Claire Danes: The sighing game

Let's try a little trick: don't think about bananas. Did it work? Did you manage to cleanse your mind of anything resembling a banana? Me neither.

Let's try a little trick: don't think about bananas. Did it work? Did you manage to cleanse your mind of anything resembling a banana? Me neither.

I encounter a similar problem before interviewing Claire Danes. I am in the corner of the hospitality room contemplating a muffin when the actress's PR appears next to me and says: "I'm sure I don't need to ask you not to mention..." I shake my head and protest that, no, of course not, I wouldn't dream of it, I wouldn't even know how to frame a question like that. And it's the truth. It would take a more audacious person than me to say: "So, Claire Danes, you fell in love with your co-star Billy Crudup on the set of your new film, Stage Beauty, and you both left long-term partners to be with one another; in fact his girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker was seven months pregnant at the time. How's that set-up working out for you?"

The topic has more or less gone out of my mind until it is almost verbalised over by the muffin table. And then it becomes hard to think of anything else. Sometimes the very subject that is being scrupulously avoided can dominate a conversation. Sometimes the question that is not asked drowns out the ones that are.

So I have to kick my heels outside the hotel suite while Danes and Crudup exchange a few words inside, then pretend not to notice as Crudup exits the room before I am led in. And I must resist the urge to probe and pry when Danes tells me: "I'm more discerning about what I reveal than I used to be. I used to think that I had an obligation to disclose certain things about my personal life because people seemed interested. I guess in the past I would've failed to realise that this is more than just you and I talking in a room. I mean, it feels nice and intimate. But I can make the leap in my imagination now and realise that by talking to you, I'm talking to millions of people." Well, hundreds of thousands, anyway.

Luckily there is much more to Claire Danes than whomever she happens to be skipping through the daffodils with at any given time. The 25-year-old has chosen her movie parts with care since the end of My So-Called Life, the US television series that made her name a decade ago. She had developed a cult following as Angela, something of a high priestess of teen angst, and before that, she appeared briefly in a similar part in a comedy pilot. "Even on a sitcom I had a morbid role," she sighs. It turns out that she sighs a lot, usually at herself for failing to grasp the word she is looking for. Her sentences come slowly, in staccato rhythms, as she refuses the temptations of convenience or cliché in favour of sitting it out for the precise phrase or expression. If that doesn't come, she'll just bring herself to a close with a "hmmm" or a click of the tongue. Or something from her repertoire of sighs.

It is hard to find a profile of Danes that doesn't touch on her supposed vulnerability. But there is a flintiness to her that hadn't been signposted, and which makes her an enjoyable sparring partner. I tell her that she appears to be having fun in Stage Beauty, in which she plays a 16th-century dresser and budding actress, whereas she usually seems vexed or pensive in her films. "Yeeahhh," she drawls, teasing out the word to suggest that it is nothing of the sort. "But I like to believe that those roles actually demanded it." Look at that judicious choice of language: "I like to believe..." The sarcasm crackles in the air.

There's more where that came from. When I point out that she even looked down in the dumps in the noisy, nasty blockbuster Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, she shoots back: "Well, the world was ending. It's very hard to have a feeling of levity when you're being attacked by androids!" By this point she's both bellowing and giggling. "If you were responsible for the salvation of humankind, I don't think you'd be laughing it up, pal." Point taken.

But it's true that Danes seems liberated among the wigs and powder puffs and bawdy gags of Stage Beauty. The trailers for Richard Eyre's film promise a kind of Shakespeare In Drag, conveniently omitting the passionate kiss between Crudup and Ben Chaplin, or the bizarre bed scene during which Danes interrogates Crudup about his preferred positions during gay sex. It's actually a cleverer, edgier movie than Shakespeare In Love, and the chemistry between the two leads is undeniable - as well as unmentionable, in the interview context at least. Perhaps it is enough that Danes responds to the subject of having fun on the film by cooing coyly: "Richard encouraged us to play. And I loved the company I was keeping."

The scenes from Othello that she plays opposite Crudup in Stage Beauty are the most charged in the picture, adding to the impression that, after her excitable Juliet in the Romeo + Juliet (1997 ), she has the makings of an impressive Shakespearean actress. I advise that she would be a tenacious Isabella in Measure for Measure and she whoops: "Oh, Billy's done that play!" Danes likes the sound of the role. "So she's incredibly masochistic, huh? Well, that'd be a good one for me. I do suffer from a bit of that. It's been my life goal to thaw." She muses on that for a moment. "My goal is to be less goal-oriented," she announces with a grin.

