She's rocketed from TV starlet to Juliet in the urban-gangland update of Shakespeare's love story. Claire Danes talks to Peter Bradshaw about her so-called life.
Developing a crush on an actress that one has only ever seen on television is a sad business. I admit it.
Getting a crush -- chastely, spiritually, longingly -- on a sensitive and delicately beautiful 17-year-old actress who plays a Philadelphia schoolgirl in an American TV drama axed before the end of its first series: now that really is a sad business. I admit that as well.
But fervently fantasising about being mates with the precocious character she plays (hanging out with her at school, exchanging humidly intimate, quasi-sibling intimacies with her. . .): well, that's so sad, you might as well take me out into the car park and put the humane killer up to my head right now.
But such was the abjectly fannish devotion that I briefly conceived two years ago for Claire Danes -- Claire, the glorious star of the cult teen series My So-Called Life, and now to be launched into the real big time by playing Juliet in Baz Luhrmann's new LA-gang-warfare movie version of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.
I couldn't help it. When I heard the opening-credit music of My So-Called Life I went a little faint. It meant I was about to get an hour-long dose of Claire Danes and her delicate Beauty. That open, adorably American face, so heart-stoppingly apt to crumple into tears. The strangely loping, Doc-Marten-wearing grace. The grey-green eyes. The hair -- dyed auburn in the show, but longer and mousy blond in real life. To the sound of REM and Smashing Pumpkins, Claire would moodily nurture her fears, her pain, her occasional extravagant joy. She would get excited. She would get bummed out. She would obsess on stuff. And I would obsess as well. Oh her.
Since then, Claire has got a Golden Globe for MSCL and when the MTV Movie Awards last June gave the prize in the category of Most Fanciable Female, the presenters were the Brobdinagnian basketball player Shaquille O'Neal -- and Claire. She is now brutally cool, and the queen of the new Hollywood Teen Brat Pack, along with DiCaprio (her Romeo), Alicia Silverstone and Stephen Dorff (whose brother Andrew she was recently dating and just taught her to drive).
Claire Danes is the real thing. Romeo & Juliet is already a smash hit in the States (where Hollywood Shakespeare is now comme il faut), having taken $7 million in its first weekend. It has cemented her reputation as one of the freshest, most intelligent, most unaffected and most real screen actors now working. And she's still a fortnight short of her 18th birthday.
In the words of Stephen Speilberg, who tried, unsuccessfully, to cast her for Schindler's List, she "is one of the most exciting actresses to debut in ten years. I don't really understand why she's captured my heart. She just has an amazing honesty in her presence." Her friend and role model Jodie Foster, who directed her in the comedy Home for the Holidays, says: "I don't think I've ever seen anyone her age who has the poise, depth and emotional quality she has."
And just to top it all off, Claire, God bless her, is an Oasis fan. She played "Wonderwall" over and over again at home last year in Los Angeles. "It's really poppy, and has a beat," she confided to re act magazine. "I'm embarrassed that I like it so much."
Claire's mother, Carla, is an artist, and her father a computer consultant; they met at the fashionable Rhode Island School of Design, married and created what Claire calls "a very creative household" in Manhattan with the much-loved cat Fifi-Champion. Claire is the younger of the two children (her brother Asa is a charity worker). At the age of six she began to study modern dance ad gymnastics; at nine she took acting classes at the Lee Strasberg School.
But the big break came playing Angela Chase, the clever angst-ridden teenager in My So-Called Life, in which she gave the definitive portrayal of disaffected Generation X teen America: yearning for love and meaning in her life. The show was (heartbreakingly) axed -- but that freed Claire to move into movies.
Starting a grown-up film career with grown-up roles and grown-up responsibilities is not easy. When shooting the as-yet-unreleased To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday with Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire had to do a drunk scene and it dawned on one and all that despite her remarkable sophistication, Claire had no experience of alcohol. So in a spirit of earnest Method (that Lee Strasberg training!) she went out and got drunk to see what it was like -- having vetoed an initial suggestion that her parents should come along as well. "I had a few Kamikazes and. . . the clear stuff. Vodka," she said later, engagingly. "I went out with my agent and my older friends, and they got me drunk purposely so I could feel what it was like. . . I was so smashed that the throwing up wasn't painful or anything."
Cool. Now it is time for Shakespeare, and Claire Danes is perfect casting for Juliet: beautiful, idealistic, much nearer the right age than we usually get and capable of doing the candid streak of sensuality Shakespeare includes in the poetry that is often piously ignored or glossed over -- particularly in Olivia Hussey's rather doe-eyed performance for Zeffirelli nearly 20 years ago.
When she spoke to me, Claire Danes was awe-inspiringly mature about the whole thing. "Shakespeare is very real and very accessible I was talking to Ben Kingsley at the German premiere, and he was saying how addictive Shakespeare is; he gives you all the material you need. You don't need to do much homework. It's like a game of dominoes -- just flick one and the others fall into place."
She laughed: "Fame is scarier now than it has ever been. Romeo & Juliet has had such an impact and I've had such a lot of attention. I've moved out of the family home, so I'm separating from my mom. Embracing not only stardom but womanhood is wonderful but also petrifying."
What were her fans like, I wondered (nervously)? "Girls like me because I've kissed Leonardo DiCaprio!" she laughed. "But it tends to be young people, teenagers. . ."
Oh, er, any embarrassing moments? "There was I guy I once recognised from junior high walking on the street -- a guy who really used to pick on me, but when I got back to the hotel there was this note: 'Colin would really like to see you.' I thought, well, this wheel has really come full circle!"
And how is her relationship with her co-star, the unbearably pretty Leonardo DiCaprio? "That's the question I get asked the most -- did I fall in love with Leonardo?" So did she? "Leonardo and I really like each other; we really respect each other; we were telling such an intense story and bearing the weight of such a commercial film. It was. . . a complicated friendship."
Hmm. How about her relationship with Andrew Dorff? "Andrew and I broke up just before filming on Romeo & Juliet started. . . I'll have to watch myself here because I'll babble to just anyone!"
Now Claire is poised to go to university: she has applied to Columbia, Harvard, Yale, NYU, Vassar, and Sarah Lawrence, and in April will discover which ones she's gotten into. It is a shrewd and sensible career move she shares with Jodie Foster -- who incidentally made it her business to buttonhole all the relevant suits and names to ensure that Claire got cast in the role of Juliet. "I was really annoying about it," Foster cheerfully confessed. Couldn't anyone else have hacked it, she was asked? "There's just no comparison."
Jodie is right. There is no comparison. Claire Danes -- that icon of MTV contemporary culture -- is perfectly poised to tackle a classical, Shakespearian role. I can feel the flickering embers of fan-adoration glowing once again. . .
Originally transcribed by: Asa Hopkins
© 1997, Evening Standard