Claire Danes, young, articulate, forthcoming, wise beyond her years

                                                 June 2005  By Philip Berk

Still barely in her teens, Claire Danes gained notice from people like Steven Spielberg (who wanted her for Schindler’s List) and in fact she was only fifteen when she won a Golden Globe as best television actress for a series that lasted one season (My So Called Life)

After that, her life became every actress’s dream. Films with Francis Coppola, Oliver Stone, and Bille August. 

Juliet opposite Leonardo’s Romeo.

But then she chose to interrupt her unstoppable career by attending Yale, on the advice of actress Jodie Foster, who had done the same thing.

At the time she was maintaining a long distance relationship with Australian musician Ben Lee.

The first time I interviewed her I remember asking her which of the So Called Llfe characters she’d be attracted to in real life. Surprisingly she rejected the high school Adonis (for whom she pined in the series) played by Jared Leto, and chose instead the insecure sensitive type (who loved her from afar.)

“I don’t think I could be involved with somebody who didn’t have a lot of layers for me to learn about. People who are one dimensional  are usually not very interesting. They may be really beautiful, but that wears off within a week or two. The things that are attractive to me is a good sense of humor; they must be creative, really intelligent, compassionate, and they have to be passionate about something in their life. They have to be driven. If you get four of those qualities, I’m ecstatic. I could never be in love with somebody who I couldn’t learn from.”

Might that be a resume of Ben? I surmised.

Without a moment’s hesitation she replied, “He’s adorable. He’s mine. We’re in a monogamous relationship where I’m totally in love. I’m really happy about that. Dating is not what it’s cracked up to be; it’s pretty unsatisfying.”

How come?  

“I prefer opening myself up to one person and feeling comfortable in a relationship. When I’m dating, I never really know where the lines are drawn and what the roles are. I’m anxious and awkward.”

But he lives in Sydney and she lives in New York?

”So we have very ridiculous phone bills. But it’s manageable. I mean it rocks your world for a week. It really beats you up, the time changes, but hey, anything is worth love.”

How did they meet?

“I knew about his music before I met him. He had recorded an album, and I asked Baz (Luhrmann) the director to put one of his songs on the soundtrack (for Romeo and Juliet.) It didn’t work out, but when he was in L.A. making a second album, he faxed me and said, ‘Thanks so much for spreading the word. If you want to get a coffee, we could get together.’ So things kind of grew from there.”

Do her parents approve?

“Yep. Stamp of approval. He’s passed. He’s good to go.”

But then everything changed two years ago when she flew to England to film Stage Beauty

Not only did she fall for her costar Billy Crudup but she got herself enmeshed in a domestic quadrangle that would make Patrick Marber (author of Closer) blush.

At the time Billy was involved with Mary Louise Parker. They had been together for eight years and were expecting their first child. 

Claire was still promised to Ben Lee!  

None of the parties have opened up on the subject and in the numerous times I’ve interviewed her the subject has been off limits

After all how do you explain betrayal?

But now suddenly she is starring in two films that deal with that very subject and obliquely she sheds some light on the situation.

Her first film out of the gate is Shopgirl based on the Steve Martin novella, in which she plays a desperate lonely 28 year old who spurns the advances of a younger man and is taken in by a wealthy much older man weary of permanent relationships. 

Could she see herself making that choice? I ask her

“I’m very careful not to judge people. I just keep my pointer finger in my pocket because I never know why people make choices, and I can’t assume they’re for negative reasons.”

Yet Mirabelle has had four years of college. 

 “I don’t think a college education protects anyone from self doubt or insecurity. A lot of my friends who have just graduated from college are really frustrated and unsure about how to proceed with their lives. In college we learn very abstract theoretical things, not many practical skills. Mirabelle is not at all fully realized as a person. She doesn’t know herself. She doesn’t know what she’s capable of. She’s exploring that through her relationship. It’s kind of a  tutorial she’s getting from this older man.”

How would she, Claire, deal with it?

“I am way imperfect. I mean there are areas in my life that are really intimidating and unclear that I have to look closely at and become more proficient in, and that’s true of most 26 year olds. Thank God I don’t have it all figured out. I may be more established as a person and more proactive professionally but I see her as kind of heroic. She overcomes something pretty major.”

Has dating ever been a problem for her?

“I’ve been in monogamous relationships since I was seventeen so I’ve never really dated.  A lot of my friends struggle with it. It’s challenging to find somebody who shares a value system with you, who you can spend a lot of time with without wanting to throttle them. But being in a relationship doesn’t necessarily protect you from loneliness.”

What is the hardest thing she’s learned about relationships?

