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Claire's So-Called Life
By Merle Ginsberg (WWD - September 3, 1996)

New York - "You can call me Saint 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," says the 17-year-old sylph, whose normally reddish brown tresses have recently become shorter and blonder. "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 Prince Street, is better equipped to follow in Meryl Streep's "serious" thespian footsteps than Demi Moore's movie-star stilettos.

She started attending acting schools like Lee Strassberg's and HB Studio in New York at age 10. Four years after landing the lead in the short-lived but well-loved series My So-Called Life, she's gotten a fair amount of drama under her belt, including the role of Holly Hunter's daughter in Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays last year.

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

"Trainspotting and Fargo are my favorite moves of the year -- they rocked my world. I just went record-shopping, and bought De La Soul, Stevie Wonder and Chet Baker. Did you think I'd be into Blur and Ace of Base? No way. I'm not a big alternative person. I'm more of a jazz person. Chet Baker: He's the bomb!"

Danes won't fully own up to "precocious," but admits, "If you hang out with all 40-year-olds, it does rub off."

She's finishing high school this year with a tutor, then wants to attend college -- Columbia, she hopes -- 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 claims 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 Cynthia 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. Wow -- you get so much praise just for that?'"

This will be another fashionable fall for Danes, who will be wearing a whole wardrobe by Miu Miu when she hits the road to promote William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, as Twentieth Century Fox is calling it, directed by Baz (Strictly Ballroom) Luhrmann. That's because Luhrmann and his Aussie costume designers 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 virginal in 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."

Natalie Portman, 14, was originally cast opposite DiCaprio, but in the end, Luhrmann thought her too young to play Juliet -- and the part went to Danes. It was Danes's first effort at Shakespeare -- 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 Shakespeare 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. I also loved how Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora portray my parents: He plays it as a glutton, and she plays Lady Capulet as a faded Southern movie star. It's all quite over the top."

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 (the movie was produced by Pfeiffer's husband, David E. Kelley) who has to prop up her dad, Peter Gallagher; her next role is in Polish Wedding, as a 15-year-old Polish-American girl whose pregancy 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 the nerdy girl in Welcome to the Dollhouse, another movie she loved.

"I know I'm sometimes goofy. And I know there were times on My So-Called Life when I looked really gawky and really awkward. 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 till I'm in my 20s. Junior high was hell; girls picked on me because I stuck out -- I wasn't a movie star yet! 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-saintlike. "It's a good thing to be human, to be flawed. I just have to keep relearning that all the time."

© 1996, WWD