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Claire Danes Biography

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To look upon the face of Claire Danes is to discover an exquisitely expressive canvas for all the emotional colorings of life. This remarkably self-possessed young performer brought startling authenticity as well as intelligence and complexity to her starring role in the landmark high school/family drama “My So-Called Life” (ABC, 1994-95). 

Danes’ often heartrending portrayal of a fifteen-year-old coping with the rigors of adolescence contributed to the cult series’ avalanche of kudos and won a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nod for its rising star. The low-rated, short-lived program counted Steven Spielberg and Winona Ryder among its followers.

A native New Yorker, Danes was encouraged to pursue her interest in acting by artistic parents and began studying modern dance at age six. By age nine, she was taking weekend acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, later starting her performing career on the off-off-Broadway stage with supporting roles in “Happiness”, “Punk Ballet” and “Kids on Stage,” even choreographing a solo dance piece for the latter. 

At age 11, Danes made her film acting debut portraying a molested child in “Dreams of Love” (released 1992), a student short from director Jeffrey Mueller and executive producer Milos Forman. The precocious actress arrived on the small screen in a memorable 1992 guest shot on the NBC crime drama series “Law & Order”, playing a volatile teen who, with her mother, was involved with a sleazy photographer. She also auditioned for “My So-Called Life” in 1992, at age 13, and filmed the pilot in early 1993. (It did not air until August 1994.)

Danes won strong notices for her feature debut as the doomed Beth in a well-received remake of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women” (1994), with Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder. (The latter had lobbied for Danes to get the role.) Indeed, Spielberg hailed her as “one of the most exciting actresses to debut in ten years” and offered her a role in his Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” (1993) which Danes declined for a variety of reasons. When “My So-Called Life” ended prematurely, though, the young thespian was quickly deluged with feature offers.

Danes next popped up in a flashback sequence playing a younger version of Anne Bancroft’s character in the Ryder vehicle “How to Make an American Quilt” and followed up with a small role as the wise-beyond-her-years daughter of Holly Hunter (and granddaughter of Bancroft!) in Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays” (both 1995). 

Reportedly, Foster’s endorsement helped Danes win the plum role of Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo in “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” (1996), a highly stylized and purposefully anachronistic retelling of the classic story. By the time of that highly touted release, she had two other features in the can.

Danes played leads in “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” (1996) as the daughter helping her father (Peter Gallagher) cope with the death of her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) and “I Love You, I Love You Not” (1997), as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor (Jeanne Moreau). 

Positive advance word about the professional deportment of the ascendant star spurred more offers for work with such respected filmmakers as Oliver Stone, who cast her as a white trash princess in the odd “U-Turn” (1997), Francis Ford Coppola, who hired her to play an abused wife who falls for young lawyer Matt Damon in “John Grisham’s ‘The Rainmaker'” (1997), and Bille August, whose adaptation of “Les Miserables” (1998) appropriately featured the young actress as Cosette.

Danes went on to play an appealingly strong-willed, unmarried and pregnant Polish-American alongside Gabriel Byrne and Lena Olin in the charming family saga “Polish Wedding” later that year.

In 1999, Danes began taking on vastly different roles than what audiences had come to expect, starting with a turn as a drug offender turned crime fighter in Scott Silver’s uninspired feature update of the hit 1960s TV series “The Mod Squad.” While Danes performed well in the action genre, the film was critically panned, and saw little box office business. 

Similarly, her impressive turn in “Brokedown Palace” went largely unseen. Not unlike a feminized, updated “Midnight Express”, the harrowing film starred Danes as the more daring and gregarious of two recent high school graduates duped into importing drugs into Thailand. Alongside Kate Beckinsale, the actress proved her mettle with the edgy role, but the film would probably be best remembered for Danes’ candidly negative comments about the Manila filming conditions, which won her few fans in the Philippines.

She next contributed her vocal talents to the English dubbing of Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed Japanese anime “Princess Mononoke”. Perhaps something was lost in the translation, but her lackluster performance in this capacity proved the actress’ talents lie before the camera, where her proven skills and appeal would ensure her a long and illustrious career.

In 2002, she co-starred in the indie comedy feature “Igby Goes Down,” playing a prep school girl caught between two drastically different brothers; and portrayed Meryl Streep’s daughter Julia in “The Hours,” before doing a career about-face in 2003 by starring opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action-packed sequel “Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines,” playing Kate Brewster, the love interest for humanity’s emerging messiah in its war against the machines, John Conner (Nick Stahl). 

After filming “Stage Beauty” (2004), in which she played a 17th Century stage dresser who becomes an actress after England’s king overrules the long tradition of men playing female roles in plays and becomes entangled with a displaced actor (Billy Cruddup) who specialized in portraying women, Danes got her first taste of tabloid celebrity when Cruddup left his several-months-pregnant girlfriend, actress Mary-Louise Parker, for a romance with her in 2003.

She returned to the screen for “Shopgirl” (2005), an adaptation of Steve Martin’s bestselling 2001 novella which cast her as a forlorn Beverly Hills glove salesgirl who unexpectedly finds herself pursued by a pair of polar opposite suitors, a successful sophisticate (Martin) and a Bohemian dreamer (Jason Schawartzman).

Danes then costarred in “The Family Stone” (2005), a romantic dramedy about the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) in a bohemian family who brings his high-powered and controlling girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for their annual holiday gathering, as conflicting attitudes causes awkwardness, confusion and ultimately hostility.

In late 2005, she began filming “The Flock,” a crime thriller about a vigilant federal agent (Richard Gere) who trains his young female replacement (Danes) while tracking down a missing girl he’s convinced is connected to a paroled sex offender.

She earned critical acclaim in 2005 when she starred in Steve Martin’s Shopgirl alongside Martin and Jason Schwartzman, and in The Family Stone opposite Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton. In 2007, Danes appeared in the fantasy Stardust, which she described as a “classic model of romantic comedy”, with Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, and Sienna Miller, the drama Evening, and appeared in The Flock, opposite Richard Gere.

In 2010, Danes starred in the HBO production of Temple Grandin, a biopic about the eponymous autistic woman. She won the 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie. The film was well received and Grandin herself praised Danes’ performance.

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