For two years, Claire Danes has been invincible. Since 2010, she has been nominated for nine significant awards (two Emmys, two Satellites, two Golden Globes, one SAG, one Critics’ Choice and one Television Critics Association) for her roles in the HBO biopic “Temple Grandin” and Showtime’s thriller “Homeland.”
She won all nine.
I first discovered Danes in seventh grade. I was at a friend’s house watching TeenNick — my family only had basic cable at the time, so this was a big deal — when “My So-Called Life” came on. As unpolished and bluff as a middle schooler’s diary, “Life” was unlike any of the moralizing teen shows I watched at the time (“Boy Meets World” and “7th Heaven” being some of the worst offenders of twisting adolescence into romanticized parables).
I caught episodes sporadically, unable to watch the series from start to finish until Netflix came around, but even in fragmented pieces, I fell for Danes’s Angela Chase, who thought being a woman meant dyeing her hair without her mother’s permission, wearing dark red lipstick and dating boys who drink their coffee black. I treasured Angela’s striking, star-crossed friendship with Rayanne, like Angela clutching Tarot cards close to her heart.
Much of MSCL’s charm came from its emotionally honest writing and characters, but Danes was its beating heart, her natural delivery — full of “ums,” “likes” and uneven pauses — injecting Angela with truth.
We’ve quite literally watched Danes grow up on our TV screens. She was only 15 years old when she won her first Golden Globe for Best Lead Actress in a Drama in 1995, and she beat out contenders with well more than double her experience. In her acceptance speech, she was as plain-spoken as Angela, but forgot to thank her parents. Which is why, 17 years later, she was sure to thank them right away when she accepted the same exact award for her performance as the charged and discerning Carrie Mathison in “Homeland.” I told you — Claire Danes knows how to win awards.
Nowadays, every TV critic worth his or her salt is head-over-heels for her, but this wasn’t always the case. For a brief period in the late ’90s, Danes was incredibly unpopular among critics and TV lovers, but it had nothing to do with her talent.
When it became apparent that “My So-Called Life” was facing cancellation, news soon followed that Danes had approached the network to say that she did not wish to continue being a part of the project. A group of fervent fans of the series formed Operation Life Support, which circulated nasty emails criticizing Danes for her perceived role in the show’s demise. One particularly inflammatory e-mail boasted the subject line “CLAIRE DANES BRINGS DEATH TO ‘LIFE.’ ”
In 2004, Danes admitted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that she and her parents discussed her departure with the show’s creators, but Danes also pointed out an undeniable truth: No teenaged actor has the power to shut down a series. “Life” was suffering from weak ratings, and when the network became aware that Danes might not be interested in continuing on a fledgeling project, she became the scapegoat. The flame war waged against her was unfair and ultimately pointless.
Fortunately, despite the drama, Danes didn’t fade. Angela and Carrie are staggering bookends for Danes’s TV career so far, and in between she has done heartfelt and rich work, the most notable being her multifaceted and demanding portrayal of Temple Grandin.
Many actors have risen to the challenge of portraying autistic individuals (even Danes’s husband Hugh Dancy, who played the titular character of 2009’s “Adam”). 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.