Taking it from the top
It’s just “flowers.” ¶ But when Claire Danes says the word, it doesn’t sound anything like that. It’s more like FLAW-ehrz. Or maybe it’s closer to flahrz. “I didn’t” comes out as Idin. “Meddle” is mehtl. If you didn’t have the words printed in front of you, you could be forgiven if you hadn’t a clue what the 28-year-old actress was trying to say. ¶ And so it goes for half an hour in the Roundabout Theatre Company offices in Manhattan’s Murray Hill, as Danes and dialect coach Majella Hurley work to make sure Danes’ cockney accent is as good -- and, in a way, as bad -- as possible. ¶ For the first time in her professional life, Danes is starring in a play. But rather than slip into an ensemble cast of some untested new comedy in a regional tryout, the “My So-Called Life” alumna has decided to tackle one of the more linguistically challenging and iconic female roles in British stage literature: Eliza Doolittle in Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” ¶ On Broadway, no less. ¶ “I know, I know, but that’s my style,” Danes says before she resumes her “Pygmalion” rehearsals a few weeks ahead of the play’s Oct. 18 opening. “I really don’t know if it’s foolish or if it’s admirable. It’s just kind of how I roll.” ¶ In 2004’s “Stage Beauty” and this summer’s “Stardust,” Danes performed with an English accent -- the former with a 1600s standard British dialect, the latter with more contemporary U.K. inflections. But Shaw’s play requires neither, precisely. Instead, Doolittle’s pronunciations must pass from nearly inscrutable working class to indistinct immersion student to polished turn-of-the-last-century lady. At the same time, her character changes from a skittish street urchin into a confident knockout.
The daily sessions with Hurley are the verbal equivalent of a rhythmic gymnastics class. But rather than balancing a ball while doing cartwheels, Danes has to juggle diphthongs, voiceless glottal fricatives and palatal clicks, even as she recites Shaw’s often dense prose. “Before this, I didn’t know where my diaphragm was,” Danes says.
“Big, blue blisters bleeding badly,” Hurley instructs Danes to repeat with a cockney enunciation as a warm-up vocal exercise. The tongue twisters aren’t the playwright’s, but are intended to prepare Danes for the Shavian dialogue that lies ahead.
“This stern learner heard from the bird,” Hurley offers next.
“The kids were hidden in the middle of the tin bins.”
“A boy with a coin had a choice of moist soil.”
“Actors and authors have a special set of acquaintances.”
Danes’ striking eyebrows spike after that one. “That sounds rather saucy,” she says, pulling her blond hair out of her eyes, maintaining her cockney accent even as she jokes about the possible double-entendre.
With the warm-ups completed, Danes plows into the text, setting down her script. “Do you mind if I try without reading it?” she asks Hurley. “Because it’s about time.”
Danes realizes it’s about time she does a play too.
“I think people assume that I had done theater because I live in New York and I have danced,” Danes says over tea the next morning (her dance performances include a recent Gap commercial). “So I am offered a lot of theater for that reason -- because of that misconception -- but nothing really as gripping as this ever came along. I think it’s still so provocative and fresh and current.”
Written in 1912, Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is a comedy of upper-crust manners and a surprisingly feminist drama about one woman’s quest for self-determination. Even with its prescient themes, it hasn’t appeared on Broadway in 20 years.
Made into more than a dozen TV movies and feature films and famously adapted into 1964’s Oscar-winning “My Fair Lady,” “Pygmalion” begins with a chance encounter in the rain between Doolittle, a poor flower girl with a nearly impenetrable accent, and linguist Henry Higgins, creator of Higgins’s Universal Alphabet.
Higgins is both phonetist and social engineer. “In three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party,” he vows to his friend Col. Pickering. Doolittle reluctantly decides to participate in Higgins’ experiment. Over the course of Doolittle’s rags-to-riches makeover, Higgins quickly realizes you can take the girl out of the street far more easily than the street out of the girl.
