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Great Danes
by Kevin Sessums(Vanity Fair - February, 1998)

At 14, Claire Danes starred in the acclaimed ABC series My So-Called Life. Four years later, she has postponed Yale for a flurry of roles in U-Turn, The Rainmaker (opposite ex-boyfriend Matt Damon), Les Miserables, and Polish Wedding. Riding the Splash Mountain roller coaster at Disneyland, Danes gives Kevin Sessums the lowdown on her bohemian, Method-acting childhood, camping out in the back of a car with Australian rocker Ben Lee, and her new $1 million loft in SoHo.

The car pulls into a parking lot named for a duck. "The last time I was here, I'd been hired by a bunch of Arabs," says the driver. "The family of a Saudi prince. A couple of wives with their faces covered. Kids, the same everywhere, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Brought them here every day for three damned weeks. Couldn't get enough of the place.

"The last time I was here, I was five," Claire Danes tells him, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed herself at the prospect of revisiting Disneyland for the first time in 13 years. The acclaimed actress -- self-posessed, a seasoned cinematic professional after gracing nine files -- is all of 18 years old. The driver opens the door for her, and she climbs out in the California light. Wearing a pair of embroidered shorts, a tiny T-shirt the color of an old National Geographic, and Dr. Scholl's sandals, Danes breaks into a little skip as she nears the myriad ticket booths that have put Anaheim on the tourist map. "Want to here a joke?" she says. "Mickey Mouse storms in to Walt Disney's office," she begins. "He's just fuming! And Walt says 'So what's the problem, Mickey?' He goes 'Aaaggh -- it's Minnie, man! I need to get a divorce!' Walt goes, 'O.K., cool out. Why do you want to divorce Minnie?' Mickey says, 'Walt, man, she's silly.' Walt goes, 'Mickey, come on. You're a talking mouse. You're in no position to be pointing fingers.' He goes 'But, Walt, man, she's FUCKING GOOFY!'

"Get it?" Danes says. Then she shuffles her Dr. Scholl's toward one rider after another, finally heading for the water roller coaster ride know as Splash Mountain. "When I was five, California was the most exotic thing I could think of," she says climbing into a seat in what looks like a hollowed-out log mad of fiberglass. She lets out a squeal at our first quick dive down a giant gorge. "I wasn't at all disappointed!" she hollers back at me, crammed in behind her and soaked. "It was all so glamourous!"

'I look like Minnie Mouse,' Danes complains to David Letterman as she takes her seat on his television show a couple of months later. Her hair has been curled in a deconstructed-Shirley Temple do, and someone has persuaded he to wear a strapless Dolce & Gabbana dress. She twists her curls in her fingers and fidgets with the dress. She and Dave flirt as best they can in front of millions of viewers before she demonstrates a dance from Footloose, her favorite movie when she was a kid. This is the first stop in a packed weeks of New York media appearances to coincide with the release of Francis Ford Coppola's version of John Grisham's The Rainmaker, in which Danes co-stars with her ex-boyfriend Matt Damon. She's also in town to appear on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and to host Saturday Night Live, still after all these years one fo the totem spots for who's-hot-right-this-moment fame.

By the end of the week, Danes is exhausted, but Fridays at Saturday Night Live are set aside for camera blocking, and she patiently goes about the tedious business. Everyone finally takes a break between scene changes, and Danes uses it to grab a catnap in the host's dressing room. Next door, in the dressing area reserved for the show's musical guests, Cheri Oteri, one of Saturday Night Live's liveliest new members plops down on a black velvet sofa. Every inch of wall space is taken up with photos of acts which have performed on the show. "It's amazing to me how someone so young can be so centered," Oteri says, discussing Danes. "She's handling all of this quite gracefully. Live comedy is so different. So many people get so scared. But she's allowing herself to have fun as well as picking things up really well. You can tell she's a pro.

