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Perfectly Claire
by Jonathan Van Meter (Vogue - August, 1998)

En route to Yale, just wrapping The Mod Squad, Claire Danes is at the head of Hollywood's new class.

She is still learning to drive. Today, on this lovely spring day in Los Angeles, Claire Danes has driven alone in her Chevy Blazer to have lunch at Orso, a dependably fashionable restaurant near Beverly Hills. This is the first time she has ever driven without someone else in the car. Last night, she drove in the dark -- also a first. However, she's still not quite ready to make the trip completely on her own and actually had to follow someone to Orso.

As Danes strides across the patio -- a place where young Hollywood eats fairly religiously as it's one of the last places you can still smoke in public -- a little man follows her in and nervously approaches as she takes her seat at the corner table. "Do you know that your headlight is broken?" he asks. A moment of awkward confusion, then recognition: It's the parking- lot attendant. "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah," she says, letting him off the hook. "You didn't do it." He heaves a sigh of relief and scurries away. She looks at me. "I didn't do it, either. My assistant got into an accident yesterday."

Here, the paradox of Claire Danes: This is a girl who just turned nineteen, is still learning how to drive, and is a wealthy movie star with a personal assistant. She is currently living in her first-ever home on her own -- a rented house with a pool in L.A. -- is dating a rock star, and is overseeing the construction of a million-dollar loft in Manhattan. As Jodie Foster, who directed Danes in Home for the Holidays, said recently, "Claire probably has the most glamorous adolescence I've ever seen."

And then there's the fact that Danes (much like Foster did eighteen years earlier) will begin her freshman year at Yale in September. Oddly, it is this that gives her the most angst.

"I've actually been really, really worried this entire year, kind of obsessing over it," she says, her big blue-green eyes flashing with barely muted terror. "I'm really fearful that I"ll be completely inadequate as a student. So I keep asking people, 'It's really difficult to be kicked out of Yale, right? It's not very common that they do that, right?'"

Danes's late grandfather Gibson Danes earned his doctorate at Yale in 1949, and was the dean of the School of Art and Architecture. Her father, Christopher, grew up in New Haven. All this, Danes admits, should ease the transition. "I've always associated college with Yale," she says, "so it was natural that I go there. I just don't think it's going to threaten my career. Ironically enough, I think I'll be making a movie with Jodie Foster next summer." Danes is lucky to have Foster as a sort of built-in Hollywood guidance counselor: "She thinks I"ll love it. She keeps telling me it's great to be around smart people who are your own age."

Foster would know. Growing up in show business can be a painful and damaging experience for even the toughest of kids. Foster is our best example of a healthy survivor. Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland never seemed to recover from an early life of being constantly stared at, picked over, and spending too much time around people not their own age. "When I was five I decided I was going to be an actress," Danes says. "When I was first finding out that people went to college, somebody said, "Yale has a great drama school,' and I said, 'OK, well, I'm going to Yale.' When I was seven, I found out actors don't make any money, so I decided I was going to be a therapist and move to L.A. and work in acting workshops on the side. But I've reversed my plan. At Yale, I'm going to study psychology. I don't know whether I was given a map or whether I drew it at a really early age."

Danes, whose parents met at Rhode Island School of Design, is a thoroughly modern movie star: She grew up in a loft in SoHo (with older brother Asa), attended public elementary schools in Manhattan, and then enrolled at the prestigious Professional Performing Arts School. By ten, she was studying Method acting at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute; by eleven, she had an agent. At the ripe old age of twelve, her mother has said, she turned down a part in a soap opera because it wasn't the kind of serious acting she was interested in.

Sitting at Orso in an old pair of khakis cut off to look like pedal pushers and a baggy, navy-blue cotton sweater from French Connection, Danes, with her hair blonde and cut short, looks like a normal teenage girl just out of high school. She wears no makeup or jewelry and has a milky-white complexion that appears to have never once seen the sun. "I ran away from high school," she says as she eats a packet of honey with her fingers. "I was so miserable. I mean, I'm sure I could piece together a romantic idea of what it could have been like, but I was there for a year and I was just hiding. Once I hit sixth grade and puberty was starting to kick in, school was not the right place for me. It was not a nurturing environment. It was too painful. I had this outlet, acting, and I took advantage of it. It was quite intentional."

