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Kayla Upadhyaya: How Claire Danes became an unstoppable force

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published December 3, 2012

Danes and the writers of “Temple Grandin” take everything we know about the depiction of autism in film — and the biopic genre, for that mater — and throw it out the window, yielding delightfully unsentimental work that moves in detailed strokes rather than sweeping emotional cues. Danes doesn’t rely solely on the physicality of the role, taking a meticulous approach to the character. At times, I wanted to stand up and applaud.

There are moments when a flicker of Angela Chase flashes across the screen as I’m watching “Homeland” … most often in the tear-filled scenes. In all these years, no one has come close to challenging Danes’s status as the Best Crier on TV. And in some ways, Angela and Carrie are bizarrely similar — where Angela was scared of people perceiving her as young and insignificant, Carrie’s fear is that she might never shed the label of That Crazy Lady. They’re both insecure and unsteady, but Danes’s performance is nothing but graceful, confronting their nuances with teeth.

I don’t relate to Carrie as I did with Angela, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less drawn to the character. Both are incredibly well written. Women who are unstable and yet maintain a sense of agency can be hard to find on TV, and both Angela and Carrie strike the balance. But the force that emanates from both characters can’t be chocked up to writers’-room wizardry. Somewhere between the words on the page and what we see on our screens, Danes steps in and works her trusty magic.

She made the oft-impossible bound from teen star to virtuoso and has enjoyed an exceptional longevity similar to that of Winona Ryder. In fact, the now-defunct Sassy Magazine once referred to her as the “next Winona Ryder,” and the two sparked a close friendship after working on “Little Women” together. Like Ryder, Danes has become a familiar face.

But her familiarity isn’t what makes her the best act on television right now. Actors who get too locked into a particular role or performance don’t last. The greats are consistent but still unpredictable. And there’s nothing stagnant about Danes’s trajectory. She’s constantly evolving as an actor, not only fresh role-to-role, but week-to-week. Sometimes, as in “Homeland” ’s “Q&A,” even scene-to-scene.

Without really realizing it, I’ve been following Danes’s career longer than any other actor. I keep my ever-growing magazine collection on display on built-in bookshelves in my room, one section set aside for issues particularly important to me. Sitting right next to the September 2012 issue of the New York Times Style Magazine with Claire Danes on its cover is a 1995 issue of Sassy, which features a short essay by 16-year-old Danes.

“You wouldn’t believe the challenge it is to understand that it’s OK to be successful,” she writes. “I wonder all the time what it is about me that people respond to. Things have continued to progress for me since ‘My So-Called Life,’ but there’s always the fear that it will all go away.”

Eighteen years after “My So-Called Life,” Danes is still giving exciting little gifts. In “Homeland” ’s season two premiere, there’s a brief moment — a smile, to be exact — so stripped down, so potent that I was once again seduced by Danes’s magnetism. The moment — one of the best on television this fall — was undoubtedly scripted, but again, there’s only so much credit we can give to the writers. Simple, telling, radiant, that smile is Danes’s magic.


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