“They’re incredibly humbling because they demand compromise. In order to know somebody else and love somebody else, you have to be willing to confront yourself and know who you are, accept your limitations as well as your virtues. A lot of people avoid them because they would rather not probe into parts of themselves they want kept dormant.  Everybody’s a little different although hopefully there is a consistent through line, I don’t know. I am getting into sensitive territory here. I’m getting nervous because I don’t want to betray something.”

Speaking of betrayal, is she forgiving?

Jokingly she replies, “Totally gracefully. Then she adds, “It’s messy and unseemly, there’s no way to circumvent feeling. You just can’t cheat, it’s gonna find you. It’s better to do it directly otherwise you end up becoming really misaligned. But I have to be careful not to pretend that I’m fine because I tend to do that. I want to be fine, and I’m not always. It takes work and diligence to remember that.’

The mention of Ben Lee prompts an immediate, “No I am not going to go into that, but thank you.”

Her other new release also deals with betrayal although in a lighter vein.

In The Family Stone, she plays a sibling enlisted to rescue her sister from her fiancee’s hostile family but then ends up falling in love with him.

Has she ever had a problem with a boyfriend’s family?

“I actually love meeting my boyfriend’s family members because it’s very illuminating. You can trace all sorts of personality traits and habits and behaviors to their grandmother, aunt, dad. So it’s very informative but I’m scared to think what my family reveals about me.” 

How would she behave if her sister’s boyfriend became infatuated with her?

“I don’t have any sisters,  so Ii can’t say how I would respond. I don’t think I would have an easy go with it , but I don’t know.”

And if it happened to her?

“I wouldn’t like it.”

Being in a  relationship for almost two years now what has she learned?

“In what sense?”

Has it changed her?

“Oh gosh, I mean, every relationship has a different character, a different set of demands, that elicits different feeling and different needs. I think the challenge in any relationship is to remain self possessed and self aware, maintain your individuality while at the same time being intimate and deeply committed, That’s tricky to do both at once because of the constant negotiation. We give too much or we give too little. It’s tough, but it’s a worthy challenge.”

Does she believe in love at first sight?

“I think it’s possible. We can get a surprising amount of information very quickly, almost instantaneously about a person. We’re doing a lot of calculations, making a lot of sophisticated assessments;  so it’s not so mystical. We’re reading their gestures, their choice of clothes, You can infer a lot from those things. Yeah, instant attraction definitely exists, and it can translate into a lasting, genuine love. “

What about friends, does she depend on them for advice?

“My friends have been a valuable source of support. I’ve been so moved by their insightfulness and their love. My desire is to reciprocate, to match their level of caring. I really have a wonderful community of girlfriends.”

And having an older boyfriend, are there benefits?

“I don’t know. It’s not too different. After a certain point I just concentrate on the person, the essence of who he is and that’s ageless. There are some practical differences but in the end they are not relevant.”

Billy, by the way, is eleven years older.

Years ago she confided in me, “When I first meet somebody and I’m head over heels in love with him, all I want to do is be with him. All I can think about is him. I’m just like an idiot. I can’t study or concentrate. Everything seems irrelevant because I’m in love. And that’s what it was like with my parents. They met in college, they’ve been married 30 years. So I’ve had some great models.”

No fears?

“Lena Olin (who played her mother in The Polish Wedding) once asked me, ‘Would you rather  be completely in love with a person or have them completely in love with you. And I told her, if it couldn’t be reciprocated, I’d rather have someone completely in love with me. I’ve been on the other end, and it’s not fun. As high as the high is,  the low is just as low. My greatest fear is being afraid to love somebody because I’ve been burned. Hopefully, that will never happen.”  

How would she deal with it?

“I have the capacity of being very jealous. It would just break my heart if somebody I loved was with somebody else. But jealousy is such an exhausting feeling and nothing good ever comes of it.”

When she made Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo di Caprio, was there any frisson on the set. Did she have to hold herself back?

“Not at all. Leonardo’s one of my favorite actors, but it was never like that. The truth is it was very bizarre being there. It was extremely surreal. I remember one scene. In between takes there was Leonardo checking his messages on his cell phone. I was on my death bed, and he’s on his cellular. I just thought, ‘My goodness, it’s very strange,’ especially since I was extremely frightened of that death scene.”

And he wasn’t at all helpful?

“I really believe he’s a genius and I learned a lot working with him. It’s just that I was so moved. I was crying in every single take of every single scene. It took an hour or so for me to wind down. But I absolutely adored working with him. It was such a treat to create moments on screen with him.”

Finally I ask her, is she ready to take the plunge?

“One of my oldest friends, my best friend, who I’ve known from when I was nine, has just gotten engaged, and I’m in shock. I cant believe I’m actually getting to a point where my friends are starting to get married.”