Claire Danes

Raw tal­ent ma­tures into Stage Beauty

NOW Magazine - TIFF - - FRONT PAGE - By WENDY BANKS movies@now­toronto.com

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

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