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Perfectly Claire
by Jeanie Pyun (Mademoiselle - March, 1998)

Claire Danes looks lighter than air as she does faux-ballerina leaps in a ruffly blue feather duster of a dress--but her mind is on weighty subjects: "I'm not going to lose any more, but you do have to remain thin. I talk to a bunch of actresses my age, and we always gripe about how we can't eat anything. We say: 'I've eaten so much this week, I can't eat for the next week!' It's true! If you gain weight, you're going to be attacked like Roseanne or not get hired. It stinks. I hate it."

But she smiles after she says it, and you get the impression that while Danes may dislike aspects of the Hollywood spotlight, she's honest enough to "thank the Lord for coverup" and unself-conscious enough to get downright goofy. Over the course of an afternoon at a photo studio in Manhattan, she does the following: (1) Pantomimes smoothing hair behind the hairstylist's ears--hey, he's been doing the same to her for hours. Only thing is, he's bald. (2) Sternly shakes her fist at a blow-dryer that has the nerve to be on. (3) Applauds randomly and says "Yay!" like a child, just because it makes everyone around her smile and clap like monkeys, too.

She's a zany one, that Claire, like a kid who's had too much sugar. Zany like a high-achiever who has been serious about her career since she was 6 (she's 18 now) and needs to let off steam. Zany like My So-Called Life's Angela--before she dyed her hair red. We're talking Disney-zany, not Miramax-armed-robbery-on-a-road-trip zany. Stick-your-feet-out-the-car-window zany.

Okay, Enough With the Zany
Actually Danes has just returned from a couple of road trips. One was with her friend Stephanie to Big Sur on the California coast. "It's all about Lay's potato chips and whatever CDs you bring along," she says. (See? Pure Disney.)

But it's the other road trip that she really wants to talk about, the one she took with her boyfriend of almost one year, Ben Lee, a 19-year-old Australian singer-songwriter. "We pretty much spent the last six months together, traveling around the country. He's as much of a nomad as I am. But it's crazy that he's the person I want--[when we're apart,] the phone bills are ridiculous."

Danes really comes alive when talking about Lee: Her shoulders shoot up (instant posture!) and her face explodes in a wide grin. She's obviously in that obsessive phase when she still cares very much what he thinks ("I thought one of my favorite movies was The Grifters, until I rented it and Ben and his friend Pat hated it and I felt really stupid"); still notices the cute way he says things ("I woke up one time with him and he said something about a show and I imitated his accent: 'Was it on the tay vay ?'"); and--a bit less endearingly--talks about him all the time ("I love that boy!").

What Danes won't discuss is Matt Damon, her 27-year-old costar in John Grisham's The Rainmaker and previous boyfriend. (How does she say no? With a deep breath and an emphatic "I'm not going to talk about it.") She's also less than enthusiastic about her matriculation this fall at Yale. (Danes deferred for one year, and in the meantime, is wrapping up such projects as Les Miserables, in which she plays Cosette, and Polish Wedding, in which she stars as a flirtatious, wayward daughter.) Says Danes: "I'm nervous about how well I'm going to do. Most of the other kids will have been focusing only on their schoolwork for the last four years. It's this big monster in my brain that I've just got to tackle."

Another subject she doesn't feel like dwelling on: her new New York City apartment (the loft is undergoing extensive construction at the moment)--not because it's a sore point, but because she doesn't want to get excited about it yet. "I don't let myself really fantasize too much because it's still a raw space, but I'll say this: I want warm and cozy and not fluffy. No potpourri."

Transitioning Out of Teenhood
Until her pad's ready, Danes will have to live with her parents in Los Angeles. Her family is famously protective--for most of her career, her mom has accompanied her to every professional event, and her brother, Asa, 25 has counseled her on which projects to take. But even though she dearly loves them, she went her own way recently, just "cheating around" and traveling with friends. "I finally ahd some time to reflect," she says. "The first three months were kind of spiraling out of control. I was detoxing from living with parents and going to premieres and writing essays. When I realized that I was still standing, I thought, Okay, this is cool, and started hanging out with people I'd known previously"--a notch on the growth curve for Danes, who for years worked so much that she'd go for months without speaking ot anyone her own age."

She's a magnet for mentors, though. Danes has a knack for attracting friends in high places--from Winona Ryder to Yale alum Jodie Foster, who directed her in a small role in Home for the Holidays and regaled her with tales of collegiate character-building: "Jodie said she was a bit freaked-out at first. She didn't know how to write a paper when she got [to Yale], but her roommate taught her and saved her." Susan Sarandon, her Marmee in Little Women, mothered Danes in real life with on-set survival tips ("Drink lots of water when you have crying scenes because you get dehydrated").

Danes could teach How to Get a Mentor 101, but she can't articulate what it is about her that draws such high-quality counsel. "Maybe it's because my dad wasn't in the business," she muses. (Mr. Danes was a contractor and is now a landscape photographer.) "I was really naive. I think people sensed that and wanted to protect me. Yet they also sensed I was serious about acting, so they were willing to support me." (Well-known as Dane's advisers are, she doesn't take their fame, or anybody's else's, for granted: "It's strange when you're talking to someone who's a celebrity, and they start telling you about their childhood, and you're, like, 'I read that last week!'")

Not all of Dane's influences are mature showbiz professionals, though. Danes is both fascinated by and (somewhat amusingly) fearful of Courtney Love--but won't say anything on the record. Then there's Fiona Apple, another possibly impulse-control-challenged performer. She and Danes are about the same age; each is lauded in her respective field--yet Apple's reported tantrums and public weeping fits couldn't be more antithetical to Danes's serene demeanor. Perhaps it's because Danes plays tragic so well--as dying Beth in Little Women; as Juliet; as an abused wife in The Rainmaker--that she feels an affinity for the easily bruised Apple, whom she befriended at a recent fashion-awards ceremony: "Her music sounds so mature, yet she's so young. I emphatize with her."

Danes can afford to be generous--she's graced with a good family, an Ivy League future, a brilliant career and the support system to cope with it (including a certain Aussie individual--but we won't go there again). Could there be a more perfect 18-year-old? How could such a beguiling yet guileless creature exist? And how in the world does this sweet, seemingly tabula rasa pixie manage to shatter us with her portrayals of young-adult tradey and adolescent angst? Well, acting doesn't have to be autobiography. And, with her talent, Danes is entitled to a few trade secrets.

Originally transcribed by: Myra Wong

© Mademoiselle 1998