Design Matters From the Archive: Claire Danes

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At 10, she announced that money or no money, she would be true to her art—and there was no plan B. And, well, actress Claire Danes stuck to it.

Transcript

Debbie Millman:

There’s just something about Claire Danes that makes her hard not to watch—and we’ve been watching for a long time. As a teenager in the 1990s, she played Angela Chase in the much-loved but short-lived television show “My So-Called Life.” After many film and theater roles, she starred in the much-loved, long-running series “Homeland,” which won her a few Emmy Awards for outstanding lead actress. “Homeland” just wrapped up after its eighth and final season, and you can’t help but wonder what this actor will do next to compel us to watch her again. Claire Danes, welcome to Design Matters.

Claire Danes:

Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.

Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Claire, I understand for a time you owned a hula hoop made by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. How did you come to have that?

Claire Danes:

I’ve so been looking forward to this question. That is true, it was hot pink with white stripes all around it. My parents owned, actually still own, with another couple, a loft on Crosby Street, and Basquiat was a renter. I was about 4 years old at the time and I do remember seeing him in the elevator, and he was very charming. Some grownups really register with kids. They’re on the kid plane, and I recognized that he was one of those people, and he eventually moved out and left a few objects, a hot pink hula hoop being one of them.

Debbie Millman:

You grew up in your parents’ artist loft, obviously, in this same building with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Your dad studied engineering and biology at Brown University and then transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1960s, where he met your mother. Did they originally want to be designers?

Claire Danes:

Yeah, so my mom was a textile designer. She studied textiles at RISD and was one for 10 years. One of my first memories was watching her paint an endless series of flowers while watching, or more listening, to “All My Children.” And my dad was a photographer, and he had built a dark room in our loft, and that’s what they did at the start of their young lives. They went to Bowery first after graduating from RISD, and then eventually moved to SoHo, and then they did other things. I have an older brother, Asa, seven years older, and then when I came around I think it was time to make some more money, really, and my dad was a contractor, became a contractor, ran a business called Overall Construction.

Debbie Millman:

Good name, worthy of a RISD grad, definitely.

Claire Danes:

He is a punster, and my mom ran a toddler school in our loft, a daycare center.

Debbie Millman:

I saw two different names for your mom’s toddler school: The Crosby Street Toddler’s Group and the Crosby Street Toddler’s Tribe, so I think we should clarify for the record which was the actual name.

Claire Danes:

It was much easier to say and more alliterative, it was Crosby Kids.

Debbie Millman:

Ah, Crosby Kids.

Claire Danes:

And there were six kids in the morning and six kids in the afternoon, and she started that when I was about 4 years old. She taught 1- and 2-year-olds, and she ended when I became this actor teenager person, but it was a funny way to live.

Debbie Millman:

Is it true you had a trampoline, a trapeze installed over the kitchen table, and a swing suspended from the living room ceiling in the apartment?

Claire Danes:

Yes, that’s all true, but that was all pre-nursery school.

Debbie Millman:

That was just life in the Danes household.

Claire Danes:

One of the great things about a loft is that you have this uninterrupted, flat plain, just expanse of wood floors, so it was an ideal roller rink, and I guess my parents really believed in fun, and then I had to share that space with other little humans, which was—

Debbie Millman:

What was it like for you to share your home with a classroom full of toddlers in the morning and in the afternoon?

Claire Danes:

It was tough. I guess I struggled with feelings of jealousy for sure, but I adapted and they were amusing and I encounter them every so often now as fellow middle-aged people, and it’s always a little startling.

Debbie Millman:

I understand that Lena Dunham was actually rejected when she applied.

Claire Danes:

My mom was amazing. She was really excellent at what she did and there was a long list of people who were eager to send their kids there, and Lena … when I met Lena years ago, that was the first thing she told me, was that her mother was still a little annoyed, but it was not personal. I know that to be true. I do know a lot of nursery rhymes, which is helpful, having—

Debbie Millman:

Your toddler.

Claire Danes:

Young boys.

Debbie Millman:

Yes.

Claire Danes:

That’s right.

Debbie Millman:

I understand that you discovered the joy of dissimulation when you were 3 years old. When not wanting to actually take a nap, you pretended that you were sleeping by mimicking some of your mother’s twitches and body movements while she was sleeping. How did you figure out how to do that with your own body and to pretend that seamlessly?

Claire Danes:

I think it’s just a natural human impulse and instinct to mimic, to observe and to imitate. I don’t know why that’s the case. I’m sure it’s served us in evolutionary terms, but look, kids are taking in so much. I’m just shocked by how perceptive and sensitive my now-toddler Rowan is, for example. But Cyrus is the same way. It’s almost like the younger they are, the more tuned in they are to every detail. I don’t know, I do remember that experience really was … I think the first time I stumbled upon something like acting, and I just was delighted by the experience of it and the challenge of it, and it’s still at the root of what I do now.

Debbie Millman:

It seems like you were rather headstrong from the very beginning of your life, and at 5 years old, while singing and dancing on your parents’ bed, you saw Madonna on television and suddenly realized that performing could be a job. What gave you the sense that Madonna was actually working, that this was her job?

