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To Claire on Her 18th Birthday

Anne Bergman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Claire Danes admits she’s feeling pretty “slick.” The 17-year-old actress has been up since 6 a.m. making the rounds of a frenetic press junket to promote “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday,” enduring nine hours straight of being pelted with, as she puts it, “about 60 people asking you the same questions.”

But what does Danes mean by “slick”?

“You know,” she explains from the patio of a Beverly Hills hotel functioning as “To Gillian” command central, “you feel like an idiot for giving the same answers, and using the same words even.

“I used to try and be creative in my responses,” she adds almost wistfully, “but I’ve sort of given up on that.”

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And what’s odd is you get the sense that Danes really means what she says, that she’s truly bothered by repeating herself, as if she’s spending her whole life earnestly trying to express exactly what she means. Even at a press junket.

Growing up before our eyes, Danes was captured on the small screen in the TV drama “My So-Called Life,” forever crystallized as 15-year-old Angela Chase, despite the show’s quick demise. But Danes has since made the leap to the big screen, currently at the center of “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” (in which she plays Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter) and playing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the highly anticipated “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” which opens Friday.

In addition, Danes also recently landed parts in “Rainmaker,” yet another John Grisham adaptation, which Francis Ford Coppola is currently filming in Memphis, Tenn., and Oliver Stone’s “Stray Dogs.” Last week she turned down the role of history’s most famous teenager, Joan of Arc, in a film to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow, citing a scheduling conflict.

“I’m excited about her because everybody wants new blood in the film business,” says Jodie Foster, who directed Danes in last year’s “Home for the Holidays.” “She’s got a movie-star quality, yet she’s a real actress. Usually you only get one or the other.”

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“She has qualities of understanding and instinct for truthful moments,” Coppola offers from the “Rainmaker” set. “She just reaches out and wins you to her, convinces you that she is whatever character she’s playing.”

Baz Luhrmann, who adapted and directed “Romeo and Juliet,” says of Danes: “She’s an incredibly hard worker, methodical. You simply forgets she’s her age.”

Still to come are “Polish Wedding,” in which Danes co-stars with Gabriel Byrne and Lena Olin as a pregnant teenager, and “I Love You, I Love You Not,” in which Danes plays the lead opposite Jeanne Moreau.

You might also remember Danes from her small but significant parts in “Little Women,” as Beth, the sister who is slowly dying, and “Home for the Holidays,” as Holly Hunter’s sensible teenage daughter.

Yet the wise-beyond-her-years Danes doesn’t let all the fuss go to her head, as she remains philosophical amid all the flurry.

“It’s like I’m becoming more of a woman and more of an established actress at the same time,” she says, almost to herself. “It’s like all of this practicing as a teenager is finally paying off.”

The “practicing” Danes refers to is her comprehensive dramatic training. Growing up in New York City’s SoHo district, the daughter of an artist mother and contractor-turned-Macintosh-consultant father, Danes was already taking dance classes by preschool. By age 10, she was enrolled in Lee Strasberg’s Theatre Institute and appearing in student films at the New York University and Columbia film schools. For junior high, Danes attended a New York performing arts magnet school.

While her mother, Carla--who also acts as her daughter’s manager--remembers that Danes always wanted to be an actress, she attributes a portion of her daughter’s creative drive to the environment in which she grew up.

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“I think if she had lived in California near the ocean,” her mother says, “and everyone was surfing, she’d be a surfer. It’s just in the air.”

In person, Clare Danes has a reassuring quality. She doesn’t want her interviewer, for instance, to think she’s not giving her all, despite the fact that she is genuinely exhausted. “I’ll push myself,” she promises.

There is an undeniable sincerity about Danes that on screen makes her the focus of every scene she’s in.

"[With Claire] there’s no playing to the camera,” Foster says. “There’s no experiencing something falsely, she’s completely there. She’s such a sane person, not a nut-ball.”

It’s this ability to communicate a truthfulness that won Danes the adoration of a cadre of fans for her starring role on the acclaimed, short-lived ABC series “My So-Called Life.” Cruise the World Wide Web and you’ll find ardent sites devoted to Danes as well as to the show, which aired during the 1994-95 season and is affectionately known as “MSCL.” (The series is rerun on alternate Saturdays on MTV.)

Frequented mostly by teenagers, these online pages are open love letters to the actress they will always think of first as introspective Angela, the young woman who is trying to make sense of the world around her.

Danes has been featured in magazines targeted at teenage girls such as Seventeen and Sassy, and she wrote an essay recently published in the political magazine George, in which she ponders what she would do if she were president. “I would concentrate on our nation’s youth,” she promised, “and their education.”

Although “MSCL” ran for only 19 episodes, the series offered Danes 19 hours in which to explore her character.

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“I was introduced to this business in a really safe environment,” she says. “I got a chance to grow as an actress and try out different feelings and scenes. I got to work out my acting muscles constantly.”

Her work on the series earned her a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama.

Danes landed the part on “MSCL” almost by accident, after flying to Los Angeles to screen-test for Steven Spielberg, who was casting “Schindler’s List.” At the time, she was 13 and already a veteran of an episode of “Law & Order,” two TV movies and a never-aired pilot for a Dudley Moore sitcom.

“Because she was flying in for ‘Schindler’s List,’ she was able to come and meet with us,” says Winnie Holzman, the show’s creator and primary writer. “She was the second person we met, and it was like the part walked in the door.”

