IT'S HARD TO separate movie stars from the roles they play; their personas can appear continuous whether the star is "in character" or not. In fact, Hollywood movies deliberately blur these lines, seeking mythic status by playing off our knowledge of a star's past roles and press coverage (read on). Meanwhile, the duties of celebrity require the star to perform almost non-stop--which can serve to imprison the star's true self, or maybe help her protect it. Either way, we keep watching.
So this writer's own role as a junket-going reporter comes down to this: If Claire Danes seems disconcertingly vulnerable in person, is it because I've just seen her play the tragic heroine of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet? Is it because I've read that she recently split up with her boyfriend? Is it because I, the reporter, am making her vulnerable?
I feel concerned. Paternal. To what extent is she acting in this interview? Would it be presumptuous if I suggest that she relinquish her role long enough to take a breather?
As it happens, Danes proceeds to describe how it's hard for her to distinguish between performance and personality, between her brilliant career and her so-called life as a 17-year-old. "Acting can be dangerous," she says, dressed in a baby-blue thrift store dress with red trim, her dirty blond hair (its natural color) pulled back with bobby pins and her voice wavering just enough to help prove her point. "You walk a fine line with acting. People say, 'Oh, you're just pretending, you're just playing around.' And that's true, but your tools are your spirit, your mind, your heart, your soul, your emotions. You play a character out of pieces of yourself, so when you're playing these tragic figures, your sanity can be tenuous. I think some actors are afraid that if they don't torture themselves and feel miserable all day, their work will suffer. And I don't think that's the case. But it can be confusing."
Indeed, according to Seventeen et al., Danes is one of those artistic masochists whose self-inflicted feelings of inferiority inspire a compensatory greatness. This end result comes at a cost--in her case, to a conventional adolescence of "talking about ideas and flirting with boys and all that stuff." Not yet old enough to vote, Danes has already won a Golden Globe for her turn as the teenage Angela on TV's My So-Called Life; she has also given deeply soulful performances in five movies (three of which she redeemed single-handedly), and has signed on for back-to-back gigs with no less than Coppola and Stone. This kind of talent and professionalism would be remarkable in someone twice her age, but what about all that other stuff? It seems more than symbolic that she's currently debating whether to play the ultimate martyr, Joan of Arc (a standing offer from director Kathryn Bigelow), or keep next year open to prepare for college.
In the meantime, Danes's womanchild Juliet benefits from her real-life blend of naiveté and wisdom, shyness and poise--a mix that works especially well for this adaptation of R&J. Directed by Aussie native Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom), shot in Mexico City, and set in "fair" Verona Beach, the film weds Shakespeare's iambic pentameter to a gaudy hodgepodge of punk, glam, gay, Latin, and Catholic iconography; the gun-toting Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets his soulmate after dropping a hit of an ecstasy-like drug at the Capulets' costume ball, where Juliet is dressed in angel's wings--indeed, never was there a tale of more whoa than this. Obviously, R&J's faithfulness to the author is debatable, yet the movie seems nothing if not true to the ridiculous, obsessive, high-risk drama of adolescent lust.
Still, how responsible is it to make a teeny-bopper movie that's literally romantic like there's no tomorrow? "It's a big controversy how film affects people's personal lives: whether art imitates life or vise versa," says Danes, who finds R&J "fun to watch," but also a cautionary tale. Again, it seems hard to distinguish between entertainment and critique, art and life, actor and role. When Danes describes her character's predicament of being locked in a tower, I can't help thinking of the actor herself--who in TV Guide defined fame as "a bubble that I rarely get out [of]." "Juliet doesn't want to be groomed or sheltered or limited," Danes explains, "and these are all things that society is doing to her. She's stifled, and then this breath of fresh air comes into her life and she can finally feel some happiness and be who she wants to be."
But at a cost, right? "Love isn't logical," she says. "And once you get on that train sometimes, it's impossible to stop it from going off the tracks. The friar keeps telling Romeo, you know, 'Just take it easy, go slow, cause if you push this too hard and things go too fast, it could be dangerous.'" Meanwhile, both Joan of Arc and college beckon.
William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.