Danes' portrayal of actress mirrors her own self-doubt

She finds overlaps with character in `Stage Beauty'

Movies: On Screen/DVD/Video

October 21, 2004|By Rachel Abramowitz | Rachel Abramowitz,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- This is Claire Danes' first memory of acting. "I was 2. I was in pre-nursery school and it was naptime," she says. She's speaking with conviction, conjuring up an image of her toddler self wanting to impress her teacher -- and so pretended to sleep.

"I remembered observing my mother twitching in her sleep, so I was doing that, very subtly of course. I remember thinking, `Wow, that's good, Claire. That's nuanced. She's never going to know I'm awake.'"

Even at 2, Danes showed an affinity for the intimate acting moment and a preternatural self-awareness, both of which are apparent 23 years later, as she sits in a hotel lobby, discussing her latest film, Stage Beauty.

A star of such films as Romeo + Juliet and The Hours, Danes is less ethereal in person -- more of a sinewy dancer type, although her slightly hunched shoulders make it clear that's not her profession. She is wearing snug jeans and a diaphanous purple print blouse. She sits in a chair, her long hands clasped together in her lap like a schoolgirl. She speaks carefully, intelligently, but also as if every thought is almost reflexively doused in irony.

Her self-consciousness, now muted through a scrim of elegance and experience, is at odds with the vulnerable unselfconsciousness of her best screen performances.

Danes is at her most lush and translucent in Stage Beauty, a theatrical confection about -- what else? -- life in the theater. It's one of those putative historical dramas that is a very modern discussion of sexuality and gender, told in an All About Eve-type narrative.

Set in 17th-century England when only men were legally allowed to be actors, it tells the tale of Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the greatest star of the day, famed for playing such female heroines as Shakespeare's Juliet and Desdemona. He is secretly loved by his dresser, Maria (Danes), who nonetheless usurps him and becomes his professional rival, when the king declares that all female stage parts must henceforth be played by women.

Danes makes an unlikely Eve and doesn't play the part with the unflinching narcissistic drive it would take for a lowly peasant girl to climb the ladder of success in Restoration England.

Danes sees Maria more sympathetically. "I related to her zeal and her desire to perform, which is so sincere and touching," the actress says. "I liked that she was both naive and ambitious. Some people have perceived her as cunning and calculating, and I really don't.

"She had an insatiable yearning to act and to love this man, and she couldn't help herself. I don't think she intended to create the kind of rupture she ultimately did."

Stage Beauty is a film about soul acceptance -- the kind of love that transcends sexuality, and gender, bad behavior and identity crises. Crudup has the flashier part. He plays the man playing the woman in the big red dress, the one who plunges into degradation. Yet it's up to Danes to anchor the romance. She sees beyond whatever disguise he might be adopting at the moment and forgives.

Coincidentally, the film chronicling the backstage drama of Elizabethan theater was awash in backstage drama.

Danes was dating Australian rocker Ben Lee, while her co-star, Crudup, was involved in a long-term romance with fellow thespian Mary-Louise Parker, who was pregnant with their first child. Mere months before that child was born, Crudup broke off with Parker and became romantically linked with Danes.

Even though no one really knows what goes on in other people's romances, the tabloids went into prurient ecstasy, and the insinuations about the dewy, earnest ingenue, best loved for her role as teenager Angela Chase in the cult TV series My So Called Life, weren't kind.

Danes refuses to discuss the subject. Her halting pattern of speech grinds to an uncomfortable stop. Apparently, soul acceptance in real life is not an appropriate topic for public consumption.

For Danes, the hardest part of Stage Beauty was a scene in which Maria auditions for the theater and proves herself to be an atrocious actress.

"I was embarrassed personally as Claire, acting as badly as I was meant to. Even though that's the intention. I still resented that I had to subject myself to that kind of humiliation," she says.

She says a subsequent scene, where her character wrestles with self-doubt, "resonated very strongly for me. There were all these overlaps. I realized how much my identity relies on other people's belief that I am decent as an actress." She shrugs. "Or something like that."

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