Claire Danes: Danger, High Voltage!

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She came of age as the quietly brooding Angela Chase in TV’s cult series My So-Called Life. Now, after years spent turning Juliet on her head, romancing Steve Martin, dodging tabloid scandals and finding true love in the fine form of fiancé Hugh Dancy, Claire Danes has finally come into her own. (Check out a pair of exclusive bonus photos for this photo shoot.) On the eve of her bachelorette blow-out, the stage beauty, acting powerhouse and diehard New Yorker gets down to business—and her skivvies—while inviting Ray Rogers into the private world of America’s most grounded leading lady.

“Wow, I’ve never flashed an entire city before,” says Claire Danes, amused to find herself towering 21 floors above New York’s Bowery in eight-inch heels, a curve-hugging black bodysuit, a glimmering Gucci jacket and fishnets that show off her taut dancer’s thighs and formidable backside.

Cast today in the role of Power Bitch, modeling the current ’80s revival in high fashion, Danes pulls it off with ease, the transition from natural beauty to slick, badass ball-buster complete in no time. “It’s great, as a woman, to feel entitled to express strength and power, to not be in some kind of flowery frock running through fields—though that has its place,” says Danes over a cup of mint tea at the Cooper Square Hotel, reflecting on the day’s looks. As we speak, she’s clad in her own comfy-chic wardrobe (black cashmere Juicy Couture sweater—“a freebie”—Mayle print top, Club Monaco jeans, Sigerson Morrison flats), but still emboldened by the dynamic outfits she’s just modeled. “Each individual piece was really striking and then layered in a style that was outrageous but beautiful in a curious way,” she says. “It was really fun to play full-on dress-up and not qualify it in any way, to be indulgent and imaginative like that.”

That she would step so comfortably into these clothes came as no surprise, given the number, and wide range, of command performances she’s packed into her 30 years. From the very first moment, she captured the nation’s attention as world-weary teen Angela Chase on My So-Called Life in 1994. In the ensuing years, she’s sexed up Shakespeare against Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, held her own with Meryl Streep in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, unearthed injustice in the Philippines in Brokedown Palace, channeled her inner Salinger alongside Kieran Culkin in Igby Goes Down and escaped the wrath of TX in Terminator Salvation: Rise of the Machines.

While she’s been the subject of cultural fascination for years—not every former teen heroine gets four songs written for her—Danes came of age just before the dawn of the blogosphere and the advent of gossip weeklies. But it caught up to her in adulthood. Anyone versed in tabloid culture knows the strength of will she had to summon to endure the scrutiny she came under when Billy Crudup left a seven-months pregnant Mary-Louise Parker for Danes. The pair began dating after they met on the set of 2004’s Stage Beauty. “That was a choice I made to fall in love. It’s unpleasant to be cast in such an unflattering role, but I just had to remain steadfast,” she recalls, her body language going into self-protection mode with an arm cradling her hunched-over frame and crossed legs. “I was living with the same kind of integrity that I had always lived with. As a public person you’re serving a certain function, and you’re a canvas for people to project their own hopes and fears onto, so you do have to perform a kind of mental trick and distance yourself from it. But there are times of weakness in which you wonder if what they wrote is relevant to you or representative of you.”

How much of that has stayed with her? “Not very much. I never really took too much of it on. It’s nice not to be ridiculed—nobody wants that—but it’s also unavoidable. Everyone gets the stick.” But all the rumors now seem a distant memory for Danes, who is set to wed British actor Hugh Dancy, whom she met on the set of Evening in 2006. The pair will exchange their vows in mid-September in a ceremony to be held in France.

image Bodysuit by American Apparel. Leather Corset Belt by H & M. Jacket and Shoes by Gucci. Stockings by Wolford Gloves by Topshop.

While she’s had several serious relationships in the past—she dated Australian indie-pop star Ben Lee for six years and was with Crudup for two, just prior to Dancy—marriage, she says, was never something for which she yearned. “I’ve always wanted to be in a partnership, I’ve always wanted to have that kind of intimacy and collaborate with someone in such a deep way. But I think that can be achieved in a lot of ways. I was talking to my friend recently about monogamy—is it feasible, is it realistic? I resolved that there isn’t really a better model. We just can’t shake monogamy. It definitely demands a kind of rigor and discipline and selflessness. But it’s also fun.”

