Claire is the cover star of UK October issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Here’s the cover, the article preview and some pictures. I’ll post scans when I get them!
As an erratic yet brilliant bipolar CIA agent in Homeland, Claire Danes portrays her character with emotion and truth. Ajesh Patalay finds the actress equally passionate about her son, marriage and love for her work.
My first sighting of Claire Danes is across the Sant Ambroeus in New York, her choice of restaurant for lunch. I arrive on time on what is already a swelteringly hot day. So when the 35-year-old actress tumbles through the door 15 minutes later, she looks flushed and flustered in the way that anyone might who was running behind schedule and had been pounding the sidewalk in the midday sun.
She is dressed nicely: a white Isabel Marant blazer over a pink Zac Posen top, with skinny Paige jeans, gladiator sandals and a white Narciso Rodriguez bag in the crook of her arm. All of this I take in later; I am more distracted now by the animated dumbshow that ensues when the mai?tre d’ greets her. Confusion first, then distress rattle across her face as she fishes out her phone and starts jabbing at the screen, presumably to bring up the name of our reservation. It’s a sort of manic behaviour I have seen before, albeit in heightened form, from her character on Homeland, though of course Carrie Mathison only manifests it when she has been blindsided by a terrorist bomb or a CIA betrayal, or simply slipped off her meds and spiralled into one of her episodes.
I hurry over to introduce myself and a minute later we are about to sit down when Danes spins around and apologetically disappears off to the bathroom. When she re-emerges – you’d think having cooled off – she is just as charged up as before and, with barely a question asked, launches into a kind of ‘life update’ that could just as well serve as a declaration of panic. I haven’t even turned on my tape recorder, so my transcript catches her in medias res:
‘But yeah, we are off in two days,’ she says, meaning her actor husband Hugh Dancy and their 17-month-old son Cyrus, both of whom are leaving with her for Cape Town, where the new series of Homeland is being shot. ‘So it’s just kind of manically trying to – interesting choice of words – but no, [we’re] desperately trying to get all of our gear together and it seems a lot right now. Hugh is actually taking a job, a mini-series about Gallipoli five days into our [stay], so he will fly with us and then five days later go to Adelaide for a month and then come back for two weeks and then [off] for another month, so… We have a brand new nanny too, who we will basically meet at the airport, so it’s all just, you know…’
Danes is positioned so that the diners at the adjacent table (at a right angle to ours) have a direct view from only a few feet away of the side of her face. I feel self-conscious on her behalf and wonder about changing tables, but she seems not to notice – or care – and is entirely caught up in what we’re talking about. ‘It will be such a different environment at work.’ In Cape Town? ‘Well, yes. Physically, yes’ – the previous seasons were shot in Charlotte, North Carolina – ‘but Damian [Lewis], I mean Brody, isn’t a part of the story and the vast majority of the crew will be different, so it’s a head-spinning time.’ You may have noticed her use earlier of the word ‘manically’, a term with obvious connotations for her alter-ego Carrie, which she paused to acknowledge before hurrying on. It’s just one instance of her quick mind at work, of a highly attuned sense of wordplay that surfaces again and again in the course of our conversation. Later, when she isn’t rapidly chasing thoughts through her own head (as she is now), she also emerges as a lively conversationalist, open about herself, but also an impeccable listener, ever present in the moment, probing in a way that shouldn’t be surprising from such an exacting performer. It’s an enjoyable tennis match, chatting with her.
At one point, having wandered off-topic, I ask if I may jump back to a subject many readers are longing to know more about, namely the next season of Homeland. ‘Of course, of course. You may, you may,’ she says with a flourish, the spirit of gallant silliness creeping in. I see what she means, when comparing herself to Carrie Mathison. She cites a common obsessiveness and restlessness, but also notes a key difference: ‘She’s earnest, I’m earnest. But I’m goofy too.’
So what about Homeland, the television series that earned her two Golden Globe awards and worldwide acclaim? To be fair, there have been moments, particularly in the last season, which tested the patience of even the most diehard fan. But at its best the show quickens the pulse and jangles the nerves like no other. Even Danes’ family is not immune. ‘Cyrus was born [at the end of] the second season,’ Danes recalls. ‘I went to the hospital at 10 o’clock, literally as the finale was airing, and I think my parents, who were in New York with me, were conflicted about what they were more excited for. Honest to God. It goes beyond parental pride, they’re really into the show.’
The upcoming season presents a number of challenges, given the death of Brody and the absence of Damian Lewis. How to reboot the series without him? ‘I’m going to miss him,’ says Danes. ‘A lot of people, even my friends, were saying, “Is he really dead?” And it’s absurd, but I think there’s a part of me that is also a little unsure. I’ll really start to believe it when we’re filming and he’s not there. That’s going to be hard and sad. I loved working with him and he carried half the weight of the show. So I’m a little bit daunted about what that means for me.’
