Each age must have its dream lovers: a couple who are heart-wrenchingly handsome, so perfect together. And, while it lasts, the world must sigh, or be sick with envy, at the beauty of their match. In the past there have been Jackie and John, Richard and Liz, and even Charles and Di. More recently, we've been treated to the Liam and Patsy show. Now it's the turn of Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.
"No. That should be Juliet and Romeo," Danes corrects me, sweetly. She is the 17-year-old American actress who plays Juliet in Baz Luhrmann's brilliant film William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It's a speedy, postmodern, MTV version of the Bard's classic. Luhrmann, who directed Strictly Ballroom, has transferred sleazy old Verona to sleazy modern-day Mexico. The movie features neon crosses and a grungy soundtrack. It is sexy, violent and stylish. The Italian design house Prada was the costume consultant, so there's not a glimpse of a doublet or hose. It is the best-dressed film since Funny Face. And the critics and young American audiences loved it Ð it's already the most lucrative Shakespeare film ever made.
When we meet, Danes is seated in the Louis-something splendour of her suite at the Paris Ritz; old France meets baby Hollywood. Above her hang oils of two other great lovers, Napoleon and Josephine. Danes is exquisitely pretty and looks as delicate as eggshells. Interview time is kept to a minimum. "Because she's so young," says her publicist. "She still needs her mother."
Danes may be a mere slip of a girl, but she has shown strength and courage in her acting. Steven Spielberg and Susan Sarandon have publicly drooled over the "naturalness" of her work. Jodie Foster called her "this wiser-than-her-years-seeming person, and yet she is really a baby. You forget because she is this beautiful, demure lady".
It is just as well she is strong. She has not only accomplished her first starring role Ð her previous films include Little Women and How to Make an American Quilt Ð but her first big love scene was with the delectable DiCaprio. "All these young girls are very impressed that I kissed Leonardo and I survived the experience," she giggles. "Yes, I'm still here. Yes, I'm still breathing."
From their first glimpse Ð through a fish tank Ð to the first heavenly embrace in a stained-glass lift, Danes and DiCaprio, who is 22, are intensely sensual together. "They are like sister and brother, and yet their sexual chemistry is so defined," says the director. "They absolutely had it."
The two schools of on-set gossip, however, were that Danes and DiCaprio drove each other mad either with passion, or with frustration. "Leonardo is a wonderful person, complex and charismatic. Sometimes the light just pours out of him," Danes says carefully. "Yes, he is amazing. He is a lot of other things, too. He knows which buttons to press. He'd make the perfect Puck. I think I'm scared of him and he's scared of me, and that created a useful tension for the movie. I suppose we're sort of friends, and sort of . . . "
Foes? "Oh no. You're terrible. If I say that he'll never work with me again. But...I don't quite have our relationship figured out yet."
Being "sensitive, perceptive, curious and intense", as she describes herself, she wanted to please the spontaneous, madcap DiCaprio. She bought him some exquisite handmade chocolate eggs and wrote him a heartfelt note. When he found them he ripped open the packet, scoffed the chocolates and declared, approvingly: "These eggs are the bomb." The message was tossed aside, unread.
Perhaps the rumbustious Romeo and Juliet set, a veritable boyzone of Capulet and Montague gangs, was a gender shock for her after making all those female-bonding films. ''Romeo and Juliet was a lot of fart jokes, a lot of mooning, and a lot of making bogies with prosthetics from a make-up trailer," she says. "I wasn't in my element."
She does admit that DiCaprio taught her that letting go and having fun can help the work. Especially since she was nursing a broken heart, having just split up with her boyfriend, the musician Andrew Dorff, brother of the actor Stephen. However, like a true pro, she used these experiences for the role: "Two years ago I didn't know anything about sex...but I do now."
Danes says she likes "really bright, nerdy boys. I don't have 17 of them at my feet, although I'd love that to happen". She perked up when she was in Rome on a press tour last month. "We went to this hot club and I met four of the most beautiful Italian men I've ever seen. Italians are terrific, especially on the dancefloor. It was the best fun I've had in years."
She did not get off with any of these Romeos. "I'm just not into one-night stands," she says. "That is just way too scary. But for one evening, surrounded by those Italian boys, I could feel like Madonna in her Material Girl video."
It was seeing Madonna on MTV when she was five that sealed her future as a performer. "I was jumping up and down, and I knew there and then," she says. So her artsy New York parents sent her to the Lee Strasberg Institute, where all the other kids were having fun while she was trying to "feel the moment". It paid off. Her role as an angst-ridden teen in the MTV sitcom [Ed-aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!] My So-Called Life won her a Golden Globe award. It's been "very, very hard work" ever since, and a flood of her films arrives this year: Polish Wedding; Francis Ford Coppola's Rainmaker; Stray Dogs by Oliver Stone; and To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday with Michelle Pfeiffer.
Danes, who is two years younger than Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler were for their big film debuts, takes her mother Carla with her everywhere. "We are incredibly close, but I should have more secrets of my own. Right now I am supposed to be separating." Separating? "Leaving the home. Testing out as an individual, practising being an adult. I need that space."
When it all gets too much, she consults Winona Ryder and Uma Thurman on actressy and emotional matters. And, anyway, this autumn she plans to leave it all behind and go back to school, to do a film or art history course, probably at Columbia. A leap back to obscurity, something she says she wants.
As our interview comes to a close and the protective publicist enters the room to usher me out, I can't stop myself from sneaking in one last question. What was it really like snogging DiCaprio? "You have to remember, I was Juliet kissing Romeo, not Claire kissing Leonardo," she replies patiently. "That is something else entirely." Oh, how we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking so firmly at the stars.
© 1997, The Sunday Times