The day before we meet for lunch, Claire Danes was in a barre class when a middle-aged woman she didn’t know confessed her abiding love for My So-Called Life, the short-lived but seminal drama in which Danes starred as the angsty teenager Angela Chase. “There was a lot of magic in that show,” smiles Danes, fondly. “It was hard for me to know that at the time – it was my first big job.” The role won the actor her first Golden Globe, at the age of 14.
It’s a blustery afternoon in Manhattan’s West Village, where Danes, now 40, lives with her husband, the English actor Hugh Dancy, and their sons Cyrus, seven, and Rowan, 17 months. She may still be readily recognized for characters she played for less than a year more than two decades ago, but Danes does an excellent job of keeping things low key, arriving bundled up in a puffa coat and beanie hat, over jeans and a chunky sweater.
Do people, I wonder, as she divests herself of the winter gear, still associate her with Angela more closely than they do Carrie Mathison, Homeland’s gifted, messy CIA savant, whom she has played for more than eight years (and who has brought her two further Golden Globes and two Emmys)? “It’s pretty neck-and-neck now, to be honest,” muses Danes. In the same barre class, she says, another attendee rounded things out by saying how much she adored Homeland.
“I’ll miss playing such a BRILLIANT, impulsive, FLAWED hero. She’s a PAIN in the ass, but she is always right in the end”
But now, Danes is hanging up Carrie’s trademark cross-body bag and risking her life to foil terrorist plots for the final time – this forthcoming season of Homeland, its eighth, will be the last. “I’ll miss playing such a brilliant, intrepid, impulsive, flawed hero,” she says. “She’s a pain in the ass but she is always right in the end. She tends to prevail in her own perverse way.”
The magnitude of having played the gutsy character for so long is not lost on the actor. “When I started Homeland, I was barely married, and now, we just had our ten-year anniversary and we have a seven-year-old and a toddler – WTF?” she says, shaking her head as she studies the menu. “And we’ve been such citizens of the world. Both our sons learnt to crawl in Morocco [where much of Homeland has been filmed], and I have some amusing breast-pumping photos in Moroccan green rooms.”
That she also relishes her off-screen experience of motherhood is patently obvious. “It’s reorienting, but I love it and I’ve always wanted this. So it was really interesting playing someone who didn’t love it and didn’t want it,” she says of Carrie, who voluntarily signed over custody of her daughter in season four. “I was really glad to explore that, because I think it’s still a very stubborn taboo. Women are allowed a lot these days, relative to what they have been, but they’re still not quite allowed to not want to be mothers.”
“It was really GOOD for me to go to college, because I was a bit FRIGHTENED of WOMEN”
Indeed, Carrie was a complicated female lead long before other TV shows caught on to the fact that audiences craved such a thing. “She did heinous things, over and over again – we tested the audience’s sympathy all the time.” But she was also unwaveringly fearless and capable. “To pretend to be that was pretty intoxicating,” says the actor. “It’s so fun to have that swagger.”
Danes grew up close to where we’re lunching today, on Crosby Street in SoHo, before the neighborhood became, as she puts it, “a shopping mall”. Her father, Christopher, is a photographer, and her mother, Carla, a sculptor, who also ran a daycare service for toddlers in their loft apartment. In their downtown artists’ community, children’s creativity “was not just allowed, it was encouraged, and really valued”. The previous day, she saw her old friend, designer Zac Posen, who grew up in the area, too. “Him, Lena Dunham, Gaby Hoffmann [both also friends], me – it’s not exactly a coincidence that we all ended up doing creative work.”
At five years old, the precocious Danes decided she wanted to act, later taking classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. At 12, she signed with an agent, and had only made a guest appearance as a teenage murderer on Law & Order when, aged 13, she was cast in My So-Called Life. Soon afterwards, Danes made her film debut alongside Winona Ryder in Little Women before starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, in Baz Luhrmann’s iconic Romeo + Juliet, when she was 16.