Some gentle nudging reveals that she regards herself as something of a control freak. "I'm not an acute case," she says, "but I definitely err on the side of being controlling." She has in the past imposed on herself enforced departures from her professional life - departures that look now like a control freak's attempts to prove that spontaneity has its time and place. In 1999, she took a break to study at Yale; she now says of that period: "I realise it was more about allotting some time for myself, to gain some distance from the business, and divorce myself from responsibility for a while." When she was dating her last boyfriend, the Australian musician Ben Lee, she accompanied him on a low-key US tour, squeezing into the bus and bedding down in motels. "It's such a fun fantasy to indulge in," she said at the time, "especially if you don't have to play." There's something poignant about the image of her tagging along, playing neither in the musical sense nor the participatory one.

One of the appeals of acting could be that it allows her the temporary satisfaction of immersion. She never looks more elated than when she is describing those moments when she has lost herself in a role. "Very rarely you are able to access a profound truth," she explains. "It can be really transcendent and exhilarating. That's why we have to endure all those times when we fall short of that excellence - which is the majority of the time in my experience. Often it's a little off, a little undercooked. But that's OK. I'm patient. Because when it does 'pop', it's so gratifying."

If there is a hint of sadness about Danes, it might be related to her professionalism; she doesn't appear to have had much opportunity, or inclination, to cut loose. She was, by her own account, a tense and fearful child who went into therapy at the age of six because she was seeing apparitions that would force her to perform peculiar tasks. A gargoyle once made her contort her body into a bizarre position for half an hour. "I don't see ghosts any more," she assures me. "So that's nice."

She was dancing in Lower East Side productions in her native New York before she was 10, and attending acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute by the age of 11. After that, she enrolled at a performing-arts junior high school, and later moved with her family to Los Angeles to enable her to appear in My So-Called Life.

The story of her turning down Schindler's List because it would mean a protracted break from schooling is widely known, and telling. She was, it seems, born with her feet on the ground. "She's this wiser-than-her-years-seeming person," said Jodie Foster, who directed Danes in Home for the Holidays (1996), "and yet she's really, really, really a baby. And you forget, because she's this beautiful, demure lady."

The hothouse atmosphere of Romeo + Juliet, dense with booze and bad behaviour and testosterone, is where Danes has seemed most fragile. But when I quote to her the observation of one of her co-stars, John Leguizamo, who said that she was "devastated" and "usually wanted to cry in every scene", she is quick to retaliate.

"We were all encouraged to reach a state of utter hysteria on and off the set," she says. "The other actors were just as deeply into their characters, only they weren't playing Juliet. They were playing virile, macho, aggressive people, so they were acting accordingly. Juliet does cry a lot in the movie, you know." She seems agitated now; I wish I had Leguizamo waiting on the line so she could put her objections directly to him. "I couldn't play a crying scene without crying," she continues. "I'd be an amazing actress if I could do that."

You get the impression that she is correcting an image of herself while it is still wet in the popular imagination - while she still has the chance. And when she does play inadvertently into the received wisdom about herself, she is quick-witted enough to send herself up something rotten. "I want my work to be seen by as many people as possible," she tells me at one point. "I want to make a big splash, I want to have my cake and eat it too. I think any serious artist does."

She pulls herself up, and looks at me incredulously. "And I just called myself a serious artist. That really happened, didn't it?" She's collapsed in an ungainly heap on the sofa now, covering her face with her hands and unleashing a deep, raucous laugh. "I'm so sorry," she says, coming up for air. "That was unfortunate."

Stage Beauty can only help to reshape Danes' persona, and though the publicists might be slow to admit it, the off-screen romance will be another advantage; it introduces a dab of passion into a career that has been predominantly cerebral. Danes doesn't have much in the pipeline except a leading role in the upcoming Shopgirl (co-starring, and written by, Steve Martin), but she says she's choosing her roles even more carefully now. "I haven't worked for six months because there's nothing I've connected with." She's been catching up with friends, shopping too much, taking in movies. For some reason, I ask if she writes; she strikes me as someone who might have a stack of poems in her bottom drawer. "I used to write poems when I was younger. I write e-mails. And text messages. Does that count?"

Only if you're a serious artist, I say.

"Oh, I am," she smiles. "Did I mention that?"

'Stage Beauty' is released next Friday

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