After one semester at the exclusive Dalton School in New York, she and her family moved to L.A. so that Danes could act like she was in high school -- on a TV show that turned out to be the most honest depiction to date of grades ten through twelve.

In 1994, when she was only fourteen, she starred as Angela Chase on ABC's My So-Called Life, a brilliant hour-long drama about a girl in high school that was canceled after only one season. But those now-famous nineteen episodes have been running constantly on MTV ever since, keeping Claire as Angela fixed in the minds of many. "There's my career, and then there's My So-Called Life," she says, laughing at the monster that MTV has created. The real Claire has, of course, moved on and grown up, landing a series of increasingly better and more adult roles in film, beginning with the tragic part of Beth in Gillian Armstrong's excellent remake of Little Women.

But her breakthrough came in Baz Luhrmann's spectacular Romeo & Juliet, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie caught fire with young audiences, magnifying her importance to a new generation. DiCaprio and Danes have, quite simply, become the Actors to Watch. "I'm on the edges of Leomania," says Danes, "and I'm feeling the energy, and the heat, and the intensity of what's happening to him. It's petrifying. We were at the Man in the Iron Mask premiere together, and he got up and walked across the room to see his mother, and the entire side of the room stood up and followed him. There were 60 people, and they just followed him. It's beyond weird. But he's so charismatic. There are some people who are just really engaging. It makes sense." Her eyes widen in wonder. "I'm just glad it's not me."

After supporting roles in Oliver Stone's U-Turn and Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker, Danes went off to Prague last year to star as Cosette in Bille August's screen version of Les Miserables. "I think she has this very strange, rare combination of innocence and maturity," says August. "For me, it's like listening to Mozart, where you have this pure, childlike sense of joy, of just playing, and on the other side, the insight and the profoundness. She is a very profound person."

After finishing up Les Misérables, she decided to take some time off and travel with her boyfriend, Australian rocker Ben Lee, who is also just nineteen. "I needed to see where I stood when I wasn't being protected completely by my mother or the cushion of a production company," she says. "I'm stronger than I thought, which was good to realize. I started smoking. I quit smoking. Now I'm exercising. I'm meditating. I'm spending half my time in Sydney, Australia. Really major things happened."

The most major thing, perhaps, is that she ended her professional relationship with her mother, Carla Danes, who up to this point had been helping to manage Claire's career. "I read her scripts, but I'm not going to be on salary," Carla told a reporter earlier this year. "That's the way Claire wants it. We need to separate."

Like her mentor Jodie Foster, who also went through a painful professional separation from her mother, Danes is handling it all with a stiff upper lip. "It was very stressful," she says, "but we're both dealing with it. We're fine. We survived, certainly. It's still going on; it's a gradual process."

A friend of mine told me that he saw Danes in Milan at an Armani party last summer during the collections. She was, he repored, a whirling dervish on the dance floor, bumping and grinding into the night. "Oh yeah!" she says, exploding with delight. "Laurence Fishburne was my partner, and I literally danced for six hours straight. I woke up the next morning and I was just so out of it. Ben arrived that morning and he was, like, 'You look like a dead monster. A vampire.' I love to dance."

Dane's first film without her mother was shot in the Philippines this past winter. It was, she says, "utter hell to make. Manila is such a ghastly place." Brokedown Palace, due later this year, is the story of two women who go to Thailand for adventure and wind up being thrown into a Thai prison after being wrongfully accused of drug smuggling. "It doesn't focus so much on the horrors of the prison," says Danes, who costars with Kate Beckinsale. "It's really the story of these two girls."

"She's absolutely brilliant," says director Jonathan Kaplan, who also directed Foster to her first Academy Award in The Accused in 1988. "She has the greatest powers of concentration and the most amazing commitment, emotionally and intellectually, to what she's doing. She can be a kid and goof around and hang with her friends -- it's not like she's some precocious genius; she's just a normal kid -- but when it comes to the work, she gets into a zone. She knows herself so well."

