Claire Danes stretches her wings in ‘Stardust’

Ed Symkus

Little Claire Danes just wanted to be an actress. And she didn’t want to wait around to grow up first. So at the ripe old age of 12, the New Yorker had already convinced her parents to let her do auditions across the country in Los Angeles. Her career was slow in starting — an obscure movie here, a TV guest shot there. But once she landed the role of Beth in Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women,” then in quick succession, her two-season run as Angela in “My So-Called Life” and the part of Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” Danes was a hot commodity. At least until she went through some personal and political hassles during a troubled shoot of “Brokedown Palace” in the Philippines, after which she quit the business to attend college, finishing up three years at Yale, but returning to film for a small part in “The Hours” before she could graduate. She’s been going gangbusters since, with starring roles in the recent romantic drama “Evening” and in the upcoming romantic fantasy “Stardust,” in which she plays a star that takes human form and falls to Earth.

What were your first thoughts about doing a fantasy? What drew you to it?

I love fantasies. Who didn’t adore “The Princess Bride?” I love “Legend.” But it was a strange call to receive from my agent. “They want what? A celestial being?” But the film actually reads as completely realistic. Well, I’m riding a unicorn, but I may as well be driving an SUV.

Who is “Stardust” aimed at?

A lot of people. Both men and women, I hope, and adults and kids. I think [director] Matthew Vaughn always wanted to tell a relatively sophisticated story that was also fun.

Who guides your choices?

Ultimately I have to take responsibility for it, but I have a pretty extensive, wonderful team — a manager, an agent, a publicist. I’m just kind of curious about new experiences. I’m going to do a play soon. I’ve danced. I danced as a kid, when I was 6, and then returned to it fairly recently.

Didn’t you dance at the same place when you were a kid and earlier this year?

Yes, at P.S. 122 in New York. The first time, I was studying dance, and different productions would occasionally look for kids; they would ask my dance teacher for referrals, and they would come and see us prance around. I was really hammy and I caught their attention, and I was cast in a lot of them. The one I did in February was a solo. I had expressed interest in returning to dance, and a choreographer I’d studied with asked me to take a class with her. Then we started working together on a project that I was going to perform for friends and family. But it kind of collected momentum and weight, and became a more formal thing. It was called “Christina Olson: American Model,” and was a one-hour solo based on the Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World.” Not many people know that she had a muscular degenerative disease, and she refused to use a wheelchair, so she dragged herself around. That’s what the dance was about.

When did you lose your anonymity? Was it during “My So-Called Life?”

It was probably then.

Are you followed around all the time now?

It depends on where I am. I live in New York, and I’ve lived there a long time, and I’m a fixture there. And on a slow news day, they come a-knockin’.

Is that tough?

Sometimes I’m resentful of it, but I’m more appreciative of the opportunities that it’s afforded me.

The last few years of the ’90s were so busy for you, constantly working from “Romeo + Juliet” right through to “Brokedown Palace.” Were you hoping things would slow down?

Well, I stopped acting entirely for three years. I was tired, and not only was I working a lot on sets, but I had this other job of, like, growing up — which does require a bit of attention. I had a very different childhood, and it was really essential for me to concentrate on that.

Are you normal now?

Yeah, I’m pretty normal (laughs). I worked hard for my normalcy, and I can even enjoy it a little bit.

What color are your eyes?

They’re lots of different things. It depends on what I’m wearing. But I guess they’re mostly green. If I had to pick a color it would be green. But they’re also gray, and they can be blue.

Could you share a brief version of your trips to the West Coast to get into acting?

I remember when I first started auditioning, I was occasionally shipped out there to do screen tests. I remember a limousine would arrive outside my door. I would go on these trips with my dad because my mom couldn’t get away from work. But it was so bizarre to find myself suddenly in the back of a limo, at 12. It was very strange.

What play are you going to be doing?

“Pygmalion.” We’re previewing in September and it’s opening in October. It’s my Broadway premiere, and I’ve never acted onstage. I did ‘The Vagina Monologues’ for two weeks, but that didn’t really count. And I’m pretty nervous.

Do film directors still direct you or do they leave you to do what you do?

I need to be directed. I don’t think I’ll ever not need to be directed. Directors exist for a reason. They’re another set of eyes, and they can be slightly objective — slightly more than me, anyway.

“Stardust” opens nationally Aug. 10.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@cnc.com