Alongside her posting to Pakistan as a CIA station chief, the fourth season also finds Carrie tackling the difficult choice as a new single mother of whether to keep her (and Brody’s) baby. ‘On the way here I was just listening to a podcast on postpartum depression,’ Danes says, hinting at a storyline ahead. ‘And Cyrus,’ she adds, ‘he was reading my book on postpartum depression.’ Cyrus was? ‘Yeah, yeah.’ She laughs. ‘It was a particularly amusing mash-up.’
As a new mother, parenthood was a theme Danes was particularly keen to explore. ‘[Claire and I] have both had babies and we’ve both talked a lot about the struggles of motherhood,’ says the Homeland executive producer and writer Meredith Stiehm, who contributes to many of Carrie’s scenes. ‘We thought Carrie would certainly struggle with it.’
‘Being a mum is incredibly challenging,’ Danes agrees, ‘but we still feel a pressure to talk about it in very romantic terms. And it’s not just that. We all have that resentment at times and anxiety about being trapped by the role, that responsibility. And then chemically it can run riot. Your mental state, the hormonal swings are so extraordinary and singular to the female experience and they haven’t been taken very seriously or considered very deeply… I mean, post-partum aside, even if you have the most healthy relationship with your child and have support and resources, it’s tough. It’s really tough. And there’s no “off” button. [For me] that was the hardest adjustment. You always feel beholden to somebody… And for so long they’re like koala bears, you just feel a physical responsibility to be there for them to cling to. It’s pretty primal.’
Cyrus himself sounds adorable. ‘He’s kind of revealing himself to be a bit of a ham,’ Danes admits, ‘which shouldn’t really be a surprise. A babysitter gave him a kiss goodbye and now he does “Mwah, mwah” to everybody. Or he says “Ciao”. It’s ridiculous. I did not teach him that. He sings “Ee-eye ee-eye oh” to himself all the time. And he’s a toddler, so he says “No” and “More” a lot and he’s just started to have temper tantrums. It’s scary,’ she ends with a sigh.
It’s funny to hear her talk about her son’s histrionics because so much of what makes Danes unique as an actress are the childlike aspects to her performance: the urgency, the immediacy, the volatile seesaw of emotions. Those qualities were evident from the start, in her breakthrough role as Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, a part that depended on her ability, aged 15, to register (in those elastic features of hers) the seismic hormonal shifts that make up adolescent love. In other roles, most notably Beth in Little Women and Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespearean reimagining, she was no less startling, like a child prodigy who seemed knowing beyond her years, a world apart, but also recklessly naive and easy to bruise. In that regard, the role of Carrie Mathison was a perfect fit.
It isn’t uncommon now for people with bipolar disorder to rush up to Danes in the street and thank her for the accuracy of her portrayal, which in large part is down to Danes’ extensive research (including watching YouTube diaries of bipolar-disorder sufferers in various stages of mania and depression). Stiehm also has a sister with the condition, which has informed both the script and Danes’ choices, though Stiehm is the first to honour the actress’ special knack for bringing these scenes to life, calling her the ‘MVP’ or ‘most valuable player’, a sporting term, to suggest her boundless abilities.
It’s a virtuoso performance, complete with the lip-trembling and chin-quivering that have become a signature of Carrie’s vulnerability (and the subject of some lambasting). But the lack of vanity in Danes’ acting is precisely what her actress friend Meryl Streep celebrates. ‘Claire has a ferocious commitment to the truth in her work,’ Streep writes in an email. ‘Nothing is softened or gilded with the agenda often specific to actresses – the desire to maintain desirability, vulnerability, appeal… She asks for nothing except that you witness the beating heart of each woman she plays as she reveals it. It’s a simple adjustment, not to care what that looks like, but only the great ones make it.’
Danes herself is a little nonplussed by the attention her ‘cry face’ attracts. ‘I’m surprised it’s so surprising,’ she says, before adding: ‘I have my guy, who thinks I’m pretty enough in our life together, so I don’t need to be seducing the audience that way.’ Then she goes on: ‘I think it’s also just my style, what I like in creative work, what I’ve always been attracted to, even as a little girl. I danced as a kid, that’s how I arrived at acting, and I took a class with a woman called Ellen Robbins. It was modern dance, so already a little raw. And I always had an appreciation for the macabre. We would do these improvisations and I remember one time, I was maybe 11 or 12, I was into grotesque movement, and I decided to do a dance where I was just doing a diagonal across stage, doing these weird movements and I landed and I just spat on the floor, like totally pretentious performance art. But it was great. I liked the ugly even as a kid, and I think that has stayed with me now.’
Danes still performs as a dancer and Lesli Linka Glatter, a one-time professional dancer who now directs on Homeland, notes that ‘with her as an actor it doesn’t start in the head, it starts in the body somewhere. So it doesn’t feel like anything is being put on. Dance is something you can’t hide behind. Either your leg goes up in the air or it doesn’t. Claire feels like an actor who works from the inside out, not the outside in’.