Particularly when you’ve got a former Burberry model in your bed. “He’s such a cutie patootie,” she says about her fiancé, a twinkle in her bright green eyes. “Sometimes I forget just how good-looking he is.” Given her brush with the tabloids, her reluctance to divulge much about their relationship—or the details of their impending nuptials—is expected. When asked how she knew Dancy was the one, Danes hesitates. “I’m going into dangerous territory,” she says, and then relents, proceeding with caution. “While relationships are work, this just didn’t feel like it. It’s the kind of work that feels energizing rather than enervating.

“There’s that pledge, and people talk about it being claustrophobic but I find it the opposite. I find it very freeing to know that, okay, it takes constant nurturing and attention, but I can also stop looking for the one—that’s established. I can apply myself in other ways now. I have more time and energy to get shit done.”

Next on her agenda after this month’s nuptials, Danes will launch two movies, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, in which she costars with Zac Efron, and HBO’s biopic of the autistic author Temple Grandin. In Linklater’s theater period piece, set in the 1930s, Danes play Sonja Jones, the older woman to Efron’s young thespian.

“It’s really appropriate that we were doing the power ’80s theme today, because she was the equivalent in another era. She’s unapologetically hungry and ambitious, and I love that about her,” says Danes of her ladder-climbing character. “She broke his heart, but she was very honest with him throughout. I also thought it was tender that she had such strong ideals and ambitions but was basically just a PA—she was escaping into a kind of fiction.”

High School Musical star Efron had to steel himself for the role. “I was intimidated,” he says, about the prospect of working with Danes. “Even just the name Claire Danes carries such weight with it. I needed to be a worthy love interest in the film and I didn’t know that I had any of the qualities necessary to woo a girl like her.” He had plenty of time to try his luck, since the bulk of filming took place on the remote Isle of Man in the U.K. “Claire and I were trapped on an island together with nowhere to go for four weeks, like a reality show.” It turns out, however, that Vanessa Hudgens—or Hugh Dancy for that matter—had nothing to worry about. “My character was supposed to fall in love, but she was also supposed to be out of his league. After meeting Claire, that was definitely the way it was supposed to be.”

image Dress by Emilio Pucci. Stockings by Calvin Klein. Necklaces by Lanvin and Alexis Bittar. Ring by Cartier.

Danes first auditioned for Linklater when she was 13 years old. “She was too young for the part,” says the director, who was casting his indie classic Dazed and Confused at the time. “But I told her, You’re one of the best actresses I met in this whole audition process. You’re so natural and real. Claire Danes, I’ll never forget that name. And—boom—a year later, she’s on My So-Called Life. I love the way her talent rises to the top.”

Directing her as an adult, Linklater was struck by how intently she worked. “She was so mature to begin with. She was like that at 13, very serious about what she’s doing. She doesn’t take it lightly. She has a very interesting process. She’s not easily satisfied, let’s put it like that. She pushes herself in an internal way—some people beat walls down, but it’s an internal thing with her, something pushing her forward, which is pretty fascinating.”

Hey! Look at that naked guy in the window. Is he showering?” asks Danes, nodding to the building directly ahead of us. “No, wait, that’s a woman. She’s putting on deodorant or something. Ah, New York.” A local through and through, she laughs a knowing laugh. And like many denizens of the city overrun with over-achievers, particularly those who grew up here, she’s always been focused—announcing, at the age of 5, her intention to be an actor. She’d been dancing since she was 4, and began taking acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute by age 10. The only child of Rhode Island School of Design graduates, Danes grew up in a fertile, artist-friendly home in an era of child-rearing when parents were encouraged to take their kids more seriously—“as if they were on the same plane as you,” she says, laughing at how self-serious she was as a kid. She took a two-year acting hiatus in 1998 to study psychology at Yale, an experience that allowed her to catch up with her peers. “It was strange to realize that the things I was doing weren’t so terribly consequential; the studio didn’t care if I wrote a good essay or not. It was nice to be able to exhale in that way and experiment,” she says, twirling her mini-pocketknife-and crystal charm necklace, a gift from Michael Cunningham that she often sneaks through airport security.

