by Malissa Thompson (Seventeen - November, 1996)
Claire Danes is trying to have a normal day. It's one of those terminally sunny California afternoons and the 17-year-old -- whose life has been anything but normal since she earned raves as angst-ridden Angela on My So-Called Life three years ago -- is thumbing through a rack of mohair sweaters in one of her fave stores, Urban Outfitters. "It's sort of ironic, but these days I have to allot time to be natural and spontaneous," says Claire.
Decked out in a vinyl peacoat, striped bell bottoms and chunky platform boots, this New York native, who now calls Santa Monica, CA, home, could easily be mistaken for just another Urban employee. But as she edges toward a stack of baby tees, a tall twentysomething tourist approaches and mumbles, "You are famous, no?"
So much for normal. On top of typical traumas like SAT scores ("I don't even want to know what the results are"), her cruch on Aussie musician Ben Lee ("I am sooo in love, and I've never even met him"), her fear of driving ("Cars seem like huge weapons for me") and her addiction to Gummi Bears ("I should probably stop"), Claire has been busy becoming one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood.
"It's all been pretty wild lately," Claire admits while eyeing a pair of velvet hip-huggers. You can say that again. This month alone, not only does she star with Michelle Pfeiffer in To Gilliam on Her 37th Birthday, a heart-wrenching story about an only child dealing with her mom's sudden death, but she plays Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo in a dark, modern-day, pop version of William Shakespeare's passion-filled play Romeo and Juliet.
"It was quite possibly the most intense experience of my life!" Claire says of the three months she spent filming the love story in Mexico last spring. (This despite the fact that she had to go to school during the entire shoot; she had a private tutor on the set.) "The story is hard core because there's all this boy gang stuff, and the violence of the warring families is largely what the movie is about." And tackling the part of ultra-emotional Juliet wasn't exactly cake, either. "I needed to understand why she could go so far for love." Well, acting alongside total talent Leo must have been a highlight in an otherwise heavy experience, right? "Oh, my God. In our very first scene together, we were both topless," she reports. "Nice little icebreaker, what with both of us standing there in matching G-strings!"
Like a true hero, however, Leo saved the day. "He was the comic relief on the set," explains Claire. "When you have people pouring their hearts out, you've got to have a release -- otherwise you'll crack -- and Leo was great for that. Not many people know this about him because he's always doing these really meaty roles, but Leo is hysterical in a slapstick kind of way. He does these amazing impressions of people on the set. Actually, it's a little scary because I know he's done me when I haven't been wround, and I'm so afraid to see how he imitates me."
Actually, Leo has been pretty flattering on the subject of Claire's acting ability. "Claire was the only girl, when we did the audition, who came straightin my face to do the lines," he said in Entertainment Weekly. "And some of the other girls did, like, the affected flower thing. You know, they stroked their face and looked up and tried to do things with their eyelashes, and it was not nearly as truthful as Claire's performance."
Claire finishes browsing the store and heads for the exit. On the street a mother and daughter team to do a double take as Claire makes her way to a coffeehouse a couple doors down.
"Fame is extremely strange," muses Claire a few minutes later over a steaming cup of chamomile tea. "It seems so random that our society has chosen actors to idolize. I'm lucky that I happen to be able to act because, like, I can't do chemistry to save my life. But my friend is great at precalculus and nobody heralds her. Nobody's interested in who she's dating."
As far as who Claire is dating, well, she says she's been spending most of her Saturday nights solo because her year-and-a-half relationship with musician Andrew Dorff (brother of actor Stephen) is currently, uh, in transition. "Oh, Andrewww. I just don't know anymore what's going on. I love him deeply. I probably always will," sighs Claire in true Juliet fashion. "But there's a lot going on in his life right now, and he's not too stable. I must say, though, I grew up a lot with him. I was my first serious relationship where I was truly in love. It taught me a lot."
Famouys gal pals, Winona Ryder, whom Claire met on the set of Little Women, and Jodie Foster, Claire's director on Home for the Holidays, have guided her through some serious growing pains. "Winona has helped me a lot," says Claire. "See, I have a tendency to push myself really hard, and she's taught me that you have to slow down." And thanks to Jodie, who put off a thriving acting career to attend Yale University, Claire intends to squeeze a college education into her seriously hectic schedule after she graduates next spring (although she'll still use her summers to make movies.)
"I'm not sure where I'll end up," says Claire. "The fact that I can't be a top student and actress at the same time still messes with my identity. But I'm beginning to see that perfectionism really serves no purpose. And, besides, I'm really lucky that I get to do what I get to do. Like, hello," says Claire in mock shock. "Do you realize I've made out with more guys on camara that I've made out with in real life?" Laughing, she exclaims, "It's just not normal!"
© Seventeen 1996