When Danes emerges from her dressing room, she briskly reads her cue cards for an absurd scene about releasing Mr. Peepers, a pet that is a mixture of a man and a monkey, back into the jungle. The cast keeps breaking up at the premise -- Ionesco by way of the Catskills -- but the stagehands couldn't look more bored. A couple of writers, huddled behind a camera's crane, are already whispering about the following week's host, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and laughing about a Larry King skit that ran the previous week. Danes has the dazed faraway look of an artsy little girl stuck in a geography class.

She spent most of her childhood growing up in SoHo during that Manhattan neighborhood's 1980s bohemian heyday. Her mother Carla, an artist from Vermont, and her father, Chris, an architectural photographer who is now a computer consultant, owed a loft there and encouraged their child to persue her own interests in the arts. At the age of nine, she studied modern dance and performed in avant-garde works in the East Village. Later she switched to acting, and her parents enrolled her in the Lee Stasberg Theatre Institute.

Did she study the Method?

"Oh, you know, we did sense memory and stuff like that," Danes says, shrugging.

Wasn't she very young for that?

"I was 11!" she replies in all seriousness. "I had a whole life! I remember being pre-verbal. I remember being held as an infant by one of my mom's friends. She didn't know how to hold me, and I was really uncomfortable. It was like, I know I'm going to have to wait this out. Babies are highly attuned. They just don't know how to communicated."

"She's one of those people who was born enormously gifted," says Jared Leto, who portrayed Jordan Catalano on the TV series My So-Called Life, the hearthrob for whom Dane's character, Angela Chase, will perpetually swoon as long as MTV keeps running its highly rated repeats of the high-school drama, which first aired during ABC's 1994 season.

Danes attended P.S. 3, P.S. 11, the Dalton School, and the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan before moving to Los Angeles at 14 to star in My So-Called Life. In L.A., following in the footsteps of Jodie Foster, who later directed her in Home for the Holidays, she studied at the Lycée Français, when not being privately tutored on various sets. Foster became kind of a mentor during the film, and Danes has now been accepted at another of Foster's former schools, Yale, where Danes's paternal grandfather was once the dean of the school of art and architecture. She is planning to major in psychology or philosophy or art history, but is putting off her studies for a year to make another movie or two, including Brokedown Palace -- about two young women thrown into jail in Southeast Asia and charged with drug smuggling -- which she is currently filming in the Philippines.

Back in California. Danes meets me at the Rose Café in Santa Monica, a few blocks from the apartment where she lives with her parents during her increasingly infrequent stays on the West Coast. She has just returned from London, where she had to dub some dialogue for her part as Cosette in the upcoming nonmusical film version of Les Miserables, directed by Bille August, in which her screen parents are played by Laim Neeson and Uma Thurman. It's one of three movies she recently made back-to-back. The others are Polish Wedding, directed by Theresa Connelly, in which she portrays the pregnant working-class daughter of Lena Olin and Gabriel Byrne, and The Rainmaker.

Danes is at that point in her life -- 18 going on 40 -- where she's seen everything yet has the energetic desire to see even more. After her work in London was completed, she dashed off to Spain, where she met up with her new boyfriend, the 19-year-old Australian rocker Ben Lee, who records on the Grand Royal label. They spent a few days roaming around Madrid and Toledo together.

In 72 hours, after an appearance with Jay Leno on The Tonight show to plug Oliver Stone's latest movie, U-turn, in which she plays a dumb desert rat of a girl, she is going to pack again and board a flight to Australia, where she is to meet Lee's parents for the first time.

"I ran into Veronica Webb in the garden of the Chateau Marmont," I tell her. "She said that every dyed-blonde, alternative-rock, Guess?-wearing girl has a crush on Ben Lee. I set her straight, though -- said you were the one who got him."

Her face lights up the way it can on-screen. She explains how she had been hooked on Lee's music for some time and had been attracted to him before she ever met him. "So my friends flew him from Sydney as a surprise for my 18th birthday," she says. "I've been on my own now for six months, and I've been pretty much living with him...I'm a starfucker!" she exclaims, laughing at the notion of such a boast. "I recently spent a couple of weeks with Ben in the back of the car, just being supportive and the dumb girlfriend on the road with him during one of his concert tours. That was great. It felt really good to be an appendage after I'd been the center of attention for so long...On the Internet there were some fans of mine warning me that they were really concerned because they heard I'd been dating Ben. They mistakenly thought he was younger than I was and I could be arrested for statutory rape."

