by Chris Mundy (US - November, 1996)
She is sadder than you would expect. After all, this is a girl who has already scored a Golden Globe for her work on the lost-but-cherished My So-Called Life, can soon be caught on a balcony as Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo and has been hailed by Steven Spielberg, who has yet to even work with her, as "one of the most exciting actresses to debut in the last 10 years." Yet when you sit down with Claire Danes in her Santa Monica, Calif., neighborhood, there is no escaping her overriding sense of melancholy. She will stare off distractedly one moment, the next sit back in her chair, pull her thighs to her chest and rest her chin on her knees. When you ask her if she is happy, she simply smiles sweetly and shakes her head.
"At this moment I'm certainly not happy, but it's for a whole bunch of reasons," Danes says, "I miss having friends. There's not much fun in my life. There's no time for me. I don't want to sound whiny and lame. I have moments of happiness. But right now, for instance, it's been a week since I've seen a person my own age."
That age is 17, which is easy to forget because Danes is possessed of an almost unsettling self-awareness and composure for someone who will not be able to legally buy a drink until the millennium. At the same time, however, she seems hellbent on ensuring that when she acts like a teen-ager, it be more than just a role that has been scripted by someone else. It's a confusing period for the actress. Sure, she has things that most 17-year-olds don't have, like an agent, two managers (one is her mother), a publicist and an accountant. It's just that she's lacking other essentials, like a driver's license.
"I live in an adult world, but I'm a kid," says Danes. "There are a lot of opinions coming at me. It's insane. People my age really need to have downtime, to chill, be really pretentious and talk about pseudointellectual ideas. I haven't gotten to have much of that, which I'm really really missing. I went to New York a little while ago. I was with these kids I grew up with, and they were about to go to college next year, and I hadn't seen them for a long time. We just clicked, and I was ecstatic."
Manhattan is where Danes, an intense and grave child, developed a penchant for performing -- first modern dance and then acting. She took it seriously, studying at Lee Strasberg's renowned Theatre Institute and even turning down a role on One Life to Live because she was afraid, at the age of 12, of being stylized.
"When someone's as good an actor as she is, age is just so irrelevant," explains Peter Gallagher, who plays Danes' father in the current film To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. "I fully expect the experience of working with her at 17 will be the same as it will be at 70. Of course, the only difference will be that I'll probably be dead and far less compelling."
And so, back in New York, Danes kept studying while her mother, a former textile designer, ran a school for toddlers out of their SoHo loft and her father, a former photographer, worked as a contractor. It is a family that Danes describes as remarkably close, and although her parents moved with her to California when she landed the role of Angela Chase on My So-Called Life at the age of 13, it is her brother, Asa, a 23-year-old Oberlin College grad who now works for a nonprofit foundation in New York, whom Danes counts as her moral compass.
"He's 6 feet 5, and he's just big in every way," says Danes with a laugh. "He has a huge amount of power over me. My brother's opinion of how I'm doing means more than anything at all."
It's probably safe to assume that big brother is watching and happy. Since making her film debut as Beath in 1994's Little Women, Danes has been on a tear that includes small parts in last year's How to Make an American Quilt and Home for the Holidays, as well as this month's To Gillian (which also stars Michelle Pfeiffer) and an updated version of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. During the filming of Home for the Holidays, she consulted with director Jodie Foster about her primary obsession: going to college. It is a fixation Danes has held since her earliest days on the set of My So-Called Life and one that resonates more acutely now that she feels that she has lost her sense of self and privacy and freedom. It is a difficult transition for anyone, at any age, to wake up and find that a hobby has become a job, and Danes is counting on college, set for a year from now, to bring balance back to her life.
"Filmmaking is lonely in so many ways," says Winnie Holzman, writer and creator of My So-Called Life. "You're cut off from society. If you're dealing with that and you're 14 and you're very talented -- and you can't have that kind of talent and not be a deep-thinking person -- then it can be a lot to take on. There are wonderful reasons to be doing all this. And if somebody is driven to do this in their heart, they will do it. But it comes with a price."
