Claire Danes: 'I have all the qualities of a nerd'

The 'Me and Orson Welles' star prefers to stay out of the limelight but her private life has never been short of romance or intrigue
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On a chilly November day in London, Claire Danes arrives for our interview dressed like a woman who feels the cold. Wearing a navy dress with a ruffled collar and peep-toe black heels and matching nail polish, she's wrapped up in a long black winter coat that she keeps on and buttoned up to the collar throughout our time together. Perched on the edge of her sofa seat, sitting bolt upright with a prim look on her face and her hands folded on her lap, it nevertheless leaves the impression that she's trying to make a quick getaway rather than simply trying to keep warm.

Generating heat is something Danes has always struggled with in her career – at least since she starred opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet back in 1996. Already a big star in the US, after winning a Golden Globe as Angela Chase in the TV serial My So-Called Life, she went global playing Juliet. Yet she then turned down the role ultimately taken by Kate Winslet in Titanic – partly because she was exhausted, partly because she didn't want to immediately re-team with DiCaprio in another star-crossed lovers tale so soon after their Shakespearean collaboration.

If that was commendable, her subsequent choices never quite set the world alight. Either she played in moderate films by big directors (Oliver Stone's U Turn, Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker), big-budget mistakes (like The Mod Squad and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) or what she calls "more progressive and experimental films" in little-seen things like Thomas Vinterberg's incomprehensible It's All About Love and dark family drama Igby Goes Down. She even suffered plain old bad luck, learning the trapeze for Jodie Foster's circus drama Flora Plum before it got cancelled after co-star Russell Crowe injured his shoulder.

When she did find a critically acclaimed film – Stephen Daldry's The Hours springs to mind – she was rather ignored, lost in that case in the rush to praise Nicole Kidman. But Danes remains unconcerned about her eclectic choices or the trajectory her career has taken. She points to the time when she took on an off-Broadway one-hour modern dance solo Kids on Stage, which she choreographed, in the same year as the Steve Martin-penned romance Shopgirl. "It's really fun to experiment with different scales. As long as the story is good, and my character isn't degraded in any horrible way, I'm game."

The question is, do directors care about Danes anymore, now she's no longer the girl of the moment? She was last seen in 2007, in Stardust, Matthew Vaughn's fairy-tale romance, and Evening, the excruciatingly sentimental ensemble on which Danes met her now husband, British actor Hugh Dancy. Even her latest film – Richard Linklater's backstage drama Me and Orson Welles, in which Danes plays a hugely ambitious production assistant at the iconic director's Mercury Theatre – was shot two years ago. So has she deliberately taken time off? "I didn't work so much this year," she nods. "I got married! That was plenty."

Admittedly, the very fact the 30 year-old Danes isn't fame-hungry, or desperate to be seen on the cover of every glossy, is to her credit. Having bonded with Dancy over games of Scrabble on the set of Evening, they kept their wedding ceremony as simple as their courtship by marrying in front of close family and friends in a low-key ceremony in France. Admitting she's become something of an anglophile by default – though she and Dancy actually divide their time between London and New York – she's evidently head-over-heels in love. "While relationships are work," she says, "this just didn't feel like it."

Talking to Danes, though, you're almost left with the impression she'd rather let her new husband bask in the Hollywood spotlight while she takes a back seat. Thing have changed, she says. "When I first started getting attention, I was relatively privileged. I was living in a time when tabloid culture, certainly in America, was much more contained. There wasn't the internet, people didn't have cameras on their cellphones. It's a really different environment now. Nobody was hounded by paparazzi back then. You had to be like Michael Jackson or something. Now the scrutiny is incredibly overwhelming, intense and relentless."

Given this, I wonder whether she's glad she's not just breaking through now, unlike her Me and Orson Welles peer Zac Efron, the High School Musical star who takes what is arguably his first adult role here. "I have to say that I am. I feel spoiled in that sense – that during those more formative years, I was sloppier. Not that I'm so polished now. But I could make mistakes in my life... though I don't think I was ever spilling out of cabs. I was a pretty nerdy kid." Really? Her ice-cool blonde looks and artistic air hardly hint at this. "I was pretty nerdy," she insists. "I'm still kind of nerdy. I have all of the worst qualities of being a nerd – all of the affect and none of the smarts. I'm a useless nerd! That's pretty bad."

What's interesting is to hear her refer to her "mistakes". Certainly while Danes may be better behaved than, say, Lindsay Lohan, her public record is not spotless. When she filmed 1999 drug-smuggling drama Brokedown Palace in Manila, she was quoted in Vogue as saying that it was a "ghastly and weird city". If that wasn't enough, she further remarked in Premiere that the city "smelled of cockroaches, with rats all over and there is no sewage system and the people do not have anything – no arms, no legs, no eyes". Little wonder her films were then banned from being screened in the Philippines.

Then there was her dalliance with actor Billy Crudup, which was rumoured to have begun while the pair shot her previous backstage drama, Richard Eyre's 2004 film, Stage Beauty. While her six-year relationship with Australian singer Ben Lee had already come to an end, Crudup was reputedly still with his long-term partner – the then-pregnant Mary-Louise Parker – when it was reported that he and Danes got together, something both have always denied. "That was a choice I made to fall in love," she later noted. "It's unpleasant to be cast in such an unflattering role, but I just had to remain steadfast."

All of this intrigue could hint at why Danes was drawn to Me and Orson Welles, in which her character Sonja has no problem shacking up with the married Welles (played by excellent newcomer Christian McKay) as he prepares to mount his seminal 1937 production of Julius Caesar. "I don't think she's sleeping with him to further her career necessarily," argues Danes. "She is ambitious but she's not guileful or conniving. She wants to succeed but she doesn't want to bring anyone else down necessarily in the process. She's very straightforward about who she is and what she wants, with everyone."

The "me" of the title actually refers to naive student Richard (Efron), who falls under the spell of both Sonja and Welles when he's cast in a small role in the play. While her character is fictionalised (the film being based on the novel by Robert Kaplow), Welles is present and correct in all his pompous glory. Danes admits she first learnt about him in college, she says, when she wrote a paper on his 1941 directorial debut, Citizen Kane. "It was a revelation for me at the time to discover how innovative he'd been and how relevant, fresh and contemporary that movie still seems now."

While she tells me it's remarkable that Welles was just 22 at the time of Me and Orson Welles, I take the chance to ask what she was doing at that age. "I was probably just coming out of my sabbatical. I stopped [acting] and than I re-started as a grown-up!" she says, surrounding her last two words with finger-animated quote marks. Born in New York – her father worked as a computer consultant, her mother a painter and textile designer – Danes was still white-hot from Romeo + Juliet when she backed away from the spotlight. Choosing psychology, she enrolled in Yale in 1998, where her grandfather was previously the dean of the art and architecture college.

Danes explains that her desire for further education came from simply craving normality. "I started working when I was very young. I got an agent when I was 12, and fortunately was employed consistently from that point on. So I didn't really go to a conventional high school. I was tutored on sets and things."

Dropping out after two years to return to acting, the stop-start nature of her adult life suggests Danes is somewhat restless, unfocused even. Yet she says she's still hungry for new challenges. "Now I'd love to work with the new guard – Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze or Sofia Coppola. I haven't really done that." Whether they would warm to this rather chilly creature in front of me is another matter.

'Me and Orson Welles' opens today.

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