Since 1994, audiences have watched as Claire Danes has matured from awkward teen to one of the most popular actresses of her generation. Whether portraying the angst-ridden Angela Chase on My So-Called Life or trailer park trash in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, Danes has consistently displayed an uncommon maturity and insight in her performances that belies her relative inexperience. Her ability has won over countless critics and fans and has allowed her the opportunity to work with luminaries ranging from Jeanne Moreau to Jodie Foster and Francis Ford Coppola.
Claire Catherine Danes was born April 12, 1979 in New York City and began acting shortly thereafter. With the support of her artistically-inclined parents (a painter mother and photographer father), Danes enrolled in an acting class at the Lee Strasberg Studio when she was nine years old. After attending the Professional Performing Arts School for the sixth and seventh grade, she went to Los Angeles in the hopes of being cast in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (Danes had previously appeared in an episode of Law and Order and in Dreams of Love, an obscure film produced by Milos Forman). While she was waiting for Spielberg’s decision, serendipity struck in the form of the makers of a new TV show called My So-Called Life, who wanted Danes to star in their production. Danes agreed to do the show after turning down the role that Spielberg had decided to give her. Always someone interested in learning, Danes rejected Spielberg’s offer because she wouldn’t be able to receive schooling in Poland, where the movie was to be filmed.
Premiering in 1994, My So-Called Life lasted only a couple of seasons, but garnered critical praise and a cult following during its brief lifetime. Moreover, it made Danes, if not a star, then a star in the making. Hollywood opened its bleary eyes and took notice, and soon Danes was being touted as the Next Big Thing. During the run of My So-Called Life, Danes starred as the saintly, sickly Beth in Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women (1994). The film was a success, and allowed Danes to perform in the company of such well-respected actors as Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, and Gabriel Byrne (who would later play her father in Polish Wedding).
Danes followed up Little Women with How to Make an American Quilt (1995), which, despite a stellar cast including Anne Bancroft, Alfre Woodard, and the great Jean Simmons, failed to make much of a critical or popular impression. Danes’ next project, Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, met with a similar fate, but afforded Danes the chance to work with Foster, who became a sort of mentor to the young actress.
After making two more films, which continued Danes’ pattern of starring in movies that behaved badly at the box office despite having bankable actors (Jeanne Moreau in the straight-to-video I Love You, I Love You Not (1996) and Michelle Pfeiffer in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996)), Danes hit it big with Baz Luhrmann’s wildly popular William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). Her portrayal of Juliet broke the hearts and opened the tear ducts of many, while her pairing with Hot Young Thing Leonardo DiCaprio undoubtedly caused mass swooning incidents in theatres the world over.
The critical and commercial success of the film meant that Danes was soon in great demand, as evidenced by the people she was able to work with over the next couple of years. After Romeo + Juliet, Danes worked with Oliver Stone on the lunatics-in-a-small-desert-town picture U-Turn (1997), a film that caused consternation among critics and at the box office. Danes’ turn as Joaquin Phoenix’s trashy girlfriend represented a departure from her previous, more innocent roles, something that she embellished upon in both Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker, where she played Andrew Shue’s abused wife, and A Polish Wedding (1998), in which she portrayed the rebellious Hala. Neither movie was particularly successful, an unfortunate bit of luck that continued with Danes’ next two efforts, Les Miserables (1998) and The Mod Squad (1998), the latter of which, despite the high anticipation surrounding its release, was panned by critics who complained it looked more like a Diesel ad than a movie, and largely ignored by the public.
Through it all, Danes has remained in the media spotlight, appearing on countless magazine covers and as the object of speculation for many. Aside from the bad publicity surrounding remarks she made about the Phillipines during the making of Brokedown Palace (1999), and her subsequent banning from that country, she has continued to attract positive attention for everything from her enrollment at Yale University in 1998 to her boyfriends, who include the Australian rocker Ben Lee.
Despite a series of misses during the late 90’s, Danes came back with several small but critically acclaimed roles. In Igby Goes Down (2002), she played the confused love interest of the title character, starred alongside Sean Penn in director Thomas Vinterburg’s It’s All About Love (2002), and took part in the Academy-Award winning The Hours (2002). While her performance in The Rage at Placid Lake (a 2003 Australian production featuring her boyfriend Ben Lee) went largely unnoticed, mainstream audiences got their chance to see Danes butting heads on screen with Arnold Schwarzenegger and newcomer Nick Stahl in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
In 2005, Danes joined Steve Martin in the adaptation of Martin’s bestselling novella, Shopgirl. That same year, she could be seen as Sarah Jessica Parker’s sister in the dysfunctional-family comedy The Family Stone. Dane’s career continued to build momentum in 2007, when she appeared in an eclectic trio of projects: the romantic drama Evening, the adventure fantasy Stardust, and the taut thriller The Flock, which cast her as the law-enforcement protege of a veteran played by Richard Gere.