This past April, Danes entered a new chapter in her life. “It was a shock when I got on the treadmill and had to punch in my information,” she says. “I had to write 30 when the machine asked me my age. I’m quite relieved, because I started acting when I was very young. And I think, growing up in New York, that my maturity was disproportionate to my actual age. So it’s nice to kind of catch up with myself. I don’t feel so freaky now.”

image Dress by Herve Leger by Max Azria. Stocking by Calvin Klein. Earrings by Alexis Bittar.

A child of the ’80s, Danes came of age in SoHo while the punk movement was in full-throttle, infusing her personal aesthetic with a wild streak back then. “We lived quite close to Canal Jeans, which was amazing. I remember the graffiti on the walls of neon tigers, and they had those amazing checkered buttons that you could get for free.” A precocious Danes worked hot pink and electric blue tights, paired with short denim skirts and a dog collar she convinced her parents to buy for her, which she used to belt her sleeveless Garfield T-shirts. Rubber bracelets, a mainstay for Suddenly Seeking Susan-era Madonna and her followers, went from her wrists up to her shoulders. (“There must still be stray rubber bracelets in between my sofa cushions,” she says, laughing.) Velcro Kangaroo sneakers topped off the look. “I remember spending hours and hours and hours getting it just right and then going into Tower Records, praying that the shop girls would notice me and validate my ensemble.”

One look at her classic sophistication on red carpets today and it’s clear that Danes is all grown up. She has become a regular on best-dressed lists, whether decked out in pearls and a corset dress by Lanvin (as she was at the Independent Spirit Awards earlier this year) or elegant creations by friends such as Zac Posen and Narciso Rodriguez. She was a natural to be the face of Gucci fine jewelry, according to the fashion house’s creative director Frida Giannini, who referred to Danes as “a modern icon” when announcing the campaign, noting that, “Claire’s sensual, confident beauty and her passionate, independent and strong character embodies today’s Gucci woman.”

For her wedding day, she turned to Rodriguez. She describes the process as “surprisingly emotional. I’ve known Narciso since I was 16, and he’s made a lot of dresses with—and for—me. So it’s really special that this time it’s the dress.”

As the sun sets over the Manhattan skyline, Danes steps out onto the bustling streets of her beloved hometown, gearing up for a July 4th weekend that will see her celebrate the end of her own independence with her bachelorette party, an irony that she enjoys. She’s heading straight home to blow up the inflatable air mattress that Dancy’s sister will sleep on. (“She’s family, so she can get tortured.”) Later tonight, girlfriends from around the globe, including bridesmaid Devon Odessa, who played Sharon on My So-Called Life, are flying in to Manhattan for one last hurrah with Danes. But no, she doesn’t have a wad of singles on hand. Even the thought of it makes her laugh. “Women just aren’t wired that way,” she says. “We don’t get turned on by strippers in the same way that men do. Men are beasts like that—though we love you and your beastly ways.” A proper reunion with her girlfriends over cocktails is enough for her. “What a privilege to have your favorite women all together drinking. I’ll have to come up with some other ideas to get everyone together—I can’t just keep getting married.”

image Dress by Herve Leger by Max Azria. Earrings by Alexis Bittar.

Top Image: Blazer by D & G. Jeans by Ksubi. Shoes by Christian Louboutin. Necklace and cuffs by Alexis Bittar. Watch and bracelet by Gucci.

CLAIRE’S FAVORITE COCKTAIL LOUNGE: ANGEL’S SHARE, NEW YORK CITY.

Photography by Sante D’Orazio. Styling by Elizabeth Sulcer. Hair by Peter Butler for Redken. Makeup by Matin, Neutrogena Cosmetics Science Expert. Manicurist Rica Romain @ See Management. Photographer’s assistants: Noel Federizo, Sam Crawford, and Kat Soutar. Stylist’s assistants: Megan Frelich and Lindsay Ray Abrams. Production Assistant: Rachel A. St. Lifer. Retouching Kat Soutar of Sante D’Orazio. Location: Cooper Square Hotel. Catering by D’Orazio Food Events. Special thanks to CSI Rentals. Glass Desk and Silver Balls by Props for Today.
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