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Twentieth Century Juliet
by Alex Kershaw (British Vogue - March, 1997)

Danes discusses well-done 90s Romeo.

The season's big new movie is written by that 500-year-old favourite, William Shakespeare. A newer name is its star, Claire Danes, Photographed here in CK by Clavin Klein to mark the opening this month of its first British Store.

There is a limitless supply of fresh-faced actresses waiting to play ingénue roles in Hollywood. But like the films featuring most of them, most debut performances fail to leave a lasting impression. Once in a while, however, along comes an actress with such natural screen presence that she lingers in the memory long after the films she appears in are forgotten.

Enter 18-year-old Claire Danes, whose unconventional beauty and precocious talent have Hollywood swooning. It's two days before Christmas, and "America's coolest teenager" is turning heads in a crowded restaurant in Santa Monica, a few minutes' drive from her family home. Her hair is cut in a waifish bob; her eyes are dark and intelligent. She smiles with genuine enthusiasm.

Dressed head to toe in vibrant red, Danes has much to celebrate. Her mix of vulnerability and backbone has already captivated the most discerning among suitors: A-list casting directors looking for that Hollywood staple - the wise child. "One of the most exciting actresses in the last 10 years" is how Stephen Spielberg describes her. Before she turned 16, Danes had won a Golden Globe award, an Emmy nomination and received glowing reviews for her parts in films such as Gillian Armstrong's Little Women and Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays.

But it's her role as Juliet in Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, co-starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, which currently has critics raving. When the film opened in the States last November, its first "weekend take" of $11 million stunned Hollywood. It has since grossed over $50 million, making it the most lucrative Shakespeare film of all time. "In this film Romeo and Juliet are two people running away from the insanities of the world and finding refuge in each other," says Danes. "To me, the story was about true love - that phantom, that something that everybody talks about, but people rarely experience."

Luhrmann's film is Shakespeare for a hyperactive generation, less RSC than MTV. Loud, violent and kinetically sexy, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet employs every possible gimmick and technical device to grab attention. When Romeo first sees Juliet, fireworks explode behind his eyes; the play's immortal lines are intercut with a pulsating soundtrack; the choreography of the fight scenes would put most ballet companies to shame; and the casting is inspiring.

"Juliet is written as a very smart, active character," says Luhrmann, explaining why he offered Danes the part of Juliet after "an enormous worldwide search". "The extraordinary thing about Claire is that she is an 18-year-old with the poise and maturity of a 30-year-old."

Twenty-two-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio was equally impressed: "When we were auditioning Juliets, she was the only one who came right up and said the lines directly to me. She was right there, in front of my face, saying every single line with power."

The emotional intensity that she brings to her role not only mirrors her previous work - described by others as "hyperrealistic" and "intensely natural" - but also reflects events off the set. Luhrmann's choice of setting for a modern-day Verona was Mexico City. The shoot was beset with difficulties. At one point Danes's mother was hospitalised with pneumonia, and a crew member was temporarily kidnapped.

"Filming was a little insane," says Danes. "It was like the Wild West - Mexico is a place where there are no rules." As well as food poisoning and pre-performance panic attacks she had to deal with DiCaprio's friends, imported by the actor for weekend parties which left Danes's hotel awash with testosterone. Thankfully, DiCaprio compensated at work, bringing "levity" to the set. "He taught me how to have fun," says Danes generously. "It's a really important lesson to learn."

The film is Danes's first attempt at Shakespeare, and she says she was "very intimidated" by the role of Juliet. But after reading the play several times, she was captivated by Shakespeare's "incredibly rich" use of language. "When I read scripts for other movies now, I'm ridiculously disappointed. It's impossible to measure up to Shakespeare."

Unlike so many of her peers, Danes has no hint of the stage brat about her. She's demure, highly articulate and precociously well-adjusted, with none of the perennial starlet whinges about paparazzi, Hollywood sharks or 18-hour days on freezing sets. Instead, she accentuates the positive aspects of her fast-growing celebrity. "I love that if you have a crush on a boy you can call your agent and get to meet him," she laughs. "That's probably the biggest perk."

She loves clothes and looks good in them: "I'm an urban creature. I like the look of the Nineties. I don't think we're going to regret these clothes years from now."

"Armani has designed a couple of dresses for me," adds Danes with mock nonchalance as she forks a crouton in her Chinese chicken salad. "Then there are musicians who write songs for you - homages to Claire. Come on! I'd be retarded not to enjoy that kind of attention."

What keeps Danes so down to earth? First, there's that upbringing in a "no-nonsense" New York, where she was raised by liberal artistic parents in a sun-lit Manhattan loft. She vividly remembers the moment, aged five, when she decided to be a performer: "Madonna was on TV, and I just started jumping up and down along with her. I knew, there and then."

Given that she has spent her adolescence in front of the cameras, Danes is also remarkably level-headed about her looks. "I'm not exceptional looking but I'm not hideous," she says flippantly. Even though she appears to be naturally slight, she's aware of the body fascism of her career. "In this industry, you do have real fears about your weight. Alicia Silverstone was criticised when she gained 10 pounds. My Dad always yells at me whenever I start fussing about food: as he says, 'guilt and food are two entirely unrelated things.' And I try not to smoke, or drink, or get too crazy."

To keep herself mentally fit, Danes sees a therapist regularly. "It's a luxury - I get to talk about myself yet again," she jokes. "It can get so crazy when you keep running around from place to place - you don't know where you stand. It's amazing how far removed you can become from your real self. It takes a lot of work to keep yourself well-adjusted."

She has also listened carefully to the advice of her friend, Winona Ryder. "We're alike in so many ways," Danes gushes, suddenly sounding like an excited teenager. "I've gone out with a guy who's older - so has she. I've worked with Francis [Ford Coppola], and she's worked with him. She gives me all these tips - every new experience I have, it seems she had 10 years ago."

Danes has also been inspired by Jodie Foster's example. She plans to got to college this autumn, as Foster did, possibly Columbia in her native New York, to study film or art history. She hopes to maintain her career's momentum at college by choosing the right roles and pacing herself. Already, she is opting for fewer projects, allowing more time for her studies and to be with her family.

Danes recently completed Polish Wedding opposite Gabriel Byrne and Lena Olin, and this year will also appear in Oliver Stone's Stray Dogs and Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker, based on a John Grisham novel. Wooed by the premier casting directors and producers, she is able to turn down roles other young actresses would kill for. Last October, citing "scheduling reasons", she rejected an offer to play Joan of Arc, as iconic a role as Juliet.

More and more, she is eager to play demanding, adult roles, with all their complexities. "Two years ago," she says, "there were parts being offered that were very sexual. Back then, I wasn't sexually active. I didn't know anything about sex...but I do now."

She sighs heavily when the subject turns to eligible, and sufficiently sensitive male actors in Hollywood. "I think it was Orson Welles who said you can always tell an actor because their eyes glaze over whenever the conversation drifts away from themselves."

There were rumours that Danes and DiCaprio had an intense love-hate relationship during filming. "We have one of the most complicated relationships in history," says Danes as she good-naturedly sidesteps the question. "We wouldn't talk to each other for long periods during filming, then we'd die together, or do something huge like that. It was very confusing."

Has she experiences the passion that Juliet feels for Romeo? "Yeah, I've felt that kind of love," she says quietly, and then changes tack again: "But Leo said he hadn't. He kept saying: 'I don't believe in love.' I told him he should really give it a go. It's a lot of fun. He said he just needed to meet the right girl. I said: 'I don't think it's about the girl, Leo. I think it's about you, the boy.'"

© 1997, British Vogue