Here are three things to know about Claire Danes: She's strikingly beautiful, tan from a recent trip to Hawaii; she can't stop watching HBO's The Wire; and the girl enjoys a good booze cruise. ''My friend had a birthday party on a boat in New York the other night,'' she says, over egg whites and coffee at a SoHo cafe. ''The modern dancer in me became very activated and, to my mortification, I realized the next day that I was earnestly telling people to incorporate the waves into their dancing.'' Everyone has their late-night stories; not everyone will share them by the light of day. But this 28-year-old, and 15-year veteran of the industry, isn't one to be ruled by the iron fist of public opinion.
How else to explain her tackling the role of a falling star in Stardust, a gloriously goofy romantic fairy tale? In the $70 million-plus fantasy, she plays Yvaine, a transformed celestial object who's wanted by a lovestruck hero (Charlie Cox), a youth-obsessed witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), and a gay pirate (Robert De Niro). The special-effects-laden film is a far cry from the almost painful intimacy of Danes' breakthrough role as sullen teen Angela Chase on ABC's My So-Called Life and subsequent cryfests like Brokedown Palace and this summer's Evening. Even Danes found Stardust a little puzzling at first. ''I got a call from my agent,'' she remembers. ''That was a tough one to summarize. 'Wait. What? What?' But I had a really great time. I got to have long flowing blond hair and ride a unicorn.'' Author Neil Gaiman, whose novel is the basis for Stardust, was happy to see Danes move beyond playing the plain Jane and tap into her natural radiance: ''One of the things I love about [her performance in Stardust] is that there are people who don't know that she's funny and she's sweet and she's cool.''
Danes' cool factor might derive from the fact that she was raised, and still currently resides, in perenially chic SoHo. Her parents, both artists, supported their daughter's acting jones from the age of 5. So when Danes eventually won the lead on cult hit My So-Called Life, the family relocated to L.A. and Danes began a brutal shooting schedule for the one-hour drama. ''There was a PA trailing me everywhere I went, waiting for me outside the bathroom,'' she recalls. ''I remember Guarding Tess came out around that time. I really identified.'' There were perks, though. Danes did get to make out with heartthrob Jared Leto, pre-Goth transformation. ''It was not my first kiss, but I was not experienced,'' she says. ''Talk about training wheels.''
The same could be said for Life, which, though short-lived at just 19 perfect episodes, provided Danes a slew of critical acclaim (she won the Golden Globe in 1995). She followed it with a series of A-list projects including William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Les Misérables, and John Grisham's The Rainmaker. In the midst of this rising tide, Danes made the choice to take a break and enroll at Yale. ''College was just so essential for my sense of self and my development,'' she explains. But just two years later, she left Yale to leap back into acting, mixing quirky indies (Igby Goes Down) and Oscar bait (The Hours). But the biggest huh? on her résumé came in 2003 with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. ''I had so much fun,'' maintains Danes. ''I really liked blowing s--- up.'' And how was working with Governator Schwarzenegger? ''He's pretty funny, actually,'' she says. ''He did a little video for my ex-boyfriend's nephew for his bar mitzvah, which was very sweet. Then of course everyone was asking how to get ahold of Arnold's people to do it for their bar mitzvah.''
The ex in question was musician Ben Lee, whom she dated for several years. But it would be Billy Crudup, her costar in 2004's Stage Beauty who brought about her first real brush with the tabloids, after Crudup reportedly left his pregnant girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker, for Danes. When asked about whether the media's portrayal of the relationship hurt her career, Danes is honest. ''There's no way for me to know that,'' she says. ''I mean, I don't know. Maybe, yeah. I have no control over it.'' And, quite frankly, she doesn't seem to care. ''I have to expose myself and then accept the judgment that audiences and critics will have,'' she says. ''And that's okay. I appreciate the elliptical nature of it. Sometimes people are more in the mood to be nice to me than others and that's great.'' Still, the actress, now prepping for her Broadway debut this fall in a revival of Pygmalion, can see the benefits of big-time stardom. ''The other day, Hugh [Dancy, her Evening costar and current boyfriend] and I were walking up to MoMA [New York City's Museum of Modern Art], and we passed the Empire State Building,'' she says. ''Of course it was like an hour-long wait, but the guard recognized us and we shot right up. And I thought, 'Okay, so this is when it works.'''
Danes reviews the highs (and lows) of her career.
Little Women (1994)
''I read On Death and Dying to prepare. A good death scene is such a wonderful indulgence.''
''Oliver Stone's strategy is to unnerve the actors so as to make them alert and alive.''
The Mod Squad (1999)
''That was a big mess. I think it was very confused.''
''I've admired Steve Martin for my entire life, basically. I was just so struck by his bravery.''
Gap Ad (2007)
''It was coincidental! They had no idea that [Evening costar Patrick Wilson] and I had worked together.''