Claire Danes, actor

The 26-year-old actress is garnering stellar reviews for her work in "Shopgirl."

It has been quite a year for Claire Danes. After earning raves from New York critics for a full-length solo dance piece "Christina Olson: American Model," the 26-year-old actress is garnering equally-stellar reviews for her work in Buena Vista's gentle dramedy "Shopgirl," in which she plays a wistful, slightly-lost young woman who becomes an object of adoration for Steve Martin's millionaire Ray Porter.

Danes says she actually had read Martin's novella "Shopgirl," on which the film is based, several years earlier and was drawn to the character of Mirabelle Buttersfield even then.

"I found her very identifiable," she says. "But then, so do a lot of middle-aged men."

But Danes also found Mirabelle to be far more complex than first suspected, and the actress struggled to keep the character's relationships with Jason Schwartzman's would-be rocker and Martin's romantically-dubious older man grounded in real emotion. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the role, though, was determining the best way to portray the depression that Mirabelle must come to grips with.

"She was depressed and passive and withdrawn -- seriously withdrawn -- especially at the beginning," Danes says. "And I had to play that honestly, while also remaining entertaining. I took the risk of being truly the thing itself (depressed) and hoped that the audience would stay with me."

Judging from the buzz surrounding her performance, she seems to have successfully wooed that audience. But Danes, who first came to fame as the star of cult TV series "My So-Called Life," is quick to praise Martin as "a wonderful collaborator." She adds: "He had every right to be territorial with his material, but he was the opposite: creative and generous. And he made it clear to everybody involved that we could interpret the characters in whatever way we felt compelled to."

Despite her name being mentioned in the same breath as other best-actress hopefuls, Danes doesn't plan to give up dance anytime soon. She says that working on both stage and screen offers a unique kind of creative freedom that is too tempting to resist.

"At the risk of sounding obvious, in dance I have to communicate strictly through my body and be careful not to engage my face because that detracts from the impact of the movement," Danes says. "Also, the medium of theater is so different, and I'm not as experienced with it. I am used to a much more fractured style of working, as in film."

But like film, she says, "It is great and terrifying."