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Claire Danes Raises the Bar to New Heights as Temple Grandin

BY AYSEGUL SERT PHOTOGRAPHY ANDREW MACPHERSON, MAKEUP MONIKA BLUNDER FOR THE WALL GROUP, STYLIST LEESA EVANS FOR THE MAGNET AGENCY, HAIR PETER BUTLER FOR TRACEY MATTINGLY

Claire Danes’ blond hair gleams like pure gold in the sunlight streaming through the windows of the Soho Grand on an early winter afternoon. Her slender figure is layered with classic clothes that keep her warm in style. She orders a cup of mint tea and holds it firmly between her palms to enjoy the heat. She laughs sweetly at times, and adopts a serious tone when speaking about her craft.

 “I think a lot of creative people struggle with understanding where reality and imagination meet, because  you’ve got to manipulate and challenge them both when you are an artist. I know now that I can choose to do that or not; it’s under my power. It’s the good thing about being 30. I somehow figured that out, finally,” she chuckles.

 Danes’ life has been graced with the company of remarkable individuals. Oliver Stone wrote her letter of recommendation to Yale, Leonardo DiCaprio was her love interest in Romeo + Juliet, Patrick Wilson joined her on-screen for a Gap commercial, and Meryl Streep has offered her personal advice on artistic matters, like to “always act with love.” Oh yes, and British heartthrob, Hugh Dancy, is her hubby. Did we forget anything? Anyone? It’s likely.

 Born in 1979 in New York, the versatile performer first embraced dance, but by her ninth birthday, she was set on acting. Talent? She’s got it! She started at the age of 15 in the teen-drama series, “My So-Called Life,” which brought her widespread recognition. Her television success led to an extensive body of film work. Danes first established herself as a big-screen force in Baz Luhrmann’s ultra-modern take on Romeo + Juliet (1996), and then with I Love You, I Love You Not (opposite Jude Law, 1997), The Rainmaker (based on the novel by John Grisham, 1997), Polish Wedding (costaring Gabriel Byrne and Lena Olin, 1998), Brokedown Palace (directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1999), The Hours (with Meryl Streep, 2002), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (as Nick Stahl’s romantic interest, 2003), Stage Beauty (2004), Shopgirl (opposite Steve Martin and Jason Schwartzman, 2005), Evening (where she met fellow actor/husband Hugh Dancy, 2007), and Me and Orson Welles (opposite Zac Efron, directed by Richard Linklater, 2008).

 Amid all the glam and glory, Danes has her share of living in the public eye. “It’s hard because I feel a great responsibility to protect my personal life and people who are a part of it. I can be careful and I think sometimes that’s perceived as aloof or cold, but that’s not my intention,” she explains. “It’s my job to call attention to the work I’ve done, to the projects I’ve chosen to make. People are naturally curious about who you are, who you love, what boots you are wearing. That part of our culture is very heightened right now. I’ve learned over time that I can’t indulge myself in that. I make mistakes about other people as well.”

 Her latest leading role is in the biopic, “Temple Grandin,” premiering on HBO this month. In a performance that stuns all who see it, Danes strips away every last trace of herself, and channels Grandin, a brilliant, autistic, animal-behavior scientist, and one of the primary spokespeople for autism awareness — and who, against all odds, has become a beacon of courage and determination. Here is Claire Danes: Thirty, tempting, truthful.

 Venice: I just finished reading Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, where she writes, “I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.” Fascinating! How did her story and the script find you?

 Claire Danes: I was at a film festival on an island in Italy, in this incredible setting, having lots of high carbs and wines, when I got the call for it. It was a strange environment to get the news. It was a big proposition; I knew it would be a demanding job. What I remember the most is the stark contrast to the preposterous glamour [of the festival]. I had a faint awareness of who she was, but I had never read her work, so I started investigating. As I was thinking of committing myself to the project, I found her to be incredibly honorable and surprising, so I was very intimidated, but ultimately, my excitement and curiosity about her overwhelmed my fear.

Fear caused by…It was daunting because she is still alive and I have such reverence for her. I wouldn’t only be failing her, but all the people who value her so much, who had been so positively influenced by her, had I not done it well. It’s also challenging to play somebody who is wired in a different way than yourself.

