John Lahr profiles Claire Danes in The New Yorker.
Lahr's profile touches on many of the highs and lows of her career, with particular attention paid to Homeland for obvious reasons, but for me the highlight is – and probably always will be, no matter what she's cast in for the rest of her career – the role that made her famous, that of Angela Chase. Picture the scene, with My So-Called Life's producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and the show's writer Winnie Holzman auditioning two actresses for the role:
[Alicia] Silverstone auditioned first. Zwick, impressed, told Herskovitz, "It's done. Just cast her." But Herskovitz thought she was too pretty for Holzman's messy high-school universe, which included subplots about drug addiction, bullying, binge drinking, promiscuity, and homosexuality. "Alicia is so beautiful that that would have affected her experience of the world. People would have been telling her she was beautiful since she was six years old. You can't put that face in what's been written for this girl," he argued. Linda Lowy, the casting director, suggested that they see Danes before deciding. "From the minute she walked in the room, Claire was chilling, astounding, and silent," Lowy said. "There was so much power coming out of her without her doing much." One of the scenes that Danes read – which involved a nervy bathroom breakup with Angela's best friend, Sharon – required her to cry. "Tell me what I did, Angela. I mean, I would really like to know," Sharon says. "We get to that line and Claire's face turns entirely red," Herskovitz said. "Her body starts to vibrate and tears come into her eyes. You realize that she's having a physical experience that is beyond acting." Even then, Danes's defining quality as an actress – a combination of thoughtfulness and impulsiveness – was on display. "She seemed to have been born fully grown, you know, out of a seashell," Herskovitz said. Zwick claimed that Danes was his first sighting of a "wise child," a rare species that show business occasionally tosses up. As he put it later, "What she knows cannot be taught." Danes also satisfied another quality that Holzman's script called for: her face could transform in an instant from beautiful to ordinary.
Holzman's pilot for "My So-Called Life" (then titled "Someone Like Me") was meant to trap "a naked quality, not a person but a feeling of freedom and bondage, shyness and fearlessness," she said. Holzman found herself staring at this protean paradox in the flesh. Danes "was sexy and not sexy, free and bound up, open and closed, funny and frighteningly serious," Holzman recalled. Her performance freed Holzman's imagination. "We gave birth to each other," she said. "I was looking at someone who literally could do anything, and so I could, too." The novelist and television writer Richard Kramer, who worked on "My So-Called Life," places Holzman's writing for the show on a continuum of original television voices that leads from her to Mike White, Larry David, and Lena Dunham. "Winnie wouldn't be Winnie without Claire," he said. "And Claire wouldn't be Claire without Winnie. There was something mythological about their meeting."
After Danes left the audition room, Lowy recalled, "no one could really speak." In the excitement of the moment, the production team found themselves faced with a conundrum. Silverstone was sixteen and "emancipated," meaning, in Hollywood's piquant terminology, that she could work very long days. Danes was thirteen and, by law, had to go to school. If they cast Silverstone, they could move ahead with the show they'd written; if they opted for Danes, they'd have to adapt later scripts to accommodate her schedule. "We turned to Winnie," Herskovitz recalled. "Winnie said, 'Let's change the nature of the show.' " He added, "In that moment, we decided to include the lives of the parents more."
A fortunate day for everyone except Alicia Silverstone.