Claire Danes:

That was another epiphany moment where I connected an action to a vocation. Even at that age, even at 5, people will ask you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I guess I knew that was something to consider, and, I don’t know, I just saw stars. I was just so inspired. I do remember I couldn’t contain the excitement and I had to release it by jumping on the bed, but no, Madonna was a major force and influence and aspirational figure.

Debbie Millman:

Does she know that? Have you ever told her?

Claire Danes:

I have met her. I don’t think I had the courage to actually admit that to her. I was probably playing it cool, but I was very charmed by her when I met her. She has a great sense of humor and she’s kind of salty. She didn’t disappoint. She delivered full Madonna.

Debbie Millman:

When my wife met her, she interviewed her for, I think, Harper’s Bazaar, and she went over to her brownstone, and Madonna offered her what she called “summer lemonade” or something really funny, and it was rosé. It was “summer water,” that was it, summer water. Would you like some summer water? And it was rosé, and I just thought that was super funny and witty.

Claire Danes:

I might have to steal that.

Debbie Millman:

Right?

Claire Danes:

Yeah, summer water.

Debbie Millman:

When you were 6 years old, you started taking dance classes with Ellen Robbins at the Dance Theater Workshop, which you continued to take for 10 years, and Ellen has said that you were a risk-taker and improvised full blast from the start. In thinking about your childhood, where did that fearlessness come from? It seems like just from the moment you popped out you were just really certain about what you wanted to do, and how you wanted to do it.

Claire Danes:

I guess so, I guess I was that way. There’s a family story about how we would camp in this little plot of land on Massachusetts every year and pick blueberries, and of course, I insisted on carrying the bucket of blueberries down the hill, and I spilled them all inevitably, and maybe I insisted on doing it again and I spilled them again. So I was a very determined person. I can’t account for that. I’m just so grateful that I had parents who were patient and encouraging and didn’t swat that passion or enthusiasm away. They not only let me be whoever I was, but encouraged my curiosity about art, and then ultimately performance art. I think just the zeal was huge and irrepressible, although I say that and I’m sure there was a way to repress it, and they didn’t.

Debbie Millman:

At 6 years old, you started therapy, which I believe you still continue to this day, and I understand that. I’ve been in therapy for 30 years with the same therapist, and you’ve said that you think it’s a helpful tool and a luxury to self-reflect and get some insight. What motivated you to start so young? I didn’t start until I was in my 20s, unfortunately.

Claire Danes:

I went through a difficult time at 6. I saw ghosts and other creatures.

Debbie Millman:

Do you think they were real or do you think you were imagining it?

Claire Danes:

I think I was very confused at the time. Specifically there was a gargoyle who, quote unquote, lived on the pipes of our loft and would make me do things, and I think it was more maybe burgeoning OCD or something, but I have to assume that I had a really unruly imagination, and maybe I was confused about how to harness it, identify it, just coexist with it. Once I went to therapy, my parents’ therapist, I finally realized that I had a problem, and just that acknowledgement was sufficient to puncture the neuroses, and they naturally dissipated. I remember Gideon said, “Can you anticipate when you’re going to see these creatures?” And I guess I had to admit that I had anticipated them, and he said, “Well, then you can also make them go away.” I was dogged by that anxiety well into my 20s. I was really afraid of the dark. I’m not anymore, I’m really proud of that. I don’t know when that shift happened, but—

Debbie Millman:

I was going to ask you about that, actually, how that happened.

Claire Danes:

I remember it. In college, I called my boyfriend in the middle of the night so that he could escort me to the dorm bathroom, so I didn’t have to go alone. It still had a grip on me.

Debbie Millman:

How did you get over it? How did you get over that fear?

Claire Danes:

The iPhone flashlight maybe. I don’t think it was that.

Debbie Millman:

Ah, technology, the many uses.

Claire Danes:

I don’t know. Look, I still have a lot of questions about what lurks in the ether, and I’m really, really, endlessly fascinated by the subconscious and what happens when our brains go dark at night. So, my big phobias are ghosts, rats and cockroaches, and I’ve realized they’re all nocturnal, they’re all numerous. If you see one, you know there are countless others.

Debbie Millman:

Inevitably.

Claire Danes:

It’s that kind of deep stuff that defines and motivates us that we can’t know fully, but I also love that.

Debbie Millman:

I’m fascinated by it as well, what happens when we’re not thinking, what happens when we’re not seeing.

Claire Danes:

It’s like the ocean, there’s so much of it and so little we understand about it.

Debbie Millman:

When you were 8 years old, you were bothered by a male classmate and became worried when you considered the possibility that he could read your mind and discover your revenge fantasies, and you asked your mom if it was possible for people to read your thoughts. She replied, “Your imagination is your own. You can do whatever you like with it.” And there, right there, is evidence of good parenting.

Claire Danes:

Yes, isn’t that a wonderful thing to say?

Debbie Millman:

It’s an absolutely wonderful thing to say.