“It was so exciting to be a part of – I loved it,” she recalls. “It was also really hard. We were filming in Mexico City, so it was a little raw. And the story kind of bled into life off-set, as it often does. There was a gang of dudes, young men – Romeo’s posse. It was an intense energy…”
Missing out on the standard high-school experience while her career went stellar didn’t bother Danes at all. Junior high had been “an isolated period of hell. I was just not very good at the social politics”. However, having made 13 films in five years, at 18 she decided she needed a break and enrolled at Yale to study psychology. “It was really good for me to go to college, because I was a bit frightened of women,” she confesses. “On film sets, I was always surrounded by adults, so the last time I’d spent any real time with other girls was in junior high, so they froze in my mind as these intimidating, cruel creatures. Then I went to college and discovered, ‘Oh, people grow out of that.’”
“I was properly ODD. I didn’t know how to HANG out; I had to be APPLYING myself all the time”
In previous encounters, I’ve found Danes incredibly smart and witty but somewhat reserved. Today, she is unexpectedly open, chatting happily about Hugh and the boys, and telling hilarious domestic anecdotes involving her aging dog and cat. Has turning 40 last year – with a big party while filming Homeland in Morocco – mellowed her? “I always felt the age I am now, so it’s nice to catch up with my actual age,” she says. “It feels appropriate.”
“I was weird,” she shares, candidly, of her younger self. “I’m not being cute – I was properly odd. I didn’t know how to hang out; I had to be applying myself all the time.” She shrugs. “I have never skipped a class in my life, my socks are always pulled way up to my knees. I’m supremely nerdy; I was never cool.”
Surely, I suggest, Dancy must have thought her a bit cool when they met on the set of the movie Evening in 2007? “Well, Hugh’s a big nerd, too,” Danes says. “When we first started sorta-kinda-dating for real (ish), I had an ornament-making party for Christmas, and he helped organize it. Then he made an ornament of cowboy paper dolls, and I thought, ‘and he crafts?’ That was it,” she says. “You have me for the rest of our lives.”
“Women are ALLOWED a lot these days… but they’re still not QUITE allowed to not want to be MOTHERS”
Those crafting chops have been put to abundant use since they became parents. Danes whips out her phone to show me the family’s most recent, hugely impressive homemade Halloween outfits; Dancy was a funny bone. “He papier-mâchéd his own hat – I’m very proud of my husband,” she grins.
For several years of their marriage, while Dancy was starring in the series Hannibal, he would be based in Toronto, while she filmed Homeland in Charlotte, North Carolina. “That was tough,” she nods. “That distance is corrosive, and I’m just bad at it. And I don’t particularly want to get good at it. We learned along the way how essential it is for us to be physically together as often as possible.”
In a happy twist of domestic scheduling, Dancy also has a role in this final season of Homeland, playing a foreign-office advisor to the President. “That was such a nice way to end the show,” Danes enthuses. “I didn’t have a single scene with him, but on my days off, I would go to his set. He’s very good.” She laughs. “I don’t exactly forget that, but we don’t talk about acting much, so it was a really nice reminder.” Watching your partner do something they are really good at, she concludes, “is so hot”.
“I would like to PLAY somebody who’s a little less of a SUPERHERO: somebody in a relationship, someone in a MARRIAGE”
With Carrie’s final mission complete, Danes is only now beginning to think about life beyond the series. She’s keen to produce, having done that on the show, and has been inspired by Lesli Linka Glatter, the director of Homeland since season three, who, says Danes, is “a real feminist, with an activist spirit”, inviting younger female directors to shadow her on set.
It’s interesting, Danes notes, “how we internalize things”. When she played Temple Grandin, an animal-behavior expert with autism, she discovered there were a disproportionate number of women on the autism spectrum with very high-ranking jobs. “It’s because they don’t get the relatively subtle social cues that they should temper their ambition.”
After playing Grandin in 2011, and winning yet another Emmy and Golden Globe for her portrayal, she had two years away from acting. Every role she was offered felt too lightweight until Homeland came along. Now, she’s looking for some human connection. “I would like to play somebody who’s a little less of a superhero: somebody in a relationship, someone in a marriage.” She smiles again. “Carrie was so isolated, we used to joke that her cross-body bag was her best and only friend. It would be nice to play a regular old person now, more of an actual human.”
Season eight of Homeland will air on February 9 on Showtime (US) and later in the year on Channel 4 (UK)