"That could change your image," I say.

"I used to have arguments with people a couple of years ago about this. People who were trying to figure out what kind of 'image' they were going to present to the world, how there were going to concoct it. I felt, Why be that concerned with that -- why not just be?...It's funny to grow up in the business. When I turned 18 and started going to different functions and was around other actresses, the same ones who were sweet to me when I was 16 had become just a little colder and a little more bitter and standoffish, just because I was jumping into their bracket now. I suddenly realized how competitive all this is. that was scarey.

'Claire probably has the most glamourous adolescence I've ever seen," says Jodie Foster, having one assumes, averted her eyes from her own. "I definitely has a soft spot for the child-actor thing. I'm always really concerned that the experience be as purposive and, I guess, have as much consciousness as you possibly can. You can easily inflict all sorts of wounds on actors -- especially young ones. I took such a shine to claire because she doesn't come with any weird baggage. She's so grounded, and you can talk to her about a whole lot of other things besides acting...She's a pretty serious girl."

"Certainly, in person, Claire has a kind of distancing quality, a kind of remove," says write Winnie Holzman, the creator and co-executive producer of My So-Called Life. She was like that when I first met her, though," claims holzman, remembering the striking youngster who walked in to audition for the show's lead. Danes had flown out to Los Angeles to meet with Stephen Spielberg, who was casting Schindler's List. He was so impressed with her that he immediately offered her a part in his film. She turned it down because she thought at that point that it would require too much time away from school. "It's not that she became a movie stared and decided to be removed," says Holzman. "I mean, that's why she is a movie star...Claire has a kind of magnetic mystery. It draws your emotions in. She is not the kind of actress who dictates everything. She doesn't fill in all the blanks."

There is nothing superfluous in Danes's acting. What she has mastered at such a startlingly young age is the ability to remain still on-screen. Yet she is able to fill that stillness -- as her idol Meryl Streep, does -- with a wealth of emotion. "Leo [DiCaprio] once said to me on the set of Romeo & Juliet, 'How can you be so still?' " Danes remembers. "He likes to run around on the set and gear himself up. I said, 'How can you be so active?' I am able, yes, to focus steadily. Stealthily."

"There is a sadness to Claire," says Gabriel Byrne. "I don't know if 'sadness' is too strong a word, but there's certainly something deep within her that preoccupies her. I don't know if that's just the age she's at, or whether it's an inherent part of her personality. But, for every quality you get in her, you almost get the exact opposite quality. She's like a prism. Depending on which way she hits the light, you get a different Claire. she's tremendously generous and kind as a person. Yet at the same time I feel that she has a need in her now to be acknowledged for who she is -- as a woman."

"I first met her at an audition for On the Road, which we were trying to make into a film at one point, says Francis Ford Coppola, referring to Jack Kerouac's screed on the Beat Generation. "If she were a pianist or a harpist or a flutist, she's be considered a prodigy...I don't know if it's her intelligence that does it, but she really understands. There's no question, of course, that she's a young girl and has all the innocence and enthusiasm of being young, but at the same time there's something very wise about her."

Danes has performed two great literary death scenes in the last few years -- Juliet's and Beth's in Little Women. Has she every had to cope with death in her real life?

"My grandfather, my dad's father, committed double suicide with his wife," she was evenly. "My dad has dealt with a lot of death. His mom -- whom I'm named after -- died when he was 10. So he's really wrestled with that. He's still dealing with that today. I understand it vicariously through him. The double suicide was four years ago. My grandfather's wife Ilse, his third, had Alzheimer's disease. They made an agreement when she was still well that when she got to the point that she couldn't function properly they were going to die together. That was pretty traumatic. It only recently began to sink in...I knew when it happened that I was not going to be able to accept it or understand it for a long time. We didn't have the memorial service until two years ago. The entire family had procrastinated; none of us had dealt with it. We went and threw the ashes in a stream in Connecticut. I had been so mad at my grandfather for doing it. I thought it was selfish of him. Up until that point, I didn't realize what a huge thing it would be. But I just burst into tears. Completely crumbled. More for my dad than anything else."