Claire Danes:

Yes, I’m getting goosebumps as you say that. It’s true, I just was so relieved. I was so relieved because the vision I had was pretty violent.

Debbie Millman:

What was the revenge fantasy? What were you going to do?

Claire Danes:

Well, I did, I envisioned this circle of people, he was in the center of it, and I guess people just went in and beat him up sort of, roughed him up, and I went back in the circle and another person went in and oh gosh. I don’t think I would ever allow myself to go there, even now as an adult, but it was a release at the time, and I think that’s similar stuff that I was wrestling with. I think that was related to this business of the ghosts and what is a fleeting thought and what’s real and how do I negotiate all of that and what are my boundaries and where do I start and end and how do I engage with the objective world?

Debbie Millman:

But that’s also a lot about acting too, of course.

Claire Danes:

That is, that’s a lot about acting, and there has to be a porousness there between what is conceived, what is imagined and what is actual, and you have to float in and out of those two states of being. I guess I’ve always been really consumed with thinking about that.

Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s interesting because it was also at that point in your life you decided you wanted to be an actress. But what I thought was so interesting was that you worried about not being able to make enough money, and you decided that you were going to become a therapist for your day job and teach acting workshops on the weekends, and I’m wondering, were you worried about not making enough money or were you worried about not being successful?

Claire Danes:

That’s a really good question. It’s really calcified over time as my being nervous about being uncomfortable, physically not having enough money to support myself, which also had to do with the feeling of freedom. I wanted to be independent and have a sense of expansiveness in my life. I think it was more about that, but maybe there was the fear of doing it in a way that wouldn’t connect with people, or wouldn’t be successful. That might have been part of it.

Debbie Millman:

I love the fact that at 10 years old, you formally announced that money or no money, you have to be true to your art. There was no Plan B, you were going to take the risk and become an actress. You decided this at 10 years old. I believe you announced this at the dinner table. You went out and found an agent. I mean, talk about independence. How did you find an agent? Did you just look one up in the phone book?

Claire Danes:

Kind of. My best friend Ariel’s mom is a woman called Tamar Rogoff, who’s a choreographer. So, Ariel had done a student film, and that same director was doing his next student film and was asking for a reference, and Tamar suggested me. So Tamar was kind of my first agent, and then that was my first experience working on a set and in front of a camera, but I guess before that I had … I guess the first move that I made was to take acting classes at Lee Strasberg at 10, and totally loved it, and then there was a performing arts junior high school called PPAS, which is still around. I went in its first year of its existence, and I met other kids who were working professionally, and I had this student film under my belt and I guess I had done some other student films too.

Claire Danes:

I was in that world, and then it was at that school through those other kids where I learned what an agent was and what a headshot was. And we had this darkroom in our loft, and the woman who was renting it took my headshot photos and we printed them right there on site and we sent them out and people answered, agents answered. And then they saw this little film that I had done, and I guess that was arresting enough to have them hire me, but it was really funny because I would rollerblade from audition to audition, arriving a sweaty mess, but the stakes were so low. I had a day job of being a kid and going to school. Of course, I didn’t feel like it was extracurricular because it was so clearly my life’s calling, but not a whole lot was riding on it and I was just grateful to have a chance to do it. I just loved it so much. I didn’t have to get the job. I was reading sides with the casting director, and that was another turn, so I don’t think I had any smell of desperation.

Debbie Millman:

Did being rejected at all upset you, or were you aware of it?

Claire Danes:

Yes, and the closer you got to getting a job, the more painful the rejection was, unquestionably. Sometimes you audition like six times and then you get flown out to California, and you’d be put up in a hotel and then there would be a screen test, and when it was down to you and two other people and you didn’t get it, you felt that in your bones—or I did. Brutal. Many, many tears were shed over lost gigs.

Debbie Millman:

When you were 12, you were offered a part in the soap opera “One Life to Live,” and I believe you mentioned … was that the soap opera that your mother watched while she was making textiles?

Claire Danes:

She was an “All My Children” person, but yes—

Debbie Millman:

But, you turned it down because you were worried that taking the part would mean selling out at 12. That’s really how you felt.

Claire Danes:

Yeah, I really did. I knew that I was still learning a whole lot, that I was unformed as an actor and I didn’t want to develop bad habits, which I might do on a soap opera, so I didn’t—

Debbie Millman:

That takes a lot of guts.

Claire Danes:

I guess so. I got close to doing it and I remember they wanted me to color my hair. I don’t know, it didn’t feel right. I know I had a lot of integrity when I was younger. I lost it along the way, and I’m hoping—

Debbie Millman:

When did you lose it? Could you say that’s the moment?

Claire Danes:

I think I got confused in my late teens, early 20s, I guess right after Romeo and Juliet when I suddenly surfaced in a more—

Debbie Millman:

Exploded.

Claire Danes:

In a major way, and was getting offered a lot, and that was a whole other skillset that I had to develop and I just didn’t have it yet. And I may have had insight into acting at a very young age, but I didn’t have any insight into movie stardom. I didn’t have any point of reference, and I think I was just making a lot of mistakes about what that meant, and I got a little lost. But it’s also at that time that I stopped working for a while.