Holzman stops and recounts a story. "I remember filming the pilot, and all the adults were a little bit in awe of Claire," she says. "The first few days of seeing her on film, I realized that she would be a movie star. We all kind of knew where it was going. There's a bittersweet quality to that, and in many ways I think there's been a bittersweet quality to her life for that reason."
"I worry," says Danes as she mashes french fry after french fry into a pile of ketchup until each becomes an indistinguishable mound of potato. "I'm not a carefree kinda gal, which I'm not proud of by any means."
Danes has arrived at lunch straight from her therapy appointment, and she is trying to catalog just why she enjoys sitting on the couch once or twice a week. The primary reason, she finally explains, is that her doctor "gives me permission to accept that I'm human, which I need."
Certainly, Daves doesn't require the sessions to provide herself with an analytical edge. That, it is clear, comes naturally. Ask her about trusting people around her and Danes will explain that she is very perceptive; quiz her about her close relationship with her mother and she has a breakdown at the ready.
"I tell my mom everything because she has the best advice of anybody I've ever met," says Danes. "I should probably keep more stuff from her than I do. I'm supposed to be separating right now, and I should have more secrets."
It is as if Danes has simultaneous ability to stand inside herself as a 17-year-old and outside herself as an adult, quietly guiding the child and pointing out the best available path. Even the filming of Romeo and Juliet was difficult because Danes, one of the youngest people on the set, felt at times as though she'd been hired as a baby sitter.
"It wasn't an easy movie," says Danes. "We were in Mexico for four months, and I was the only girl. The movie's also about gangs, so there were a whole bunch of little boys running around causing havoc. It's a very different thing than when you're just talking to them one-on-one. It was a lot of fart jokes, a lot of making boogers with prosthetics from the makeup trailer, a lot of mooning. I was not really in my element."
What Danes will admit to being pleased about is working with DiCaprio, whom she says she likes and respects, and describes as "a genius."
"Her chemistry with Leonardo was instant -- very, very strong," says director Baz Luhrmann. "One thing that I have absolutely no doubt about in this film is their onscreen chemistry. It's the sort of thing that's so defined. You can have two fantastic actors and still, the moment you see them onscreen, it's either there or it's not. They absolutely had it. And as it turned out, Leonardo and Claire were like brother and sister on the set."
The irony of her playing Juliet is that it is Danes' love life as much as anything else that seems to have rendered her heart heavy. Stuck in a lengthy breakup with her boyfriend Andrew Dorff (brother of Stephen), Danes is caught between her heart and her head, all the while on the lookout for someone new who will make sense to both.
"I don't know where to meet boys," says Danes. "I have all these boy actor friends, and they go into a club and within two seconds there are swarms of drop-dead-gorgeous women and they're hanging on them and swooning and giggling. I walk into a room and, forget it, there's no guy around. Certainly not 17 of them sitting by my feet. But I would love to have it happen. I want a boy very badly right now. I need a boy. Because I love being in love."
All of which makes Danes throw herself more passionately into her work (she is already filming Polish Wedding with Gabriel Byrne, and there's a chance she'll play Joan of Arc after that), which in turn distances her even further from the normalcy she is desperate to get back to. It's enough to leave a transplanted New York prodigy feeling slightly confused in the Hollywood glare.
"The things that are good are often the same things that are bad," says Danes. "It's really fun to go to these different countries and meet all these different people. And I love the work. But I no longer have a group of friends to hang out with regularly. I can't belong to any class or study group. No way could I be on a sports team or anything like that. It's hard."
Danes smiles slightly and goes back to finishing her meal. When she says goodbye, she offers a firm, adult handshake and then wanders nonchalantly down the street with her hands shoved in her pockets, a kid shuffling lazily toward home.
Originally transcribed by: Myra Wong
© US 1996