But Shaw is less interested in what Higgins learns through his student’s transformation (Higgins may be learned, but he’s hardly wise) than what the flower girl discovers about herself.
Suddenly given the diction and vocabulary to express her independence, Doolittle strikes back at her professor. “When I think of myself crawling under your feet and being trampled on and called names, when all the time I had only to lift up my finger to be as good as you, I could just kick myself,” she tells Higgins near the play’s end.
And just as Nora slammed the door on Torvald in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” a generation earlier, Doolittle, as Shaw writes in his stage directions, “sweeps out.”
“It’s much more complex than sex. It’s power,” Danes says. “They do love each other, but they have, in the final scenes, to define what that love is and how it’s going to manifest itself in a natural, functional relationship.”
A cultivated interest
It was two of Danes’ relationships that help set “Pygmalion” in motion. Billy Crudup, her “Stage Beauty” costar and former boyfriend, pushed Danes’ interest in theater, she says. After the two acted in the little-seen movie, Crudup starred in “The Pillowman” on Broadway in 2005.
And then current boyfriend Hugh Dancy (who acted opposite Danes in this year’s “Evening”) appeared in the recent revival of “Journey’s End.” A few days before “Journey’s End” opened earlier this year, director David Grindley was chatting with the play’s Tony Award-winning Jefferson Mays (“I Am My Own Wife”) about what Mays wanted to do next.
The actor mentioned that he wanted to play Higgins in “Pygmalion.” “And after that,” Grindley says, “we started to wonder who could play Eliza.”
In sharing an occasional after-show drink with Dancy and the “Journey’s End” team, Danes one night started talking with Grindley about acting. “She was just talking about how she approached work -- she wasn’t selling herself at all,” Grindley says. “But everything she said made sense to me. I was really impressed.” In short order, she was in.
Danes admits that it seems odd to ascribe her acting career shifts to her love life. “I feel sort of silly talking about how the choice in relationships, the boys that I have dated” have affected my work, she says. “But my life did kind of take a turn.”
Even though Danes appears well-read (she attended Yale for two years before dropping out to return to acting), she says she knew little of Shaw or “Pygmalion.” “I had never read the play and I had never read Shaw and I haven’t even seen ‘My Fair Lady,’ ” Danes says. “I was really ignorant about it.”
In a way, though, Eliza Doolittle might be just the right part at the right time.
Born to a photographer father and a painter mother, Danes was raised in Manhattan. At age 10, she already was a student at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and attended junior high in New York’s Professional Performing Arts School. Soon thereafter, she landed the lead role in 1994’s “My So-Called Life.”
Ever since her television debut as the sometimes disillusioned adolescent Angela Chase in that beloved but nevertheless short-lived television series, Danes has excelled at playing characters who can be emotionally overwhelmed and radiantly confident -- often at the same time.
In “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” Danes played opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in director Baz Luhrmann’s provocative retelling of the tragic love story. While she has appeared in a handful of lowbrow popcorn movies (“The Mod Squad,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”), Danes generally chooses artistically ambitious films and filmmakers: Recent works include Thomas Bezucha’s “The Family Stone,” Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours” and Burr Steers’ “Igby Goes Down.”
In describing Danes and her performance as Doolittle, “Pygmalion” director Grindley says: “There’s a real sense that she knows how to go off into the world on her own and have an independent life.”
While not discounting the bold leap “Pygmalion” represents, Danes places it in a broader context of the risks she’s previously taken.
“I didn’t really go to high school, I was tutored,” says Danes, who essentially stopped formally scheduled schooling after “My So-Called Life.” “And I found myself at Yale. I wasn’t just going to college having not gotten an orthodox education. I wanted to go to one of the hardest colleges. I don’t do cakewalks.
“And the first big acting job I ever had was the lead on a TV series,” Danes says, finishing up her tea, ready for a long day of rehearsal. “I tend to find myself in these kind of extreme situations.”