TORONTO--When she was approached to star in Stage Beauty, Claire Danes was nervous about her lack of real-life stage experience. "I really haven't done any theatre and I was embarrassed by being in this company," Danes says.
In town to promote Stage Beauty's Canadian premiere at the Toronto film fest in September, Danes explains that not only was she surrounded by experienced theatre actors, but director Richard Eyre (former head of Britain's National Theatre) also took a very theatrical approach to making the film.
"We rehearsed for weeks, which is absolutely anomalous in moviemaking. You usually get about three days and spend most of the rehearsal time drinking coffee and avoiding learning any of the lines because you don't want to spoil the spontaneity," Danes explains.
Stage Beauty, which opens in Vancouver next Friday (October 22), tells the story of two actors. Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup) is the last English leading man to star as one of Shakespeare's leading ladies; Maria Hughes (Danes), his dresser, admirer, and eventual rival, becomes the first woman allowed to appear on the British stage.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from his play, the film also features Tom Wilkinson as a theatre manager and resident Othello, Hugh Bonneville as Samuel Pepys, and Rupert Everett as the capricious scene stealer, King Charles II.
Despite her lack of theatre background, Danes had no trouble relating to the material. "It's a love letter to acting, and that's something I have spent my life thinking really seriously about," she says.
She became a TV star at 15 when she was cast as the lead in My So Called Life, a short-lived but critically loved teen-angst series that catapulted her to the top of teen Hollywood's it list. She made more than a dozen movies over the next six years, ranging from action flicks like The Mod Squad to Romeo + Juliet, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. Then, in 1998, Danes quit Hollywood and enrolled at Yale.
So what was university like? "It was great to just worry about my homework and, like, stay up till 4 playing dumb video games, drinking too much beer on Friday night, and all that." Then she catches herself, realizes it sounds like she majored in partying, and continues. "Also, Yale's a wonderful institution and the professors were, you know, so inspiring.
"I tried to estrange myself as much as possible from anything even remotely related to acting. I was tired of it. I didn't want to hear about it. I didn't want to talk about it. And now, of course, it's all I want to hear about it and talk about it."
Since dropping out of Yale, Danes has gone back to juggling arty fare like The Hours with popcorn flicks like Terminator 3. "It really depends on what opportunities are available. And when I did Terminator I'd just done The Hours and Igby Goes Down and a movie in Denmark that was really very artistic and progressive and idiosyncratic, and I just wanted to blow some shit up already," Danes says.
Unlike her character in Stage Beauty, Danes never had a specific teacher define her work. "I've had a few mentors. I've been very lucky to work with some really powerful, gifted women--like Susan Sarandon, Jodie Foster, and Meryl Streep--and they've all made a pretty valuable impact on me personally and professionally. But I learn experientially and through osmosis--we're all responsible for cultivating our own sensibilities and techniques--so I'm just making it up as I go along."