Claire Danes Steps Out of the Shadows

Photo: Harvey Wang

In the first episode of the glorious (and prematurely canceled) 1994 TV teen drama My So-Called Life, Angela Chase (Claire Danes) fantasizes about the perfect compliment from the perfect boyfriend: “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.” That’s also the way viewers saw Danes herself, when the series turned the actress into her generation’s Molly Ringwald—the spunky, orange-haired oddball who was also a tremulous beauty. When the show was axed after one season, her career didn’t so much tank (she had a nice turn in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) as slowly fade. A modest role in Terminator 3 was her last highly visible gig.

Until last year, when Danes reemerged in a most uncomfortable way. The New York tabloids went berserk when news broke that actor Billy Crudup had left his seven-months-pregnant girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker, for Danes, his co-star in the movie Stage Beauty. Danes didn’t say a word on the subject, and she won’t now. “I resolved all that a long time ago, so it’s everybody else’s business to catch up,” she says calmly. “I don’t have to help them. It just doesn’t relate to what I’m wrestling with right now.”

What she’s wrestling with is the prospect of a major breakthrough. In October, she appears in Steve Martin’s bittersweet romantic comedy Shopgirl—a lead role with buzz. And for the past year, Danes has been collaborating with choreographer Tamar Rogoff on a more unusual project, a full-length solo dance piece, Christina Olson: American Model, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting Christina’s World. The project is not as peculiar as it might seem: Before Danes took off for Hollywood, she was a serious dancer, taking classes once a week with Ellen Robbins at Dance Theater Workshop.

“When Claire was little there was no doubt in my mind that she was going to be a magnificent performer,” says Rogoff, who has known Danes since she was 9 (her daughter, Ariel, and Danes were best friends). “She just had the kind of face you can’t stop looking at.” Today, at Rogoff’s breakfast table before hitting the gym, in a tank top and sweats, her hair pulled back into a casual ponytail, Danes does, it is true, have an ethereal glow. (She is also fiercely serious at work. About twenty minutes into a rehearsal the day before, a cell phone rang, whereupon Danes huffed, “Can you turn your phone off?” followed by a quick, semi-sweet “please, please?” It’s the tone of someone used to calling the shots—and one that made me very glad it wasn’t my phone.)

Skeptical sorts may view this as a bit of a vanity project—her fame, after all, can support a twelve-show run at P.S. 122 that many more-experienced dancers would kill for. Onstage, though, her face is beside the point, for once, and as a dancer she’s no amateur. “You know, Tamar has had to tell me throughout this process to keep all the activity in the body and have my face remain as neutral as possible,” explains Danes. “It distracts from the movement, which is where we want the audience’s attention to remain.”

Danes dances a role inspired by Christina Olson, the young woman crawling across the grass in Wyeth’s painting. Paralyzed from the waist down and refusing to use a wheelchair, Olson still managed to cook, clean, garden, and even regularly drag herself across a gravel road to visit a friend. As she dances, Danes mimics Olson’s pose in front of an image of the painting and a rather alarming video in which Danes heaves her body, barefoot and bare-legged, across 10th Street, crawls into a building (which turns out to be P.S. 122), and slowly, painstakingly, ascends the stairs. (Danes says making the film was “surprisingly enjoyable in a very perverse way,” adding that she got quite scraped up.)

Is there anything in her future that will draw on her dance background? “If a dance movie presented itself,” she says, “I’d have a hard time turning it down.” Then her face brightens with a big smile. “I wish Fosse were still around. That would be ideal.”

Claire Danes Steps Out of the Shadows