Challenging, certainly. On the other hand, was it liberating to play someone fundamentally distinct from the core of who you are?

I had to be rigorous. I love working. I had to learn about autism, and I had to learn about how autism manifested within her, how defined she was by it, who she was, and what the condition was, and where the two met, in a way. I had about a month to prepare, which was pretty short. I had to hustle, but it was still possible.

How did you prepare for the role? I presume it’s not just the physicality of Grandin that you had to familiarize yourself with, but also her speaking habits.

I have a friend, Tamar Rogoff, who is a choreographer. I’ve known her my whole life; I enlisted her help to figure out how autistic people move. We worked together; she introduced me to autistic teenage girls whom she got to know through friends. We went to an autistic school in New Jersey where the kids had a much more intense form of autism. Their balance is a bit off, they have acute anxiety, they don’t look people in the eye, they don’t reciprocate easily, they are more self-contained. It was helpful to have another set of eyes to conspire with. I was starting to feel a little bit more comfortable with the physicality, but still had no idea of how to tackle her way of speaking. I had to figure out how she spoke; her dialect is really particular. I had a brilliant dialect coach, Susan Hegarty, who was very patient. Temple is actually deaf in one ear. I think most autistic people have trouble hearing consonants, so they overcompensate by stressing them. They are not that aware of volume or of how other people respond to it.

Can you elaborate on that? It’s impressive how she was told as a child she was likely to never speak, and not only has she acquired verbal communication, but she also excelled at it.

My dialect coach took sound bites from different interviews and documentaries of Temple and broke it down as an exercise tape for me. It was like learning a language; she would isolate a sentence of Temple’s and then there would be a pause, and I’d have to repeat it. Those were on my iPod and I’d just listen to them relentlessly. I felt the need to have her in my head. I felt pity for my driver, because every day on my way to work I’d just do these exercises — the same lines over and over again. It must have been so tedious for him. Halfway through filming, my dialect coach turned to me and said, “I think you may be the authority on the Temple Grandin dialect. There isn’t anybody else who knows how she speaks more than you do.” Temple is a culture of one.

And you met with Temple Grandin during the pre-production. How did it feel to meet in real life the person you portray?

I met with her for an afternoon; she came to my house. At that point, I had started doing a lot of research so she had grown in my imagination. I was so nervous, so scared. I just wanted her approval, really. It’s very intimate and odd. I’m a stranger, and here I’m about to go represent her on a big scale to a lot of people. I was a nervous wreck; she was very gracious and open. 

Was there one question you absolutely wanted to address with her?

I had so many! Some were very specific and others were more abstract. I wanted to maximize the amount of time we had together; we had about four hours and they were precious. A lot of autistic people are incapable of guile; that’s one of the reasons why they are so appealing. They don’t have any filters; they just can’t lie. Temple was really candid about everything. She has written about her experience pretty extensively and gives lectures. She understands that she’s an important role model and she takes that seriously. She has a great sense of humor. She was game! I think she is incredibly charming. At the end of our meeting, she gave me a hug, which is really hard for her to do. I get choked up just thinking about. It was so tender; that was the validation I needed. [Danes’ voice shakes with emotion and her eyes get teary.]

How would you describe Grandin’s reaction to the film?

She has seen it and likes it a lot, which was profoundly relieving. She also saw footage while we were filming. The shoot lasted about six weeks. It was pressure filled. I felt great responsibility to get it right; I felt so inspired by her, which was incredibly motivating. I’m glad that the movie works, and hope that people like it, and especially that Temple likes it. That’s all that matters to me.

After such intensity, was it difficult to get her out of your system, to let her go?

I actually haven’t played another film since. The character is still in my muscle memory; I’ve got to do another role to exorcise. I loved her. It feels pretentious when actors talk this way, but I truly mean it when I say that I really liked keeping her company.

If we say that the ultimate function of art is to stimulate a feeling or a thought in the public, what then do you hope is the message of this film?