Debbie Millman:

I definitely want to talk about that, when you went to Yale, but before that, you won the part of Angela Chase in the now-beloved television show “My So-Called Life,” which not only brought you to national prominence, but you also were nominated for an Emmy Award, you won a Golden Globe Award. You were 13 years old when you shot the pilot. You were 14 when you shot the series, your castmate was Jared Leto, who played the heartthrob Jordan Catalano. I was already in my 20s when the show was aired, but I truly thought that Jordan Catalano was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. He was just glorious. You were 14 and he was 21 in real life. What was it like kissing him?

Claire Danes:

So, there was a scene, our first make-out scene. There was a stage direction, “Angela kisses Jordan’s face,” that I was very confused by, and I guess I asked the director what that meant.

Debbie Millman:

But, he wasn’t your first kiss, he wasn’t your first.

Claire Danes:

It wasn’t my first kiss, no, but I was not very practiced in the art of making out at that point. So, Jared interjected and explained what that might mean and, I don’t know, it was weird. My mom was in Video Village watching all of this. I was just so tiny that I think I couldn’t even appreciate the awkwardness exactly. I just pinched my nose and jumped in.

Debbie Millman:

It’s a show that I think really provided a lot of palpable feelings, especially for those of us in our 20s that were watching it, and the show ends in a cliffhanger. You don’t know ever if Angela is going to go with Brian, AKA Brain, or Jordan, which I loved that … I still do that, I still make that spelling mistake and every single time I do it I think of the show. Who do you think Angela ended up with?

Claire Danes:

Oh, Brain. Brain, yeah. What’s Brain doing now? He’s probably running the world.

Debbie Millman:

You kind of wanted her to have both experiences.

Claire Danes:

I don’t think she would have ended up with either of them.

Debbie Millman:

Right, that’s sure.

Claire Danes:

I don’t know, I’m still really good friends with so many people from the show, and Winnie is my fairy godmother. No, it’s still a very vital connection to her and to that experience, and it was just miraculous to get that piece of material and I was really unhappy, acutely unhappy in junior high because, duh, but I think I struggled even more than a lot and to just have this brilliant author write my diary entries for me and give me a chance to release all of this angst was just a mercy, and it was such a healthy little culture on that set and it was my initial entry into this business and it was foundational. So, I believed that world to be a safe and nourishing one, so I’m just very, very lucky.

Debbie Millman:

The show ran for one season. It aired 19 episodes. It was canceled. I didn’t even realize that it was canceled at the time. I remember talking to a friend who worked in the television business at that time who told me that no one expected you to do more than one season of the show because you were destined for much bigger things in the movie business. Were you disappointed when the show ended?

Claire Danes:

Yeah, I was, but the show didn’t get picked up initially after we shot this perfect pilot, and I went to high school. My heart was so broken then, and then it did get picked up halfway through my first year of high school, so I was already quite jerked around by it and as we talked about, I’d already experienced quite a lot of rejection. Just being a working actor, it’s such a defining part of what we do.

Debbie Millman:

Does it ever get easier?

Claire Danes:

No, I don’t think so.

Debbie Millman:

I’ve been wondering, it’s just like, does it ever get easier? Does it? What the hell? Something else will come on.

Claire Danes:

It was sad because we weren’t able to end it consciously or say goodbye, but it had this incredibly robust afterlife. It got picked up—

Debbie Millman:

It’s so timeless.

Claire Danes:

By different networks and it’s still in circulation somehow.

Debbie Millman:

By 1999, you had filmed 13 films in five years. You’d worked with the likes of Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, Baz Luhrmann, Matt Damon, Mickey Rourke, Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, Leonardo DiCaprio. You were also offered the role that Kate Winslet ultimately played in Titanic with Leonardo. You turned it down. Did you just have a sense of just too much?

Claire Danes:

Yeah, I think it was definitely part of that. I literally just finished filming Romeo and Juliet with Leo in Mexico where the Titanic was going to be filmed, another epic romantic drama. It did feel a little repetitive; obviously it’s different in a lot of ways, but I think I had some wanderlust and I think there was part of me that anticipated that that might lead to a different level of stardom that I wasn’t braced for. I was pretty clear about that. Some choices are—

Debbie Millman:

I’ve read that you have no regrets, none.

Claire Danes:

No, I wasn’t conflicted in any way and I remain so. It was not mine to take. It just didn’t feel like mine to take.

Debbie Millman:

You decided to put your film career on hold and attended Yale. You stated and you mentioned even just now that you felt lost at the time. I’ve read that you stated that you had played so many roles, but didn’t really know who you were. Did going to Yale help that?