Indeed, Holzman, who had heard through the grapevine that Danes was a “comer,” was quickly impressed with Danes’ ability to carry the show.

“I told her parents when we were shooting the pilot that Claire was going to be a movie star,” she recalls. “I thought someone should prepare them for what was going to happen.”

While Danes ended up getting the part in “List,” she turned it down because, she says, “they weren’t willing to give me any schooling in Poland.”

Regarding her education, the Danes family, which moved to Santa Monica when their daughter was working on “MSCL,” is ever vigilant.

“I really had to fight for her education,” Carla Danes says, “not on ‘My So-Called Life,’ because California has such tough rules. But on other shoots, Claire really needed someone to make sure she got her tutoring.”

Danes, currently enrolled as a senior at Le Lycee de Francais in Los Angeles, has just retaken the Scholastic Aptitude Test in hopes of improving her scores. She hopes to attend Columbia University and is considering studying film and acting.

While Danes acknowledges that she is a little nervous about being on her own for the first time, she also thinks that already having a career gives her an edge over her fellow students.

“I’ve been out in what we call ‘the real world,’ and that’s given me a lot of perspective,” she says. “I don’t need to get good grades or get a doctorate--because, really, in this business, people would prefer me not to go [to college]. So, I get to learn about whatever it is that I want to learn, in whatever way I want, and that’s really a treat.”

The plan is to work only in the summers so Danes can devote herself to her studies and to college life.

“I’m looking forward to being in one place for a length of time, getting attached to a group of people and knowing that you’re not going to leave them in three months,” she says.

On the set of “Home for the Holidays,” Foster encouraged Danes to make sure she didn’t miss out on going to college. Foster, who began her career as a child actress, was the ideal mentor, having graduated from Yale University and eventually returned to show business.

“I told her that it was important to me to have something else to do besides being in ‘Top Gun,’ ” Foster recalls.

As far as comparing herself as a teenager to Danes, Foster says: “We’re very different people; she’s a little more open and wide-eyed. And while I had a great relationship with my mom, Claire and her mother are really best friends. I remember we went para-sailing down in Mexico, and she was holding her mom’s hand and they were squealing together. She really wanted to be with her mom.”

“We’re together much more than other mothers and daughters,” says Carla Danes, who attends all of her daughter’s photo shoots, TV appearances and movie sets. But, she says, that all will end once Claire turns 18. “She has to separate from me and the family. She needs to be on her own.”

“Soon I’ll be 18,” says Danes, whose birthday is in April, “and it’ll be all me. I’ll be on the set alone, and I won’t come back to my trailer and have my tutor and my mom waiting for me. I know I’m going to be lonely.”

Danes was cast as Juliet after DiCaprio was cast as Romeo.

“I saw many young actresses from around the world,” Luhrmann says. “I had to have someone who looked 15 but was in control of her craft like a 30-year-old.”

Once the cast was in place, Danes, Luhrmann and DiCaprio rehearsed together to get the language clear.

“It was a moment-by-moment collaboration,” Luhrmann recalls. “Those moments of rehearsals were very sweet moments; we had fun trying to understand the text. One of the things we set out to do was to get them to claim the language for themselves, to make the words their own.”

But when faced with filming the immortal balcony scene, Danes found herself petrified:

“That was so intimidating to do that scene. I mean, it was ridiculous. I had to go on and say those famous lines that have been made fun of over the years. I had to throw all these other performances and interpretations behind me and start from scratch.”

Says Luhrmann: “That scene knocked me dead because I was wondering how we were going to have a young girl talking to herself on the balcony. She went beyond my expectations in that scene. She made it believable.”

Keeping his cast focused, however, proved difficult once filming began, as the Mexico shoot was plagued with difficulties. At one point, Danes’ mother was hospitalized with pneumonia, and a Mexico City crew member was kidnapped briefly.

“The truth was it got a lot more extreme than anyone really bargained for,” Luhrmann says. “But part of the reason I chose Claire and Leo was because I knew they could sustain the work and its intensity.”

To hear Danes tell it, her most terrifying moment came before she even hit the set:

“I had such a panic attack when I was about to play Juliet and I’d just seen the Olivia Hussey version and she was gorgeous. So I had a little breakdown at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Although she recovered, Danes acknowledges that she is self-conscious about her looks. For a recent appearance on “The Tonight Show,” she changed her outfit at the last minute from a slinky gown to a more conservative suit.

“I’m so insecure in that area,” she says. “It’s, like, amazing how frightening it is.”

Surrounded by a supportive family (she has a brother, Asa, 24) that keeps her from getting caught up in the Hollywood maelstrom, Danes says: “My mom wants me to be a generous and smart and nurturing person who’s good to people. She doesn’t want any of this baloney to get to my head.”

Her own healthy perspective can’t hurt either.

“I think it’s really exciting that I get to be a part of a certain generation, you know, a set of peers that I’m going to grow up with and meet again when I’m 50,” Danes says, “and we’ll look back at what we did when we were kids.

“I’m thinking,” she says with a smile, “of Leonardo and my fellow cast members on ‘MSCL’ and Winona [Ryder, her “Little Women” co-star]. It’s great to feel part of a community.”

And as Danes continues to metamorphose into an A-list actress, she says she is willing to endure the trappings--the scrutiny, the press tours and the personal sacrifices--for the sake of the work.

“I want to work with the most creative and driven people,” Danes says, “and you need an audience as an actress. Nobody will see your movie if nobody knows who you are. Being a movie star is part of the package.”


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