The big sentiment is that autistic people are different but not less. That’s really helpful for people to accept and understand. Temple is a heroic person. I think the word “heroic” has been used casually, but she is incredibly imaginative, brave, industrious. She suffered a great pain and she refused to surrender to that. [She] was resourceful in taming those awful feelings in the face of enormous adversity and resistance. She is really decent, she just wants to do a good job in life, she wants to help people. It’s genuine; I think that’s worth acknowledging and celebrating. I hope people see that in her.

Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara ... What a cast!

I felt so spoiled. It was a tough gig but I was amazingly supported by everybody involved. They are incredibly gifted actors and good people. Everybody cared about this a great deal, which is not always the case. Sometimes some people are there just for more superficial reasons. I’m not judging; I’ve done it in the past too, when I wanted to be busy or for some other reason. But for this, everybody was invested and you could feel that in the energy.

And of course the fact that it is directed by Mick Jackson and endorsed by HBO adds another dimension to the project!

Mick had great confidence in me. And boy, did I need him to have confidence in me, because I didn’t, necessarily. There were times when I didn’t know if I was getting it right; Mick’s encouragement was so valuable. Everybody has a specific way of working; you just have to figure it out as you go along. Mick is a visual thinker, so I think he was a great choice, especially for this. HBO is a great company; they are very involved, but in the right way. They really trust their artists and do what they can to have them feel fulfilled.

What are some of the words that Claire Danes would use to describe herself?

Engaged, direct, goofy, nerdy, playful, and stubborn.

What was it about acting that made you want to do it?

I don’t know. I started dancing when I was really little and I guess that’s, in a way, how I had found acting. I always wanted to do it. My first memory of acting was when I was three years old. It was nap time in my nursery school. I couldn’t sleep. I’ve always been a bad napper, still to this day, but I loved my teacher and I didn’t want her to be disappointed that I wasn’t doing what I should. So I was pretending to sleep and I remembered having observed my mom kind of twitch in her sleep, so I started twitching, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really subtle, that’s nuanced.” I mean I didn’t have those words, of course, but I liked that moment. My epiphany came when I realized that performing could actually be a job, which hit me when I was watching Madonna on television. I was on fire, I was thrilled. I think a lot of girls of my generation had this experience with Madonna.

Dancing and acting … In which do you feel most at home?

I love dancing, but I love acting probably more, because I’m curious about people. hat’s where my imagination tends to go. I think in some ways you can be more expressive with dance. I like the fact that there is a direct communication with your body to the world. It doesn’t have to go through the filter of the head and language and all that.

I found this quote in a past interview, where you said: “Acting is the greatest answer to my loneliness.”

I live with myself all the time; it gets a little boring. [laughs] It’s always easier to see other people more clearly than you see yourself. I think it’s easier to have empathy for others than for yourself. So it’s nice to have that clarity and empathy in my work. I enjoy that.

You’ve been a part of Hollywood for over 15 years now. Looking back, what do you see?

I’ve been very fortunate. I had a lot of opportunities. I think it was a challenge to start working really young. I think there were a lot of risks in that. My parents were incredibly present and grounded. We were all utterly naïve; I had expressed a desire to act and they allowed me to explore that, just like they allowed me to explore playing the piano. It happened all very quickly. Before we knew it, we were in L.A. and I was doing a network television show. We were trying hard to learn about the industry.

In other words, they encouraged your decision to follow your heart.

When they first met, my mother was a textile designer and my father was a photographer. Then my mom taught a toddler school and my dad was a contractor. As I was acting and getting success with it, my brother was in college by then, my dad’s business was ending, my mother was ready to do something new — so there was this natural fusion, and we all moved to the West Coast. We were utterly disoriented and clueless about the whole thing; we were learning together. My parents were adamant that I get an education, that my tutor was always present. So that served enormously.

In that phase of your acting career, you took on a few tortured teenage characters that are etched in our minds to this day!

People became aware of me from “My So- Called Life,” and she was described as being angry, which is maybe fair. I think she was introspective and analytical and busy thinking. I think whatever role an audience first discovers you with, that image stays with them. I just never felt like a cheerleader, but I sure can play a good one.

Are you happy with where you are in your life today?