The most recent season of Homeland, in which Carrie was (seemingly) disavowed, committed to an asylum, recruited as a double agent and then re-inducted into the CIA to help orchestrate an assassination that resulted in the public hanging of Brody, was test enough of Danes’ mettle as an actress. She talks about accessing the emotion needed for some scenes being like free-diving: ‘I have a good air supply now [so] the longer I do it the more confidence I have to go further.’ Even so, she also mentions screaming and ranting in take after take and losing her voice, and I do wonder how she casts that off at the end of six months’ filming. ‘Before I had Cyrus I had a rule of giving myself a week to go to a spa or on a little trip to gently disengage. I don’t have that any more. But,’ she adds, ‘having a kid helps because they demand your full presence and there’s no option. In November I went straight from Morocco [where Brody’s hanging scene was filmed] to Toronto,’ where Dancy was shooting the new series of his show, Hannibal. ‘We caught the changing of the leaves just barely, which was nice.’
For the next six months, she assumed ?life ‘on the other side of the moon’ as a? Toronto housewife, braving the brutal? Canadian winter. ‘You’re just house-?bound. I had to be strategic about how? and when I took the garbage out. I mean, ?it was intense.’ The first time she moved? there, a year before, Cyrus was two? weeks old and they had ‘raced to get him ?a passport and keep his eyes open [for the picture]; it was preposterous’. On reaching Toronto, Danes felt ‘totally overwhelmed and displaced and I really didn’t have a sense of the city and was nursing all the time. Away from family and friends, it was quite extreme. Two months in, I accidentally found this mummy/baby yoga class where I met women who became best friends. I guess that’s common, you bond really fast…’
This past month, the family have enjoyed a rare chance to spend time together in New York, where Danes grew up. Currently they’re renting because their West Village townhouse is being renovated. ‘[We’re] making the family home,’ Danes explains. ‘It’s a huge undertaking.’ On a slight tangent, she points across the street to a vertical grid of cars. ‘Actually, I grew up right in that building.’ What, there? ‘Yes, I grew up in a carpark, true story,’ she deadpans. ‘No, my parents own that [other] building with another couple. They moved here in the 1960s and lived in the Bowery, then bought that building in the 1970s. They live in Santa Monica now, but I grew up on the sixth floor. This was a diner once upon a time. We were surrounded by diners, that’s all we had.’ Contemplatively, she adds: ‘It’s been nice to be home for a couple of heartbeats, to see my friends again. I’ve been so homesick in so many ways that I kind of stop feeling it after a while.’ Still, she has made the most of her peripatetic life. In Charlotte, for instance, Danes found pleasure in furnishing her rental apartment: ‘I went to local thrift stores and I hit eBay hard.’
Her interiors style, she says, is ‘mid-century but never kitschy’, though her sense of home is still informed by having grown up in a nursery (her mother ran a school for toddlers from their loft). ‘My friends call my taste “kindergarten sophisticate”,’ she says. Incidentally, the couple’s other home, a farmhouse in Hudson Valley, is more a blend of both their styles, incorporating Dancy’s ‘English, weathered’ look too. ‘He likes folk art. It can’t be too studied. It works [for us]. We’re happy.’ I get the impression they’re kooky together, in a sweet way. For a start, they both do crafts. She’s currently into embroidery and was customising onesies for her friends’ babies on the set of Homeland. ‘It got to the point where the crew made a sewing station out of my director’s chair, one arm was a pincushion and I had this special light. It was ridiculous but, you know, delightfully so.’ As for joint activities, ‘Hugh and I took a life-drawing class in the first year of our relationship,’ Danes recalls. ‘He was better than I was and I didn’t want to do it much after.’ Why? Because he was better? ‘I’m competitive, yeah. I might be a better dancer. We dance together a lot. But when I get too drunk I get very bossy. It’s one of my least attractive qualities. My friend had a birthday party on a boat and without irony I was instructing my friends to dance with the waves. Arghhh!’ she howls with embarrassment.
I venture, rather presumptuously, that she seems to enjoy being married and she comes back with an answer that is almost schoolgirlish in its enthusiasm: ‘I do!’ she exclaims. ‘I’m genuinely in love with him. And I like hard things. You know, marriage is hard, but I’m up for it. I don’t do anything casually so dating is not for me. I would be marrying everyone I was with. When I met Hugh I was single for the first time and really looking forward to it, kind of bragging, “I’m going to rock this.” Then I met Hugh… But I like getting into [a relationship]. It’s more fun [than being single]. There’s so much opportunity if you are interested in each other to go further. It’s kind of a beautiful exercise.’ It gets better over time, you mean, like a long-running TV series? ‘Yeah,’ she says, smiling. ‘And life keeps it interesting for you. Like having a baby. The demands are different; that has been dictated by circumstance. So we haven’t had to liven it up. Life just keeps livening it up for us.’