Claire Danes:

So much, so much. I needed to just stop and give myself a chance to see who I was. And I didn’t go to high school, really. I was technically enrolled at a school in LA, but was primarily tutored on set, which was a very lonely way to go about such a thing. And I don’t know. I was starting to feel a little strange. I was, I guess, always mature or precocious or something, but that just became really etched when I was strictly surrounded by adults and I didn’t know how to hang out. I didn’t have friends independent of the industry who were my age. I really needed to make some, and I also wanted to give myself a chance to explore different ways of thinking and different subjects. I had decided that I wanted to be an actor when I was a very young person, and I just wanted to make that choice as more of a realized grownup human.

Debbie Millman:

What kinds of things did you study at Yale?

Claire Danes:

I had a really great time and, in fact, my favorite class that I took was a graphic design class.

Debbie Millman:

No.

Claire Danes:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

Really, you got some graphic design chops?

Claire Danes:

Well, yeah. So, my parents obviously were artists, and so I grew up drawing and we had so many … it was a wonderland. Obviously, there was the trapeze and the swing, but there was also a lake box, and a cutting board, and they had this incredible rubber stamp collection. We had just a surplus of materials. I still do. My craft section in the basement’s very serious. So I used to draw a lot, and then in junior high when I was a miserable misanthropic pecked person, I just retreated into drawing, so I became pretty proficient. And so I took a life drawing class, and it was so humbling because I stopped drawing. I didn’t put it together. I didn’t quite realize that I had stopped doing that because acting had become so consuming, and suddenly it was like I was drawing with my left hand and I was just shocked and mortified.

Claire Danes:

Anyway, so I took this … I finally got that muscle working again, which was great, and my mom suggested I take a graphic design class. She said, “Claire, your work is quite stylized and you might like graphic design.” And I was like … It really stung. I knew what that was code for. Anyway, but she was so right. The first lesson we had … it’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever had ever, and she gave all the students the same sheet of paper, the same ruler and the same pencil, and we all had to draw lines from the top to the bottom using the ruler and a pencil, and then we tacked all of our drawings on the board and they were so different. It really has always stayed with me. Just do what you do as well as you possibly can. Don’t try to be interesting, just do you really mindfully.

Debbie Millman:

It’s so interesting to see the perspectives that people have when given the same assignment.

Claire Danes:

There was no room for creativity. Just draw a set of lines, and even then, your self is expressed. It’s amazing.

Debbie Millman:

After two years at Yale, you returned to acting. One of your first roles was a part in The Hours, which was based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. You acted alongside Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and one of your scenes was a rather heartbreaking conversation with an elderly Julianne Moore, and I got the sense that you were the only really kind interaction she’d had with anyone in a long, long time. Do you remember that particular scene and what you were experiencing? Because I thought it was one of really the most beautiful scenes in the movie.

Claire Danes:

Oh, that’s so nice that you say that. I loved making that movie. Obviously, it was such a special one and it was my first time meeting and getting to work with Meryl.

Debbie Millman:

And it was such an effortless scene between the two of you. You’re so comfortable lying on the bed and talking as mother and daughter. It was a really beautifully nuanced scene.

Claire Danes:

Gosh, it was just so thrilling to be that close to this genius who I had admired and studied for so long. When I saw Sophie’s Choice at 9 I knew I needed to do this thing. Madonna, yes, but then Meryl.

Debbie Millman:

You must know that you’ve been referred to in your early years of acting as a young Meryl Streep. I came across that. You must know that.

Claire Danes:

Yeah, but there are a lot of other young actresses who have also been called … she’s the bar, she’s the example of greatness, and now she’s … Mamie, her daughter, is one of my best friends, so now she’s Mamie’s mom, so that’s funny. And Michael is now a dear, dear friend because I did another movie that he wrote called Eveningwhere I met Hugh, and he married us and we’re in a Ulysses book club with him.

Debbie Millman:

Really?

Claire Danes:

Yes, that’s what we’re doing during our pandemic.

Debbie Millman:

That’s so amazing.

Claire Danes:

We are reading.

Debbie Millman:

My dream is to do a visual interpretation of that book someday.

Claire Danes:

Really?

Debbie Millman:

Someday, yeah.

Claire Danes:

So, you’ve gotten through it?

Debbie Millman:

Well, I took a class on Ulysses in college and fell in love with it, and there’s a line from the book, “the longest way around is the shortest way home,” which I’ve decided is the motto of my life and I’m having it carved into the steps to my house, so that it’s just there as part of my life.

Claire Danes:

Well, that’s a good tattoo if you’re ever going to get one.

Debbie Millman:

Exactly right.

Claire Danes:

Anyway, so no, it was a wonderful reentry into acting again, excellent material with excellent actors and Stephen Daldry, who’s another very inspired person.

Debbie Millman:

You returned to the small screen in 2009 when you played the role of an autistic and brilliant woman in the HBO film Temple Grandin. You followed this role with playing Carrie Mathison, the brilliant woman struggling with a bipolar condition on Showtime’s “Homeland.” How has playing these extraordinary women impacted your own brain or your own brain waves just to bring [crosstalk] back into this?

