to deal with so many adult problems on TV or film sets," she says. "People treat you like you're 21 when you're 13, or 31 when you're 17. They mat be thinking underneath 'She's just a kid', but they expect so much! And you need to be able to spot phoneys, or people trying to use you for their own ends. There are a lot of jerks out there, and they always seem to find me!"

Though for the moment she lives with her parents in laid-back Santa Monica, she's plotting to fly the nest. Long conversations with Jodie Foster about Yale have persuaded her it might be a good idea to drop out of this film star stuff, for a while at least, and "bring some balance" back into her life.

Boys? Yes. she wants to fall in love but she's not hunting them down. She dated Andrew Dorff (brother to Blood and Wine pretty-boy Stephen) but it fizzled out. She cried a lot.

"Every teenage girl can associate with Juliet," she says, "because every teenage girl has those problems and those emotions. But she is also very thoughtful, smart and passionate. Something I strive to be. Without passion, everything seems so tough. She's an incredibly modern girl."

Originally transcribed by: Andy Murphy

© Total Film 1997