When fellow pros talk about Claire Danes, certain words and phrases come up again and again: professional. Dedicated. Fearless. Immensely talented.
In fact, Danes’ talent is so startling that she intimidated Marshall Herskovitz, then an executive producer of “My So-Called Life,” when he first met her.
Herskovitz says when Danes — who gets her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sept. 24 — auditioned for the role of Angela Chase, a stage direction called for Angela’s eyes to well up. Right on cue, Danes delivered a complete physical reaction to the scene.
“I remember sitting there going, ‘This is amazing, but she could never do that again. She’s 13 years old!’” But Danes executed exactly that reaction every time she performed the scene.
“It was like she was this alien,” Herskovitz says. “We didn’t know how to talk to her because we were in such awe of her talent. We weren’t afraid of her because of her behavior or anything like that — she was a sweet young girl — it was because she was so brilliant. It was like, ‘Should we give her any direction at all?’ It sounds silly now, but we were intimidated by this 13-year-old genius. It’s much easier to talk to her now that she’s grown up.”
That same gift for nailing a scene without a lot of hand-holding was in evidence on the set of HBO’s “Temple Grandin.” Director Mick Jackson had admired Danes’ feature film performances before he cast her in the biopic. “That kind of obsessive determination to get it right,” he says, “and that intensity, were the same qualities we wanted to bring out in Temple. And courage.”
On set, Jackson found that Danes needed little guidance. “She had her own way of motivating herself, her own way of training herself in what the part needed,” Jackson says. “I decided I wasn’t going to get in the way of that.” Danes kept mum during pre-production on how she was approaching the titular role. Even with HBO executives on set for the first day of shooting, Jackson had no idea what she had planned. He said “action,” and she inhabited the character.
“It was an amazing recreation, not an aping of the person like an impersonator does, but really a recreation of Temple. She walked in Temple’s body. She spoke with Temple’s voice.” An astonishing feat, he says, given the only prosthetics used were a wig and a small cap for her front teeth.
Alex Gansa says he began creating “Homeland” after seeing Danes in “Temple Grandin,” and initially named the lead character Claire. “We wanted someone to disappear into the role and also be able to portray someone who isn’t necessarily likeable.”
Gansa says Danes relishes playing difficult characters. “She likes an intellectual challenge. She likes a character who’s a puzzle,” he says.
In Danes, Gansa found a creative partner and kindred spirit who brings new twists to every scene. “Claire and I often look at each other and recognize the nerd in each other,” he says. “She’s a beautiful woman and also a nerd — it’s so charming.”
Danes has also impressed directors with her willingness to take on about any physical challenge they can throw at her. On “Temple Grandin,” says Jackson, “We asked her to do some really physically demanding things, not just walking knee-deep in cow poop — which she did regularly and without complaining,” Jackson says. “She did things that were actually scary, like running through a field of stampeding cattle, or lying on her back in a field while huge cows grazed around her. She did all this without complaining. It takes tremendous guts to do that.”
What’s next for Danes? At the moment she’s focused on filming season five of “Homeland,” but she also has a guest appearance coming up on Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series, “Master of None.”
Gansa says, “I know she has the producer bug. She wants to create shows, she may even want to write them. I know she wants to be involved in getting a show up and off the ground. I can’t think of anybody more suited to do it.”