Boy, am I glad I’m no longer in my teenage years! And boy, am I glad I’m not in my twenties!

In what way?

I’ve a much better sense of who I am, and of what I want. I know what my boundaries are. I know it’s okay to assert and protect them. And I’ve got a great partner; things are much easier now.

Two actors in one household ... does it make the marriage go smoother?

I think there is an easy understanding that’s helpful when you do the same job. But I forget that he is English, and that he is an actor a lot of the time, which is funny because those are two pretty defining traits. It’s just Hugh. When I don’t see him for a while, of course, I am suddenly reminded, naturally, of those things. I mean, that’s not why I fell in love with him. He doesn’t seem like an actor to me, but I know he does act, and he acts pretty well. [laughs]

I hear you just bought a place in Upstate New York.

I’m very excited about it! I love homemaking. My dad was a contractor; I’m drawn to design. Actually, both my parents are visual. They always created really fun places. I mean, we had a toddler school in our house in New York City! We had a trapeze and a swing. It was a pretty wild environment. I guess, in a way, I was always encouraged to play. My parents live in L.A. near the Santa Monica/Venice area now. I like L.A. a lot. There are pressures on New Yorkers to criticize it, which is really so useless.

What comes to your mind when I say ...Shopgirl?

Steve.

Steve Martin?

 Funny.

Stage Beauty?

Drag.

Fame?

Eek!

Romeo + Juliet?

Sixteen.

Yale?

Homework.

Polish Wedding?

Sassy.

Evening?

The rest of my life.

Ambition?

Energy.

Audition?

Oh, Jesus!

Let’s explore for a moment some lesser known things about you. What kind of music are you passionate about?

I grew up in New York in the ’80s and ’90s, so I love hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest is my comfort music. I love music, but I don’t look for it; I let my friends do it and then I pillage. Whenever I ask for presents, I ask for mix CDs.

What about literature? Is there any time period or author you feel close to, in particular?

I have a strong affinity for anything Mid- Century; the clothes, the furniture, the literature. I like how things used to be elegant — functional, but with flair. One of my favorite writers is Christopher Isherwood. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, James Salter, Lorrie Moore, and Philip Roth.

During an AFI tribute to Meryl Streep, you said, “Thank you for teaching me that excellence is attainable through exploration, risk, and love.” In what way has she been a guiding light in your pursuit of the craft?

She has all those qualities in great abundance. She is fun. I don’t think people realize that, because she is known for playing such profound roles in incredibly moving stories, but she is not afraid to get messy. She is not self-conscious in that way. She works hard; she is really technically proficient. She went to school for that and has done a lot of theater, so she takes her work seriously — but also she has a sense of abandon and risk that makes her work spark. I look up to her. There are so many actors and actresses I love... Susan Sarandon, Sigourney Weaver, Laura Linney, Jodie Foster, Cate Blanchett. I hold them in such a high esteem.

Any good advice that has been passed on to you?

I remember Jodie Foster told me, “It doesn’t matter the movies you don’t do. It matters what movies you do do.” Which seems pretty basic, but you can get a little competitive or anxious about who is more popular at a given moment, which is really nonsense. You just have to be focused on what you want and what you wish to communicate and not worry about other people. That was useful. Susan Sarandon told me to “drink plenty of water because you get dehydrated.”

When a film is complete, do you feel drained or energized?

I often feel pretty tired. There is no easy job. You are on set for 12 hours at least; you’re always giving more than what you probably should. It is a huge gift to know what your purpose is in life. I’ve always been very clear about acting being what I wanted to do. I have a lot of friends who are plagued with that great difficulty of not knowing which path to choose. I don’t know where that clarity came from for me. But I’m glad it did. I still feel that pull strongly.

In 50 years when you look at all the movies you’ve done, what do you hope to have left behind?

I think when an audience reflects on actors, they really are reflecting on feelings they had in the company of that actor’s work, what that actor’s work has elicited in them. That’s powerful. I hope I give people a chance to look within themselves and connect with their true self in an honest way. ▼

“Temple Grandin” premieres Saturday, February 6th at 8pm on HBO. For more information, visit www.hbo.com or www.templegrandin.com

 

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