Claire Danes:

I really was so thrilled to play women who were autonomous and defining in driving their own lives and the story, and it’s a little sad, but they had to be so extra in order to warrant that. But I was very privileged to get to consider Temple in a deep way because she is an actual hero and I’ve always been really, really interested, obviously, in how people work, but especially really interesting people, and she saw things differently from most of us and she was able to make the world better because of it, and she suffered enormously and kept advancing herself and her interests in her work despite all of that. So, I guess I just felt very privileged to have a chance to illustrate that, and hopefully engender empathy in people and audience members who might not have understood how somebody like that thinks and is and exists.

Debbie Millman:

Another thing these parts had in common was how many awards you won playing them, which included three Emmy Awards, a slew of Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critic’s Choice Awards, People’s Choice Awards, and more, and yet you said this about winning: “There was a period when I won all of the things for Temple, and then I won a lot of things for ‘Homeland,’ so it was like, oh my God, this again, which was very nice, but the gift of that is that you learn that it doesn’t really matter.” Claire, tell me more about that. Why doesn’t it really matter? It seems like this is another benchmark that an actor seeks, searches for.

Claire Danes:

I remember seeing Al Pacino in the green room at some award show and he was up for something and he was kind of green. He just looked miserable and he said, out loud, he said, “Uh, these things are dreadful. You dread losing them, you dread winning them.” And so, I couldn’t have said it better myself. They’re so nerve-racking and they feel something outside of the actual experience of making the thing. It’s a whole other industry at this point and yes, it is. It’s hugely validating, but it can’t define you. Nobody does this so that they can accept an award at the end of it, and I think we can get confused about that.

Claire Danes:

They’re interesting and they can be important markers about what we value in our society at any given moment and what we recognize to be excellent work, but it’s also a little arbitrary, and those standards are set by a select group of people and it’s not always reflective of what is really deserving of attention. I don’t know, I think it’s also dangerous to be critical of them in any way because you don’t want to be seen as ungrateful or on the outside.

Debbie Millman:

It sounds like Al Pacino’s comment is pretty accurate.

Claire Danes:

Yeah, right? He just got it so right. I just will always take his line.

Debbie Millman:

“Homeland” debuted in 2011 and had its show finale earlier this year. You played the role of Carrie Mathison, a counter-terrorism operative for the CIA, and I read that the writing team had you in mind for the role from the beginning. In fact, their first six drafts of the pilot, they called the character “Claire.” At the time, you were also up for a role in Clint Eastwood’s movie about J. Edgar Hoover. What made you decide to choose “Homeland”? You had no idea that it was going to become what it became.

Claire Danes:

When I first read that script it was … I of course wanted to read the next one. They’re incredible writers, Alex and Howard, and boy, do they know how to craft a cliffhanger, but I just thought, That’s way too much. And, I understood what the commitment a television show would be, and she was under such duress and she would be forever more. I just didn’t want to invite that level of suffering into my life, but I don’t know, once I realized that I was just flinching from the level of the challenge, I realized I had to do it and it was really scary. It was really scary, but it’s not very often that you get, well one, to play a character that is as dynamic and robust as Carrie Mathison is, and I had such an incredible team.

Claire Danes:

Alex surrounded himself by other exquisitely talented writers. He had the courage to do that. Every single person on that writing team had been showrunners themselves, so just they were all really, really skillful, and Mandy Patinkin was my partner, and it’s much harder to do a technically easy scene that is poorly written than a really exacting scene that is excellently written. And so I just got an endless stream of excellently written, very exacting scenes. I just was so amazed that I never got bored. That was 10 years of my life, and there was always a new facet of the character to unearth, and the writers were always very good about doing that. They also didn’t want to write themselves into ruts, and it was almost like an anthology series in that there was a reset every year and we would be based in a new location and we would focus on a new theme. So it was very stimulating and I got to learn a lot about the bipolar condition and about the clandestine services, which was pretty cool.

Debbie Millman:

What was spy camp like? That must have been amazing, going to spy camp to learn.

Claire Danes:

These people do exist.

Debbie Millman:

I know, I want to meet them. They’re also hidden in the dark corners. I came to this show late into season one. I actually watched the show by accident. So, my family at the time, we were all hooked on “Dexter,” and we were all getting together to watch the season finale of “Dexter,” which we then did, and somehow we just left the television on and all of a sudden it was the season finale of season one of “Homeland” and my brothers were out and about and doing things and I was like, “Holy shit, what is this?” And there you were on the lawn screaming in front of Damian Lewis, at Brody’s house, and his family, and that was it. I was hooked. I ended up watching the entire first season in a binge and then watched it for every season since and watched how Carrie changes, and you stated that the experience was your first time aging with a character, and experiencing her develop and change. What do you think was the biggest thing you learned about Carrie over the 10 years you played her?

Claire Danes:

Well, just that wonderful tension between her vulnerability and her super strength was endlessly enjoyable to play with, and that her reason for being was always so unwavering and so clear, which was to protect her country, and I thought her being bipolar was really relevant to that because she’s obviously a Cassandra figure. But for somebody who is struggling with that experience, they know that their minds can go boom, that their world can be in disrepair all of a sudden without any warning. So, they just are not very comfortable. They have to be hypervigilant, and so I think it was a natural extension for her to imagine the world as a place that needed her constant attention. So I thought that was interesting, and she had so little to lose.

