This is Claire Danes’ first memory of acting. “I was 2. I was in pre-nursery school and it was naptime,” she said. She’s speaking with conviction, conjuring up an image of her toddler self wanting to impress her teacher -- and so pretended to sleep.
“I remembered observing my mother twitching in her sleep so I was doing that, very subtly of course. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s good, Claire. That’s nuanced. She’s never going to know I’m awake.’ ”
Even at 2, Danes showed an affinity for the intimate acting moment and a preternatural self-awareness, both of which are apparent 23 years later as she sits in the lobby of L’Ermitage hotel, discussing her latest film, “Stage Beauty.”
A star of such films as “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Hours,” Danes is less ethereal in person -- more of a sinewy dancer type, although her slightly hunched shoulders make it clear that’s not her profession. She is wearing snug jeans and a diaphanous purple print blouse. She sits in a chair, her long hands clasped together in her lap like a schoolgirl. She speaks carefully, intelligently, but also as if every thought is almost reflexively doused in irony.
Her self-consciousness, now muted through a scrim of elegance and experience, is at odds with the vulnerable unselfconsciousness of her best screen performances.
Danes is at her most lush and translucent in “Stage Beauty,” a theatrical confection about -- what else? -- life in the theater. It’s one of those putative historical dramas that is actually a very modern discussion of sexuality and gender, told in an “All About Eve"-type narrative.
Set in 17th century England when only men were legally allowed to be actors, it tells the tale of Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the greatest star of the day, famed for playing such female heroines as Shakespeare’s Juliet and Desdemona. He is secretly loved by his dresser, Maria (Danes), who nonetheless usurps him and becomes his professional rival when the king declares that all female stage parts must henceforth be played by women.
Danes makes an unlikely Eve and doesn’t play the part with the unflinching narcissistic drive it would really take for a lowly peasant girl to climb the ladder of success in Restoration England.
Danes sees Maria more sympathetically, as a girl stumbling into her birthright. “I related to her zeal and her desire to perform, which is so sincere and touching,” the actress says. “I liked that she was both naive and ambitious. Some people have perceived her as cunning and calculating, and I really don’t.
“She had an insatiable yearning to act and to love this man, and she couldn’t help herself. I don’t think she intended to create the kind of rupture she ultimately did.”
“Stage Beauty” is a film about soul acceptance -- the kind of love that transcends sexuality, and gender, bad behavior and identity crises. Crudup has the flashier part. He plays the man playing the woman in the big red dress, the one who plunges into degradation. Yet it’s up to Danes to anchor the romance, to persevere with unswerving conviction. She sees beyond whatever disguise he might be adopting at the moment and forgives.
Coincidentally, the film chronicling the backstage drama of Elizabethan theater was itself awash in backstage drama, which (for the low-minded of us) does affect how one views “Stage Beauty.”
Simply put, Danes was dating Australian rocker Ben Lee while her costar Crudup was involved in a long-term romance with fellow thespian Mary-Louise Parker, who was pregnant with their first child. Mere months before that child was born, Crudup broke off with Parker and became romantically linked with Danes.
Even though no one really knows what goes on in other people’s romances, the tabloids nonetheless went into prurient ecstasy, and the insinuations about the dewy, earnest ingenue, best loved for her role as teenager Angela Chase in the cult TV series “My So-Called Life” weren’t kind.
Danes refuses to discuss the subject. Her halting pattern of speech grinds to an uncomfortable full stop. Apparently, soul acceptance in real life is not an appropriate topic for public consumption.
Backstage romance has led to some disastrous on-screen results, everything from “The Marrying Man” to “Gigli”, but this is not one of them.
Director Richard Eyre insists he had no idea there was anything real going on under the acting.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” he says. “I was aware that they were two people who were wonderful actors who were perfectly matched. Their sensibilities were so similar; their intelligence is very similar. They have a very similar response to things. I just thought, ‘This is pretty good casting.’
“Did I notice chemistry? Of course I did. They’re actors. Their job is to act. They acted very well being in love. I couldn’t say more, not out of discreetness but out of ignorance.”
For Danes, the hardest part of “Stage Beauty” was a scene in which Maria auditions for the theater and proves herself to be an atrocious actress.
“I was embarrassed personally as Claire, acting as badly as I was meant to. Even though that’s the intention. I still resented that I had to subject myself to that kind of humiliation,” she said with a giggle.
She said that a subsequent scene, in which her character wrestled with self-doubt, “resonated very strongly for her. “There were all these overlaps. I realized how much my identity relies on other people’s belief that I am decent as an actress.” She shrugs. “Or something like that.”
That struggle has always been present, something that Danes used to build upon, whether she was 10 years old and studying sense memory at the Lee Strasberg studio, or 13, when she was cast to carry the one-hour drama “My So-Called Life” on her frail shoulders.
“I was miserable in junior high,” recalls Danes. “I was kind of socially inept and really unnerved by the swift, intense changes that were occurring in my body and my mind. I went to three different junior highs. I became very reclusive and isolated. I was very angry about a lot, and so was my character, and her frustrations were so beautifully articulated. It was almost like [“My So-Called Life” creator and writer] Winnie Holzman just passed the mike over to me. I was grateful to have a release and to be able to complain so loudly.”
Danes only sporadically went back to school after that; she mostly studied with tutors on a steady stream of sets. She performed in such films as “Little Women,” “Les Miserables” and “The Rainmaker.” She quit movies for three years to attend Yale, in part to figure out whether acting was merely a habit or an avocation. After Yale she went back to film.
“I was yearning for it,” she says.
No longer the precocious child star -- “I’m getting old, I’m 25,” she says only half-mockingly. “I’m a big fat adult now” -- all the acting that used to be pure instinct has become more refined, more part of a process.
“As I enter into adulthood, I’m that much more grateful for my achievements and that much more regretful of my failures. It does have to do with accepting responsibility. It’s like I’ve left the Garden of Eden and am now looking for a fig leaf.”
Recently, she’s played Meryl Streep’s daughter in “The Hours,” the quirky girlfriend in the indie hit “Igby Goes Down” and a fragile figure skater in the experimental film “It’s All About Love,” due out later this year. In an incongruous career step, she also joined Arnold Schwarzenegger to try to help save the world in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”
“It seemed kind of radical,” she explained, laughing.
Like many who worked with the now-governor of California, she has her Arnold stories, like how he kept an enormous chess set in his trailer, flanked by two chairs, one emblazoned “winner,” the other labeled “loser.”
According to Danes, the opponent always had to sit in the loser chair.
“He’ll do anything it takes to prevail, to dominate,” she said. Although she was intrigued enough to start taking chess lessons, she never played him. “I never dared.”
Still, for Danes, there was a worthy lesson in unreflective self-empowerment to be learned from Schwarzenegger. “Arnold doesn’t get in his own way,” she says with a wondering admiration that still somehow seems vaguely ironic.
“He’s unapologetic about achieving his goals, and I kind of admire that. Because I do equivocate. I do doubt myself excessively. There are some virtues to that. I’m reflective and sensitive.” She smiles, “but I waste a lot of time.”