Claire Danes took her time browsing other genres before ringing up
a custom-fit role in Shopgirl
Sometimes it takes extraordinary talent to be ordinary. Playing the title role in the bittersweet romance Shopgirl, Claire Danes epitomizes the brutally unexciting life of a low-paid sales clerk at the Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue who quietly yearns to be an artist but settles for practical frugality and a one-bedroom apartment with cats. "She's very passive," Danes says. "She's closed initially. And I thought, 'God, how am I going to make this entertaining?' It took a lot to just sit there and not to tap dance."
Dressed simply in jeans and a black blouse, and talking over a bottle of San Pellegrino at the Soho Grand in lower Manhattan, Danes is the model of the casual Hollywood starlet: modest, self-effacing but confident and quick to laugh without losing her earnest demeanor. "I'm not offered everything," she says with a smile. "I really have to make career choices based on what opportunities are available. But with Shopgirl, I didn't need to compromise. I loved the book and I loved Steve [Martin]. And it's not very often I get to play somebody who's this layered and accessible to me."
After a string of eccentric leading roles, including a delinquent-turned-undercover-cop in 1999's The Mod Squad, a cloned Polish figure skater in 2003's It's All About Love and an ass-kicking freedom fighter in 2003's Terminator 3, Danes returns to the realm of realism in Shopgirl. Based on Martin's novella and directed by Anand Tucker, the film depicts the romantic awakening of a wallflower named Mirabelle Buttersfield (Danes) who finds herself simultaneously wooed by two men: romantically hapless Jeremy Kraft (Jason Schwartzman), an immature, less-then-ambitious type who stencils lettering on amplifiers for a living, and suave dot-com millionaire Ray Porter (Martin).
The story's twist is that antidepressant-popping Mirabelle is virtually unaware of her own potential, and that the blooming love affairs are not only with these men, but also with herself. "Mirabelle is much more resourceful and resilient and steely than she knows," Danes says. "And that was fun to discover that, to find her confidence. She was entitled to a lot—she just didn't know it." Her character also develops her talents as a visual artist, and Tucker, best known for 1998's Hilary and Jackie, lovingly creates sequences where she is drawing and taking photographs.
More intriguingly, the film's artwork is by Allyson Hollingsworth, an Oakland-based artist who was romantically involved with Martin, and to whom his book is dedicated. "He did draw from an actual relationship—it is absolutely a very personal story for Steve—but it is also a work of fiction," Danes says. "He was referring to those experiences in his novel, and then that turned into a screenplay and that turned into a movie. It's been transformed so many times, it's like a game of telephone." She pauses for a moment. "Still, it was nice to have the art grounded in reality, to have a little signifier here and there to remind me."
Ever since her career-defining role as TV's quintessential fin de siècle troubled teen in 1994's short-lived drama My So-Called Life, Danes, 26, has done her most memorable work as a beguilingly wide-eyed youth facing life's darker turns—whether it be the ultimate star-crossed lover in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet in 1996 or a college student faced with a Thai prison sentence in 1999's Brokedown Palace. She was even short-listed for the part of Rose in Titanic—which she turned down. "I had just made an epic love story with Leo DiCaprio that had been shot in Mexico," she says, "and Titanic was going to be shot in Mexico. I just thought, Really? Again? It just felt redundant."
By the end of the 1990s, Danes was ready for a break from all the success. "When I was younger and received a lot of attention very quickly, I was so bewildered by all of it and had no idea how to function and how to proceed," she says. "It was too much too soon, so I had to curb it." A hiatus from acting to attend Yale University gave her the breather she needed—although she didn't relax too much. "I had a great time, but I took it all so seriously and was nutso about my schooling," Danes says. "I would write a paper like I would make a movie: I assumed that millions of people would be reading it. I mean, they had seen my movies and my TV show—why would it be different with Psych 101?"
By the time she graduated, Danes was much more comfortable with herself, and much more willing to choose less serious roles—ergo Terminator 3. "It was totally ridiculous and silly," she says about the sci-fi Schwarzenfest. "But I had worked really hard for many years doing really subtle, expressive, intimate work, and I just sort of wanted to strut around and blow some shit up." She laughs. "I'd like to say I'm not in the habit of doing that, but I might be again. If somebody asked me to put on a miniskirt, I'd be like, 'Yeah! Let's go-go!'" But only if she has room in her busy schedule: She's just completed the ensemble comedy The Family Stone, with Rachel McAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton; and in a few weeks, she begins work on The Flock, a cop thriller costarring Richard Gere and Hilary Swank. "I'm going through the genres," she says with a giggle.
The greatest source of her satisfaction right now, though, is a modern-dance piece she helped produce and in which she starred as Christina Olson, the paraplegic artist's model who posed for Andrew Wyeth's landmark painting Christina's World. Her show had a two-week September run at the East Village theater P. S. 122—coincidentally the first place Danes ever performed. "This is my personal endeavor," she says. "I've been so fulfilled by this. And it's great to have some control, some agency when I can put myself to work. I feel so fortunate that I can vacillate between Terminator 3 and P.S. 122."
Danes will attend the Tuesday 11 screening of Shopgirl at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film opens nationwide October 21.