“It was an awkward period because I felt so stretched and so revived and robust as a performer, I felt very alive and ready, and there just wasn’t anything worthy of attaching myself to,” says the actress Claire Danes of the year or so after her triumphant portrayal of an autistic livestock expert in the 2010 HBO TV movie Temple Grandin, for which she won Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG awards. “After having met that challenge creatively, I just had less patience for ‘the girlfriend role,’ and I just couldn’t bring myself to do something two-dimensional, so I chose not to do anything at all, which was tough. It was kind of crushing after a certain point.” Eventually, Danes received two offers: one was to play a secretary in Clint Eastwood‘s J. Edgar opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, her co-lead in Romeo + Juliet 15 years earlier, and the other was to star as a CIA officer in a pilot for a Showtime drama series called Homeland, which had been created by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, who were coming off of 24 and, unbeknownst to Danes, had started writing Homeland for her — the main character was originally named Claire, not Carrie — the day after Temple Grandin premiered. Danes recalls, “I just thought, ‘Do I want to be the secretary or do I want to be Hoover? I want to be the vacuum cleaner.”
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Danes was born in Manhattan to two artists who raised her in its SoHo neighborhood. She began dancing at age four but, after seeing her “initial inspiration,” Madonna, on TV when she was five, she shifted her focus to performing. Things escalated quickly from there: she enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute at 10; landed her first agent at 12; and, at 13, turned down an offer to play a small part in Schindler’s List, but auditioned for and won — over Alicia Silverstone, who was three years older — the lead in an ABC pilot from the creators of Thirtysomething called My So-Called Life. “I’m just so glad that they took that risk on me,” she says, since the show — a drama series about high- schooler Angela Chase, played by Danes — was eventually ordered to series.
Danes had not yet been to high school, but, like her character, she had experienced bullying by classmates, and therefore found the show to be cathartic. “I got to vent all of my frustrations in the most perfectly articulated way, so that was a massive gift,” she says. “I had a lot of rage to release.” The show put Danes firmly on the map — for it, she won a Golden Globe and received an Emmy nomination — but it failed to attract ratings, leading to its cancelation after only 19 episodes. “It was probably just a little too ahead of its time,” she says, but adds, “I’m amazed by its endurance and the extent of its afterlife — I’m amazed and moved by it, really. People who grew up with the show are now sharing it with their teenagers, and it has proven to continue to speak to current generations. It’s kind of timeless.”
As a result of My So-Called Life, Danes soon began to be cast in prominent film roles. She popped up in Little Women (1994), opposite Winona Ryder; Home for the Holidays (1995), under the direction of Jodie Foster; and Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet (1996), as the Juliet to DiCaprio’s Romeo, which made her an international star. In fact, she was approached about reuniting with DiCaprio a year later in Titanic, but passed. She explains, “I had just filmed Romeo + Juliet in Mexico City; Titanic was going to be filmed in Mexico again, for another five months or something. With Leo [again]. Another romantic epic. I think I just couldn’t repeat that experience so immediately, and I wanted to experiment with different styles of storytelling.” She adds, “Do I regret that? No, I don’t.” Instead, Danes was able to appear in Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Rainmaker (1997) and Oliver Stone‘s U-Turn (1997) before taking a two-year hiatus from the biz to attend Yale University. As she puts it, “I had always wanted to go to college, and I think I was a little confused about how to be a movie star.”
When Danes returned to her career, she somewhat struggled to recapture her groove. “I was overthinking it for a while there,” she says. Still, she was a part of some widely seen films, like the best picture Oscar nominee The Hours (2002), and was excellent in some little-seen films, like Stage Beauty (2004) and Shopgirl (2005); Evening (2007), meanwhile, “gave me the rest of my life,” she says, referring to Hugh Dancy, her co-star, whom she would wed in 2009. Then came the aforementioned Temple Grandin and, in a return to series TV 16 years after My So-Called Life went off the air, Homeland. The pilot that she read for Homeland was, she says, “undeniably great,” but she still “had a lot of concerns and questions.” She was gratified when, after the pilot, it was decided that her character was not just intense, but bipolar, since the actress has always been fascinated with psychology, which was her focus of study at Yale.
Homeland‘s premiere was Showtime’s highest-rated debut of a drama series in eight years, and the show’s first season was recognized at the Emmys as the year’s best drama series, while Damian Lewis won best actor in a drama series and Danes took home best actress in a drama series. The show’s subsequent six seasons have generated widely varying responses from critics and audiences, but its most recent season, number seven, was hailed by many as a return to glory. For her part, Danes, who shot two of the seasons while pregnant, says, “I’m just so grateful that people are still watching.” She loves how passionate Homeland viewers are — even about silly things like “Carrie’s cry-face.” She volunteers, with a twinkle in her eye, “I remember with My So-Called Life, Winnie [Holzman] wrote a scene where Rayanne [A.J. Langer‘s character] makes fun of Angela‘s cry-face — which is just Claire’s cry-face. I don’t know, I guess it’s a thing. It’s not something that I have worked on. This is just how I cry, folks! It’s expressive, I guess. I blame my dad — he has very rubbery features that I think I inherited.”
There have been reports that Homeland will end after its next season, the show’s eighth. “Nobody’s entirely sure if it is the final season,” Danes emphasizes. “We think it is, but that’s not an absolute certainty.” Regardless, the show will come to an end sooner rather than later, and Danes has mixed emotions about that, as she says she still enjoys making it, but also recognizes that large parts of her life have changed since her journey with it began. “I’ve emerged with maybe a different kind of status in the industry,” she acknowledges, “but I’ve also arrived at a different place in my life, in that I will have two children, one of whom is now five and going to big-boy school and has an agenda of his own that I kind of have to revolve around, so I think those are a new set of demands.” Whenever it ends, she says, “I’m gonna need a minute to just reorient myself.”