At the age of 17, Claire Danes already has a career most actresses would kill for. After coming to prominence in the short-lived ABC-TV series My So-Called Life, for which she received a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination, Danes is now poised to take over Hollywood, with three major films scheduled for release.
She's following acclaimed roles in How to Make an American Quilt and To Gillian on her 37th Birthday with her first lead role, starring alongside Leonardo Di Caprio in Twentieth Century Fox's production of Romeo and Juliet She will shortly begin production on the new Oliver Stone movie and recently completed filming Polish Wedding in Detroit.
On Monday, Danes sat for an interview in Miami with NUVO's Steve Hammer and other entertainment writers.
Q:How daunting was it taking on one of the greatest roles ever written?
Claire:Ummm, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown just before I did this movie. I literally had a panic attack. I woke up at 3 in the morning, my heart was pounding, I thought I was having a heart attack. I went down to my mom's room, I tried cuddling with her, I was rustling around the sheets in the bed, I couldn't get settled down. So then we went downstairs in the living room and watched Grease 2 and that finally pacified me. That was the remedy. (Laughs) It was extremely helpful. I highly recommend it. But then I got over it and I got down to the real work of it. And I couldn't have been in a better company. Everybody was very supportive. And Baz gave me so much freedom to create the kind of character I wanted to create with Juliet. But the whole experience was very frightening because we were doing something new and we were all stepping into new territory and charting our own paths. So that was daunting. But exhilarating at the same time. Some of your best work comes out of those situations.
Q:Did watching other screen portrayals of Juliet help in preparing for the role?
Claire:I haven't seen very many of them, to be honest. I saw the Olivia Hussey version, which couldn't have been more intimidating. Besides being one of the most beautiful people I've ever seen in my life, she did a fantastic job with the role. I threw all that away, though, I threw away all my preconceptions of who Juliet is. I started fresh and made my own Juliet. I think it's a very real and a very grounded one. You know, I wanted to (laughs) bring her down from the balcony and have her be a person you would meet anywhere. But she's a bit of princess, like Rapunzel being locked away in this tower and she's very sheltered and remote for that reason. But she's earnest and is in control of what she's doing. I loved being in her shoes because there was a real confidence to her. That was maybe because she hadn't been scarred by the world too much and had been so protected. She wasn't insecure and everyone was always telling her she was so beautiful and wonderful from the beginning. That's not to say she didn't have a hard life. She'd been virtually abused by her parents because they neglected her so much. She was saved by the fact that she really had a nurse who loved her. That's where she got her nurturing. But she was very confident in a way that I am not. I really put myself down often, I'm very self-deprecating and Juliet wasn't concerned with that. That wasn't a part of her life. She had other worries, but they were more external.
Q:Have you always been that way, self-deprecating?
Claire:Oh, I don't know. I think maybe it happened when I hit puberty, of course. And then I became a woman Ñ or I'm on my way to becoming one and that's very scary. It's very scary being a woman in this world anyway right now. I mean, I don't care how many people say how far we've come, we still have a lot farther to go. I remember one journalist asked me the other day, "Do you think it's still necessary to support feminism?" And I said, "WHAT? Where are you from, man?" No comment!
Q:If it's tough being a young woman today, how rough is it being a young woman in Hollywood today?
Claire:Hmmmm... a young woman in Hollywood. (Thinks) Well, already I'm realizing that the boys make more money. I always that was, you know, a fallacy or that people made that up. No, it's true. Boys make more money. But that's OK. No, it's not, but... There are fewer roles for girls than there are for boys. I fight to get them because I love to work, I love to act. I don't want to be bored and I want to learn from people who are very passionate about their work and are very driven and are very creative and effective. I feed off of that. And there are a lot of pressures that really have nothing to do with me, such as my looks. You see Alicia Silverstone being bashed for her weight. So it's sort of like, "Oh, my God, what if that happened to me?" So those are very real fears. I was listening to Janeane Garofalo the other day on TV and she was saying that if she lost 20 pounds she wouldn't have to be a character actress, she could be a leading lady. And I think Janeane Garofalo is beautiful. I don't get it, because she's gorgeous. And I was very scared to play Juliet, because she's this beautiful girl. I was like, "What does that mean?"
Q:You don't see yourself as beautiful?
Claire:Oh my God! No! Oh my God! But it hasn't stopped me from getting the kinds of roles I want to get, so that's a good sign. That's all I'm concerned about.
Q:How hard has it been dealing with your sudden popularity? You're in every magazine now...
Claire:I know! It's so strange! I'm a little clueless about it. I was doing a movie in Detroit and nobody knows who anybody is up there. Nobody cares, which is refreshing. I'd love to live in Detroit for that reason. Then I came back to L.A., and all of a sudden people cared about what I was up to in my personal life. And that's a little invasive, and intrusive. I have such a great family. I know it's a cliche to say. But they are very grounding and I can't thank the gods enough for the parents and brother I have. And I have friends who are honest and who love me for all the right reasons. So I'm in a good spot right now.
Q:You've kind of reached a level of teen idol. (Danes laughs) Is that something you've sought?
Claire:To be perfectly honest, as a kid I was obsessed with all those John Hughes movies and I completely idolized Molly Ringwald, as did every other little girl that I knew. I wanted to be Molly Ringwald So badly. And now I feel that kids are looking at me the same way and I'm honored. I think that's great, I really do.
Q:My So-Called Life was strange in that it wasn't a ratings hit but it still made you famous.
Q:How do you feel about the show today?
Claire:It was a wonderful opportunity. I'm glad I was introduced to this business as a part of that show, because I was in a very nurturing environment and I felt very comfortable being there. It was like a coccoon for to metamorphsize.
Q:Why did so many teenage girls identify with that show?
Claire:I meet so many people on the street and they say, "Oh, you're so pretty! They made you look ugly on that show!" And then I'm devastated for about two days. (Laughs) But I think teenagers do feel ugly. And at that point in my life, at 14 or 15, I felt hideous. Your body is changing and it moves a different way and you have to figure out how to coordinate it all. So I didn't try glamorizing it in any way, and I think kids appreciated that. I hope they did.
Q:You did your first major love scene in this film. Was than an uncomfortable experience for you?
Claire:We did that the first day of shooting. Leonardo and I were there in our matching G-strings. I got, you know, sheet burn because we were there for so many hours, wrestling around. Yes, I was a little uncomfortable. But not really. I'm not modest in any way. You're true to your character and true to the scene you're in. And when you wake up just after making love, it's usually true that you're nude. I made it through it, and here I am, and I'm fully clothed. (Laughs)
Q:How do you feel about being a role model for teens?
Claire:I can't focus on that. I just have to try to be the best person I can be. I've always pushed myself to have a good set of values and be true to them. That's all I can do.
Originally published in the Oct. 24, 1996 edition of NUVO Newsweekly, Indianapolis, IN.
(c) 1996 NUVO Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Many thanks to Steve Hammer for sharing his interview with us! :-)
© 1996 NUVO Inc.