"Have you ever seen him cry?"

"My dad?" she asks, laughing a little. "My God! My dad crys all the time."

"Your mom?"

"She doesn't cry that much."

Carla and Chris Danes, still in their early 40s, are now going through the separation anxiety that all parents suffer when a child grows up and leaves home for the first time. Since Carla has served as one of her daughter's managers, the anxieties that she and her husband are experiencing are multiplied for a variety of reasons. Now that their daughter has reached the age of consent, she has chosen to make her own way in show business. Second, her wealth, greater than most people's, is especially great when measured against that of others her age. (Danes is now getting about $3 million per picture.) Finally, and most important, she is moving back to New York, leaving her beloved Chevy Blazer behind and putting a whole continent between herself and her parents. She has, in fact, reportedly plopped down about $1 million for a loft in SoHo around the corner from where she spent her childhood. The only solace for her parents is that her 25-year-old brother, Asa, a former UNICEF worker in Africa who is applying to law school, is living in New York and can help keep and eye on her.

"My new space is totally raw," she excitedly tells me. "I'm working with this architect my parents used when they renovated our loft countless times. It always seemed there was construction going on."

"Do you know how lucky you are?" I ask. "You're 18 years old and talking about working with your architect."

"I'm fully conscious of how lucky I am. I've gotten so much resentment just looking for this apartment. The people showing me real estate were rolling their eyes. It's unbelievable how much money you can make in this business. I've just gotten my first A.T.M. card, and am figuring out how money works. I'm dealing with such huge numbers that my perspective is way off. It's scarey," she says, sighing heavily.

"It's hard to be 18 and rich," I say.

"It's not that hard," she says. "It's harder to be 18 and poor."

"You're one of the lucky few of your generation, Claire, who still have parents who are not divorced," I say, guiding her back to the subject of Carla and Chris, who have ignored repeated requests to be interviewed about their daughter. "that must make all this a little easier."

"that's a gift...yeah...but...well, it's difficult," she admits. "I'm separated from them now, so there are a lot of emotions -- some very volatile -- that we're all kind of grappling with. I'm sure that parents can't help feel rejected when a parent -- I mean, when a child -- leaves. That, in and of itself, is like a divorce."

"That was Freudian," I say. "Do you feel like the parent at times because you're the major breadwinner in the family? You obviously make a hell of a lot more money than they do."

"Mmmm...'when a parent leaves'...mmm," she quietly repeats. "That's interesting. It's hard for me to take responsibility for leaving...It's tough to talk about my mom right now, because we're both in the process of pulling away. It's very, very odd...And yeah, it's strange to make more money than your parents do. You can't help but have it be an issue when you employ your parents. It's alkward. I'm in a transition period right now -- but I don't know when you're not, in life."

"Hey Claire!" shouts a teenager. "You forgot your bra!"

Danes and I have just disembarked from our log after riding Splash Mountain. Danes, her wet T-shirt pointing due north, does not blush. Her Dr. Scholl's, however, pick up speed now that she realizes she's been recognized. "Have you ever noticed there's a lot of death imagery in this park?" she whispers as we later leave the Haunted Mansion and make our way toward the exit.

Herds of girls are now descending as word spreads that Danes is in the park. Danes signs autograph after autograph and poses for a photo or two. "They just like me because I got to kiss Leo in Romeo & Juliet, she says. "I have to pee so badly, but I can't go in the bathroom here now," she adds. "they'll follow me in. I'll hold it until we get back to town."

"We're almost there," says the driver.

The car finally pulls up to a Denny's on the farther reaches of Sunset Boulevard. Danes hurries inside. When she returns, there is a sad perplexed expression on her face.

"Don't tell me there were teenage girls in there too," I say.

"No. Just a homeless woman."

"Did she recognize you?"

"No. Well...yes. she thought I was somebody else. I was somebody to her, but it wasn't me."

Danes looks out the car window. Frowning, she laughs.

© Vanity Fair 1998