Claire Danes:

She wasn’t ever really going to partner with somebody in a conventional way and have a nuclear family. It’s not something she could do, and it’s not something she was that interested in doing, which allowed her to have all of these outrageous adventures. I just liked playing somebody, a woman, who was so muscular and unapologetically commanding and brazen, because we never get to be that way.

Debbie Millman:

Never.

Claire Danes:

And I just suddenly had full license, and we’ve seen what she can do, so nobody dared challenge her. It was just a given after a certain point, but when she walked into a room, you fucking listened. It was just awesome, so that was a great gift.

Debbie Millman:

The first few seasons of “Homeland” are centered around a relationship with Damian Lewis’ character, Brody, and then you also have an intense, but very different kind of relationship with Rupert Friend’s character Peter Quinn who, by the way, I was just devastated when he was killed off the show. I just had a mad crush on him.

Claire Danes:

Oh, yeah.

Debbie Millman:

But the mentor/father figure relationship you have with Mandy Patinkin’s character, Saul Berenson, is the one that I just found so endlessly fascinating, and after 10 years of working together you stated that you knew each other’s rhythm so intimately it became cellular. How does that actually happen? How does that momentum build, that mutuality grow?

Claire Danes:

Well, just lots of practice. We just put in so many hours together, and I really like the propulsive nature of television. I like how much material you have to produce in a very confined amount of time, so I couldn’t indulge my neuroses or get anything precious about the work. You just had to keep forging on and you live your character’s backstory. In our eighth season, the catalog of experience that I shared with Mandy on and off the set was just huge. It was just so much material to draw from … I don’t know, it feels like you’re cheating almost, but it’s not something you have to imagine. It’s been lived, and he’s just an amazing partner. He’s just so good and he’s so deft and tuned in and flexible.

Debbie Millman:

And then you hear him sing and you can’t believe it’s the same person, right?

Claire Danes:

Yeah, no, that’s right, but he’s just truly playful and anything I would offer, he would receive and make something magical out of, and he’s obviously very musical, and his rhythm as Saul was so wonderfully opposite to my rhythm as Carrie. It kind of worked, and it worked from the very beginning. In that first readthrough in the pilot, as soon as we started, it flew.

Debbie Millman:

There were two scenes with the character Saul Berenson that I want to ask you about. The first is at the end of season seven, after you’re released from a Russian prison after nearly a year, where your medication was withheld for bipolar disorder, and when you’re released you’re in full psychosis. You sort of see Saul Berenson, we think that you do, and it looks like you’re running towards him because he’s there to receive you from this prison, but you run right past him and that’s the end of the season and we’re all left with, holy shit, where’s she running to? Was that improvised or was that in the script? That’s my question.

Claire Danes:

Oh, no, that was in the script, and he grabs her and she doesn’t recognize him. I just thought that was beautiful writing.

Debbie Millman:

Oh my God.

Claire Danes:

It’s so wrenching. We know that this is really her most vital human connection and she’s so far gone she can’t identify him. It makes me cry thinking about it.

Debbie Millman:

That scene killed me.

Claire Danes:

And we shot a lot of material that was then used in flashback in the final season, and that was a little frustrating to have that all be for naught … obviously it wasn’t, but it was much more powerful to just imagine what she had been through and it was very suggestive, but they really do know how to write an ending. Even in the pilot that was clear. I think that I was almost most struck by the potency of the ending than I was anything else and—

Debbie Millman:

The ending of that season or the ending of the show in totality?

Claire Danes:

Even at the pilot, when I first read it, I just thought I wanted to read the next one. I imagined other people would feel similarly.

Debbie Millman:

The second scene is this scene where you nearly kill him to try and find out information about one of his informants. Do you think that Carrie ever could have actually killed Saul Berenson?

Claire Danes:

Well, it’s interesting because obviously there was a lot of discussion about how we would end our show, and we always went straight to the crux of it and to the center of the conflict, and this was inevitable. But Carrie is massively transgressive and even corrupt in some ways.

Debbie Millman:

But only for the right reasons, I think.

Claire Danes:

Yeah, but we could never forgive her that. She can’t kill Saul and remain a hero, and it was an interesting practice or meditation. What are the requirements for heroism in a piece of fiction? And it’s that basically, and that’s why she’s so frustrated with Saul because he can’t kill this woman because of his personal connection, but actually in moral terms, he’s at fault there. Carrie’s right, it’s not commensurate. One life does not equal hundreds of thousands, so it’s interesting. We are not rational creatures.

Debbie Millman:

What was it like when Saul beckons for you and he’s nearly dead or nearly about to die, and he beckons for you, and you think he’s finally going to tell you who the informant is to save his own life, and you come close to him, and you’re face to face, and he whispers with all his might, “Fuck you.” What was that like?

Claire Danes:

Well, that was a part of our dynamic throughout the series.