Indeed. When I ask Danes how it feels to hear such constant praise, she says, "It's great, I'd certainly rather them be saying that than something else." In Polish Wedding, an odd little movie opening this month about a rebellious, promiscuous young Polish girl, Danes plays a girl who's very much like her mother (Lena Olin) but with the soul of her father (Gabriel Byrne). Dane's character gets pregnant, forced into early marriage, and basically repeats the cycle of what is, more or less, the family's history. "It's my first time playing a sex-pot," says Danes. "One thing I will say about Claire is that she's really brave," says director Theresa Connelly. "I love to see that in a kid, because it's so rare. But the flip side of that is, you have to learn to close the door and protect yourself, and I think she's just negotiating that. It's come to her so soon. It's got to be intense.

"There was a scene in the movie where she has to walk through a crowd," says Connelly. "It's right after she does something, in a religious sense, that can be taken as a desecration of the Virgin Mary. People start to fall on their knees before her. I know it was a very intense moment for her, and Claire came to me and she was kind of crying. I'm sure it was very resonant for her. I think you learn that you have to kind of weave a web around yourself, and I think this kid is learning to survive. It's scary."

Some have commented on Dane's ability to distance or remove herself in certain situations. When I mention this, she asks, "Do you find me that way?"

Yes and no, I say. Truth be told, she does have a way of drifting off somewhere while she's talking, creating a strange discomfort for the listener.

"I was more that way when I was younger because I was more afraid," she says, sneaking a piece of bread, forbidden by her new trainer. "That was my way of protecting myself. In the end, it's very boring. I don't have as many of those fears now."

In a couple of days, Danes will begin shooting a film version of Aaron Spelling's late-sixties, early-seventies TV series The Mod Squad. Danes, of course, will play the legendarily ultra cool Julie.

"You're Peggy Lipton?"

"I am Peggy Lipton!" she fairly shouts. Just the other day, she met the real Peggy Lipton. "She had a dot between her eyes," says Danes, suddenly sounding like the teenager she is. "And then Naomi Campbell came up and she had the same dot between her eyes. I thought, Did you two call each other up?"

After several serious, highbrow roles, Danes is relieved to be doing something fun. Especially just before she heads off to Yale. "To be able to be cozy in L.A., and rent a home with a great pool, and learn how to drive, and giggle during rehearsals and stuff, it's just such a luxury." Scott Silver, who's directing The Mod Squad and calls it a "low-tech action movie," didn't believe it when he heard Danes was interested in the film. "'Sure she is,'" he recalls saying. "'Yeah, right.' She brings so much class to the project. She just raises it to a whole different level."

Recently, Danes met Molly Ringwald at a party. "As a five-year-old," she says, "I wanted to be Molly. Now I'm friend with Molly. I can't even believe it." If she and Ringwald do become good friends, it will almost be too weird. She's already pals with Winona Ryder. Thanks to My So-Called Life, Danes is the next link in the Molly Winona continuum: three women who have touched their generation by brilliantly portraying the teen-girl archetypes of their day. Earlier in our lunch, I read Danes a quote from Foster -- "She's such a sane person, not a nutball" -- to which she replies, "I do feel quite sane, but sanity's pretty tenuous. It's a struggle. It's so easy and so seductive to fall off the sanity wagon. It's good to interact with people as much as possible. That's why I'm moving back to New York. It's too easy to create your own fantasy world in L.A. I don't trust that that would be a good thing for me, because I have a huge, active imagination. I think I'm really scared of being alone, because if I'm left to my own devices I'll just turn into a madwoman."

She begins driving off. "But... um... I think I'm OK. I keep thinking I'm going to explode, you know, like something terrible is going to happen and I'm just going to morph into this monster. But I'm not. I'm not doing that. I think I can relax. I think I'm safe."

Later, as we finish up and pay the check, we drive into a conversation about how strange the entertainment business is, and she says, "The Club." Pause. "I'm famous, you're famous. Let's get together."

It must be hard not to fall into that, I say.

"Terribly," she says. "If there's somebody whose work you really admire, who's beautiful and appealing and attractive and you want to be close to them and you can because you're famous.... What, you're not going to take advantage of that? You're not going to meet your favorite musician? Your hero? Because you want to do it the real way? What does that mean? It's such a thrill. I guess it would be cooler if I said it wasn't, but..."

In the parking lot, the attendant pulls her car around. She says goodbye, climbs behind the wheel, and drives away.

All by herself.

Originally transcribed by: Myra Wong

© Vogue 1998