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Claire Sailing
by Merle Ginsberg (W - October, 1996)

You can call me St. Claire, " says young Claire Danes, still a bit angular, a touch awkward. And she's serious.

In Little Women, I died young. In To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday, I'm an angelic girl who enlivens her family after her mother dies. And in Romeo and Juliet, I practically have a halo around my head!

"I guess I better start working on something lighter," supposes the 17-year-old sylph. "I'm starting to get typecast as dark and intense. I'll have to do something to tear that image down -- maybe Striptease II."

Not likely. Danes, sipping iced black coffee with no sugar in Manhattan Bistro near her parents' loft on Price Street, is better equipped to follow in Meryl Streep's footsteps than Demi Moore's stilettos. She started attending acting schools like Lee Strassberg and HB Studio in New York at age 10. Four years after landing the lead in the short-lived but well-loved TV series My So-Called Life, she's got a fair amount of drama under her belt, including playing Holly Hunter's daughter in Jodie Foster's Home For The Holidays.

Her cultural taste is as precocious and urban as she is.

"Trainspotting and Fargo are my favorite movies of the year -- they rocked my world. I just went record shopping, and bought De La Soul, Stevie Wonder and Chet Baker. Chet Baker: He's the bomb!"

Danes won't fully own up to "precocious," but she admit, "if you hang out with 40-year-olds, it does rub off." She's finishing high school this year with a tutor, then wants to attend college (perhaps Columbia), at the suggestion of Yale-educated mentor Jodie Foster. "I want to read the great books and talk about ideas," says the young star, who says she'll try to do movies over college breaks. "I love my high-school friends, but it's hard for me to relate to people who don't work and haven't had a lot of experience."

That doesn't mean there's nothing girlish about her. Although she wears jeans and T-shirts, she occasionally loves to shop at Barneys ("I feel like Audrey Hepburn in there"), and last year found herself walking the fall runway for designer friend Cythia Rowley.

"I had never seen a runway! There was no rehearsal. They just said to me 'Walk down there and turn around when you get to the photographers.' Then they said, 'Claire - what a great job!' I said, 'Yeah, I walked!'"

this will be another fashionable fall for young Danes, who will be wearing a whole wardrobe by Miu Miu who she hits the road to promote William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, as Twentieth Century Fox is calling it, directed by Strictly Ballroom's Baz Luhrmann. That's because Luhrmann and his Aussie costume designer dressed the entire ensemble, including Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo, in Prada and its sister line, Miu Miu, and Dolce & Gabbana. Romeo and Juliet, innocent but doomed, are always in virginal white.

"Baz is so elegant," croons Danes. "Most directors wear T-shirts, not him. He came to the set looking elegant and graceful every day. The movie's all contemporary dress, set in the present, with guns and cars. I think Baz wanted it to be manic, operatic, heightened, like Strictly Ballroom, but he wanted young people to be able to relate to its violent world."

It was Danes' first effort at Shakespear -- both as an actress, and a student. "I studied the text of the play with my tutor, and wrote three five-page essays on it. I really embraced the idea of 'tragedy.' Doing Shakespear is easier than acting a bad script. It's so-well written; after this, everything seems like crap."

As for DiCaprio, all she can come up with for him is "brilliant."

"I know that word's overused, but he's smarter and more perceptive than anybody I've met. He's also wild and out of control, which I love about him."

Right now, she's the movies' favorite daughter. She had a small part as a daughter in How to Make an American Quilt. In To Gillian, On Her 37th Birthday, out in November, Danes plays the daughter of a deceased Michelle Pfeiffer who has to prop her dad, Peter Gallagher, up; her next role is in Polish Wedding, as a 15-year-old Polish-American girl whose early pregnancy destroys parents Lena Olin and Gabriel Byrne.

In real life, her father Chris is a computer consultant and her mother Carla is her manager. And while, after good roles in five films she can be called a certified movie star, Danes off-camera still feels a bit like a gawky girl.

"I KNOW I'm sometimes goofy. I KNOW I'm young -- I've come to terms with that! As a kid I wanted to be a teenager so badly! Now I can't wait 'til I'm in my 20s! Junior high was hell; I always stuck out, I wasn't a joiner, I despised cliques. There's always been some girl in class who's been out to get me -- two of them were actually fading child actresses.

"But you know what I've learned?" she says, very un-saint-like. "It's a good thing to be human, to be flawed. I just have to keep relearning that all the time."

© 1996, W