WHEN I SPEAK to Claire Danes on the phone for this interview, it is a Friday evening in New York. The world is changing rapidly at that point due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Danes’s familiar voice is reassuringly friendly and warm in the early hours of a Saturday morning in Singapore — it’s a voice that I (and many others who grew up with her) have heard since the mid-’90s. Danes first gained widespread recognition when she hit the television screens as a 14-year old playing Angela Chase in the short-lived but much revered TV gem “My So-Called Life”. Soon she was appearing in movies like “Little Women” (1994) and “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), the latter gaining the status of a cult classic in the years since its release. Danes had always wanted to act, since the age of 5, and used to attend after-school programmes and occasional classes, but had never set out with a calculated plan. She did not find it intimidating to be on set as a teenager, despite her relative naivete at the time.
“I was just kind of navigating my way through it as it was occurring in real time. I felt the responsibility always when I was telling a story that a lot of people were going to be seeing potentially, but I was just so excited to be doing this thing that I loved,” says Danes.
Left: Celine by Hedi Slimane dress and boots. Right: 82 Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello blazer and trousers.
Danes has since made the transition back to the small screen, with her role as the complicated character Carrie Mathison on the long-running television series “Homeland” which is currently on its eighth and final season. She agrees that a lot has changed in the world of entertainment in the last 20 years.
“One change that I’m delighted by is the fluidity between the different mediums. It used to be that there was a lot of stigma around television. When I started, there was only really one variety of television and you were constricted by the format where there would be an advertisement every 10 to 15 minutes, which would really break up the flow of the narrative. Then, when cable started to become a more serious platform, it just opened the medium up in really exciting ways. And so now, actors are free to move through all of those different styles of storytelling and that’s a really fantastic environment,” says Danes.
She also notes that as people become more conscious of the need for representation, there has been a greater incentive to “hand the mic” over to people of colour, women and the LGBTQ+ community. As a producer herself, Danes would like to see more stories by and about women, and ones featuring female protagonists.
“There aren’t enough of those, about female intimacy and relationships with each other, and not just women as defined by men and their relationships with them,” she says. She also notes that there seems to be an unfair, unwritten “one strike” rule for women-led projects where female filmmakers are given just one chance to succeed, becoming side-lined if their project doesn’t turn out to be a blockbuster. “That needs to change,” says Danes.
Left: : Proenza Schouler bralette, dress and heels. Stylist’s own earrings. Right: Tory Burch blouse.
Working on the series “Homeland” for the past eight years has also given Danes a chance to explore acting in a deeper, more intimate way. “The one thing I really love about television is that you fall into this extended conversation with the writers in a way that can’t really be replicated in either film or theatre. Because in those cases, you know, the writer writes it, and then you interpret it; but with television, it’s episodic, so you keep spinning this yarn together in tandem. And I think that’s really exciting and rewarding,” she says.
Playing the role of Carrie has become second nature, and in a way, Danes (who would spend up to half a year filming in exotic locales like Morocco and Israel) got to live and experience her character’s backstory. “It’s just a really thorough, exhaustive process. And also, you just become so fluent with the character. The work was just incredible — intuitive and seamless — and after a certain point I really enjoyed that. I had so much experience with her to draw from,” says Danes. She also mentions her son Cyrus (with her husband, actor Hugh Dancy) benefitting from this global exposure. “My son has spent his first six years, globetrotting. And he knows that the world is a really big place, even at that young age,” she says.
Tory Burch blouse and belt. Stylist’s own earrings.
“There aren’t enough of those [stories], about female intimacy and relationships with each other, and not just women as defined by men and their relationships with them... That needs to change.”
Lacoste coat. Commission top. Tibi heels.
In the future, Danes hopes to work again with people she has worked with in the past, and also names auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola and Nicole Holofcener as filmmakers she would like to work with. “Visionaries are always really exciting. It is wonderful to work with a director who has such a strong viewpoint and has created a culture,” she says. When I tell her that I find her characters intense but always honest, she is touched. “I always try to find a way to relate to the character. I can’t really play someone that I’m not truly connected to. I use my imagination a lot. And I draw from observation. So I do design characters. But you know, it’s pretty clear to me when something is authentic,” she says.
After over 20 years in the industry, I wonder if Danes still has a dream role. “Well, I always want to play a character that starts one way at the beginning of the story and wants to confront something difficult along the way, and is forced to change and comes out on the other side at the end. I want the character’s experience and choices to rapidly inform what’s happening in the story,” she says.
Balenciaga coat and earrings.
BEFORE OUR INTERVIEW I had Googled Danes and found paparazzi pictures of her out shopping in New York (again before the city’s lockdown). I ask her about her style now and how she approaches fashion. It is clear from her shoot with T Singapore that Danes is someone who knows how to wear clothes with panache — she poses with the poise of a model.
“My style is pretty pragmatic. I’m a mother of two and I walk everywhere in the city, so there’s a high premium on comfort. But you know, I’ve always loved really good coats and shoes and the basics. Lately I’ve been wearing a lot of clogs. They’re just so comfortable. I feel resigned, but I’m not proud of it,” she says. She goes on to lament the decline of retail due to online shopping and the rise of informal dressing. “Retail culture has taken a real hit because of all this. A lot of really wonderful stores are closing,” says Danes.
I recall some of the great looks she has worn in the past including her Oscars outfit in 1997 by Narciso Rodriguez for Cerruti and ask about her relationship with designers. “Well, I’m just so lucky to have met and befriended so many brilliant designers over the course of my career. Narciso was one of the first and then Zac Posen, Valentino and Miuccia Prada. These are absolute geniuses and I got this incredible education along the way and I’ve learned a lot about the importance of the materials, proportion and quality. They think about clothes as architects might think about buildings,” she says.
Acne Studios blazer, shirt and trousers. Christian Louboutin heels.
Besides acting, Danes, whose parents are both visual artists, has always had a love for both fine and visual arts. She studied graphic design in college and likes to embroider on set. She also used to knit. “I used to draw a lot as a kid. That skill can atrophy if you neglect it, but I do love to draw and bake a lot of bread,” says Danes. I ask her if either of her two sons has shown an interest in performing, seeing that both their parents are actors. “No, not particularly. Cyrus is 7. He loves science and he wants to be a space doctor. When he was four, he went as bacteria for Halloween, and then this past year he went as a brain wave,” she laughs. And while I cannot imagine a world where Danes is not an actor, she can envision a different career path she might have taken in a different life. “I could see myself being a therapist. I have quite a few friends who are therapists. I think there’s a lot in common between acting and psychology,” she says.
Despite her interest in producing, acting remains her first love, and one that she is still deeply passionate about. “I would like to start originating material. I’ve worked with the producer on ‘Homeland’ but I didn’t come up with the idea, but that is something that I would like to explore. But I’ll never tire of acting. That has always been the discipline that has thrilled me most.”
On the cover of T’s “Film & Culture” May 2020 issue, Danes is pictured in Tory Burch jacket, blouse and trousers.
Photographs by Nagi Sakai
Styled by Ye Young Kim (De Facto)
Hair by Didier Malige (Art Partner using Virtue)
Makeup by Matin (Tracey Mattingly using Surratt Beauty)
Manicure by Eri Handa (Home Agency using CND)
Producers: Lee Kyung Kim (BL Creative House), Richard Polio (De Facto)
Casting director: Tayo Alowonle (United Management Inc.)
Props: Two Hawks Young (De Facto)
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