Raw talent matures into Stage Beauty
large. I’m not nearly as… as fecund as I should be.”
But she admits that Maria is iconic, and that playing icons is kind of her thing. This is the woman who got her first big break embodying the archetypal teenage girl in the influential TV series My So-Called Life, and followed it up at the age of 16 by playing no less an emblem of adolescent girldom than Juliet (as in Romeo + Baz Luhrmann).
The one icon she wanted to embody most of all, as a teen, was Joan of Arc. “But that didn’t happen,” she sighs. “Boy, did I want to be the greatest martyr of all time!” But she also has resisted being the big star. “I like playing more idiosyncratic character roles, where I can be as arch and extreme as I like and I don’t have to worry about the audience necessarily identifying with me. That can be a bit of a burden.”
That burden made her Ed Zwick-produced TV series so hard for her. She blew people away with her fearless portrayal of the vulnerable and awkward Angela. She was raw, but she was always real – and she wasn’t yet 15.
“I was so happy to expose that teen experience. That seemed really authentic to me, but it’s also kind of embarrassing, because I let so many people into my bedroom – my sad, 14-year-old bedroom, you know, pimples and all. It was kind of tough.” So was early fame. “It happened really fast. I couldn’t have been more ignorant about how all this works. So I was so busy trying to make sense of it, I didn’t really have much time to enjoy it. I did occasionally. It can be really intoxicating, but it can also be scary, because people would perceive me differently. People within my own family even.”
It’s no wonder that, after the Romeo + Juliet project opposite Leonardo DiCaprio – “brilliant and intense,” she calls him – made her the official teen queen, and the dismal drug adventure Brokedown Palace shattered her admirers’ expectations, she stepped out of the spotlight and went to Yale, following in the footsteps of mentor Jody Foster.
“I didn’t act for a total of three years. Having an acting career was great, because I had managed to evade high school, which was lucky for me, because I was miserable in junior high and I was not looking forward to four more years of that… cruelty. But kind of not lucky for me, because I didn’t have an opportunity to develop my social skills with my peers.”
She inched back into the scene quietly with, among other small roles, a low-key but resonant performance as a college dropout in Igby Goes Down, and then held her own with Meryl Streep in The Hours. Now she’s back dead centre stage in the new movie.
“I didn’t have to reach very far for Maria, because she’s an aspiring actress, and I’ve definitely been there in the not-too-distant past. I recognized her irrepressible urge to act, and her natural ability to love.
“I know how both of those desires originate from the same place.” claire danes chooses her words carefully. On the phone from her house in New York, she comes across as a little hesitant, jet-lagged maybe. She’s just come home after a few weeks travelling from Montana to London to Austin, and she hasn’t even unpacked yet.
But when her slow, lightly Noo Yawk-inflected voice emerges after a lengthy pause with exactly the right word – drawn out and emphasized for maximum irony impact – it’s clear that she’s not groggy or absent-minded. She’s composed, and composing.
We’re talking about Stage Beauty, the 17th-century period piece she stars in opposite Billy Crudup. It’s a witty, coarse, rambunctious film about the moment in Restoration drama when women were first allowed to perform in plays, throwing the men who had made a living playing female roles out of work.
It’s directed by British National Theatre veteran Richard Eyre, who used Nan Goldin’s photographs from the 1970s as inspiration for the film’s aesthetic.
“She took a lot of photographs of transvestites and sexually ambiguous figures,” Danes says. “She was in a world where people were not so burdened by labels and social definitions.
Goldin’s photographs may seem like an odd point of departure for a wigs-and-petticoats drama, but gender fluidity is one of Stage Beauty’s central themes. When you see Rupert Everett as King Charles II romping around in an elaborate ball gown and a pencil moustache, surrounded by half a dozen beribboned spaniels, or Crudup sprawled between the sheets in nothing but two black eyes and a smear of lipstick, it all makes perfect sense.
Crudup plays Ned Kynaston, the actor described by Samuel Pepys as the most beautiful woman on the English stage. He goes from glorious diva to battered shell and back, and he’s compelling every step of the way.
Danes plays Maria, Ned’s dresser and the first Shakespearean actress ever.
It’s Maria’s love that ultimately restores him to a life in the theatre, this time playing men. The problematic side of that arc isn’t lost on the brainy former Yale student.
“My gay friends who’ve seen the movie are worried that it’s saying that, you know, gayness can be cured with the love of a good woman.
“Which is really not the point, and it’s also unfair. Ned Kynaston did marry and have children, so this is loosely based on real events, but what’s more important is that his sexuality is not resolved in the end.”
Or you could say that he is, simply, sexual, from beginning to end, getting it on with dukes and duchesses and whomever he can get his hands on.
As for Maria, she’s the mother of all actresses, in two senses. She’s the first female to play Desdemona, and the original to which Ned’s artificial, stylized femininity is compared. If you want to get highfalutin about it, she’s an icon for capital-w Womanhood, right?
Danes laughs uproariously, “But it’s so ridiculous. I don’t have the boobs to represent woman at