Debbie Millman:

That was so intense.

Claire Danes:

I think I told him also at one point, “fuck you,” maybe it was at the beginning of the third season. I distinctly remember that. I was in a hospital, drugged up and—

Debbie Millman:

Yes.

Claire Danes:

We’ve exchanged many a “fuck you,” but that was the ultimate one, but so much of the show too is about the loneliness of being a spy, and that’s the sacrifice that they make. They can’t really enjoy the pleasures of domestic life or intimate connections. It was so interesting talking to actual people on the business. A lot of times spies marry spies for obvious reasons, same reason actors marry actors, so they work together. They have to have their fights in the shower or out at sea and often the relationships would fall apart when they were done with an assignment or a post, then they’d come back home and they didn’t have the adrenaline to keep them connected or afloat. So I just thought all of those particulars about what it might actually be like were really interesting, and it’s not a natural experience.

Debbie Millman:

Have you read any of the fan fiction? There’s some really great fan fiction.

Claire Danes:

Oh my God.

Debbie Millman:

Angela Chase grows up to be Carrie Mathison. Jason Gideon grows up to be Saul Berenson. It’s so incredible. I had so much fun in that rabbit hole.

Claire Danes:

I could only imagine.

Debbie Millman:

But, Carrie ends up in Russia living with … I don’t know if the term is right, a Russian operative. She ends up a sort of Edward Snowden character, but in the very, very end she begins to send Saul information, and so from my own personal fan fiction from the character herself, do you imagine that they’re able to have any kind of friendship again? I can’t help but hope so that they can.

Claire Danes:

That was pretty inspired, again, all credit to Alex and company. As I say, it’s so much about their being alone in the world and the cost and the pain of that, but her connection to Saul is everything. The way I understood it, she couldn’t attempt these risks, or these daredevil moves, if she didn’t feel supported and known, held by him. So, I love that idea that that line was not severed and for all of their sluttiness, they’re pretty monastic. They’re so devoted to this ideal, this cause, which is very abstract.

Debbie Millman:

That’s why I need for them to be united eternally, infinitely.

Claire Danes:

I don’t know, maybe not. I don’t know, but it almost doesn’t matter because you know that they’re still communing somehow spiritually.

Debbie Millman:

Yes, in the dark.

Claire Danes:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

The last thing I want to talk to you about is your experience in the theater. You made your Broadway debut in the 2007 Roundabout Theatre oproduction Pygmalion, and then starred in the world premiere of Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder, helmed by Hamilton director and very, very dear friend of the show Design Matters, Tommy Kail, which I saw and was wonderful. Any future stage plans, assuming we can ever get back into the theater?

Claire Danes:

Yeah, I don’t know. Sure, I’m not really a stage bunny.

Debbie Millman:

No?

Claire Danes:

My husband, Hugh, is an amazing performer on stage, and he really came into being through the theater and I love the theater as well, but I think I really fell in love with film and discovered myself as an actor in the world of film. That said, it’s also true that my first professional experience was as a dancer at P.S. 122 when I was 6 years old, and then I did a solo dance piece with my bestie’s mom, who’s an amazing artist, Tamar Rogoff, so I did a solo with her, again, at P.S. 122, which was beautiful, in my early 20s, and it just felt very full circle.

Debbie Millman:

I believe you won the P.S. 122 Lifetime Achievement Award, right?

Claire Danes:

Yes, I did. That was very special. That was one of the most meaningful awards I’ve ever gotten, and so actually working in the public felt really familiar in a way that working on Broadway didn’t. Again, I would love to do more of all of it because I love every version of this acting thing, in every context, in every medium. I’ll read a book on tape. Hugh and I are always wrestling for the books, reading to Cyrus and Rowan; we’re just total hams, but I love those intimate spaces.

Debbie Millman:

I do a lot of work with Performance Space and I can tell you without a doubt and without having to ask anybody else there, we’d love to have you back any time.

Claire Danes:

It was really exciting to do a play that had never been done before, and obviously Sarah’s a legend. She’s such a badass, but to get to make your mark and not have the shadow of previous iterations of it, and Tommy’s a total dreamboat.

Debbie Millman:

He is.

Claire Danes:

The whole thing was great, and a seven-minute walk from my house. I highly recommend that.

Debbie Millman:

My original last question was going to be, are you still afraid of the dark? But we’ve learned that you’re not, and so we can forgo that question.

Claire Danes:

But I am still afraid of rats.

Debbie Millman:

As am I. Claire, I just want to say thank you so much for bringing so much light in the world and making such beautiful characters, complex, really interesting characters, come to life, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

Claire Danes:

Oh, thank you. Really, I love you and your show so much.

Debbie Millman:

Thank you.

Claire Danes:

I’m a diehard, avid fan, so this was just such a treat and an honor, so thank you for having me.

Debbie Millman:

For the time being, you can see Claire Danes on Showtime in “Homeland” and on HBO in Temple Grandin and in the wonderful, hopefully infinite reruns of “My So-Called Life.” This is the 16th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we could do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.