To hear Claire Danes talk about it, the film star's highly anticipated Broadway debut in the Roundabout's revival of Pygmalion initially seemed more a social proposition than a daring professional move. After all, her introduction to David Grindley, who is directing the George Bernard Shaw classic and who chose her to be Eliza Doolittle, came through her boyfriend, British actor Hugh Dancy. Dancy, of course, led the cast of Grindley's Tony-winning Broadway revival of Journey's End last season and Danes says that during its brief run she became well acquainted with the entire creative team, which included Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines, who have been cast as Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, respectively, in Pygmalion.
"I admired their work and liked them as people, so it was exciting to have a chance to do something creative with them other than just drink beer with them at the end of the night," says Danes. She speaks in the even-measured, slightly husky tones recognizable from her breakthrough in TV's short-lived but acclaimed series "My So-Called Life," and a myriad of film performances, from Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" and Steve Martin's "Shopgirl" to the recent all-star releases of "Evening" and "Stardust."
Her insouciance belies a challenging determination, which has led Danes to assay Shaw's beloved heroine with little stage experience to speak of. That gutsiness would seem to be part and parcel of the character of Eliza who by pluck and verve is transformed from guttersnipe to society darling under the tutelage of a misanthropic and demanding professor of linguistics. While Danes, who studied dance as a child, has appeared in a couple of Tamar Rogoff dance pieces at Off-Off-Broadway's P.S. 122 in the last two years (most recently in February), she has to go all the way back to the fourth grade to cite her last stage-acting experience: playing the role of somebody's father, for which she wore a mustache and spoke in an inexplicable British accent. But she remains, at least outwardly, undaunted and imperturbable. "I like a challenge," she says calmly. "I like to be in way over my head."
It's no act, says Mays, who describes his co-star as "unflappable" and "a delightful sparring partner." He notes that he honestly wondered at first how someone with such limited stage experience might fare. But he has since totally forgotten about it. Mays declares that Danes has taken to the boards like the proverbial duck to water. "She is formidable," says the Tony-winning actor (I Am My Own Wife). "She moves through the play like a majestic consort battleship, with this great strength and intelligence." Those qualities would seem a boon to a production that Grindley says emphatically is "not My Fair Lady without the music." He's referring, of course, to the Lerner and Loewe musical classic based on Pygmalion. Indeed, Audrey Hepburn's interpretation of Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of the musical is the most popular, if misleading, perception of Shaw's character. In the play, says Grindley, "Eliza is yearning not for love but for self-empowerment and respect. The transformation she undergoes requires an actress with great emotional range and Claire has that. She's a force of nature."
Oddly enough, Danes comes to the role unencumbered by having seen any previous production of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady — onstage or onscreen. "I thought that was a real luxury that I didn't want to tamper with," she says, adding that she was caught up in the director's vigorous vision for the work. "I think the emphasis on the comedy — the moments that are really humorous at the same time that they are emotionally moving — is what attracted me. I also liked the fact that David is trying to make it as relevant and urgent and arresting as possible. There's nothing precious about David's productions. They're bold, fresh, and honest."
Unsurprisingly, Danes has discovered the most resonant contemporary angle of the story to be female emancipation. "Eliza becomes the author of her own life and I don't think that's all that accepted for women, even now. The notion that women can be individuated and powerful and not defined by who they're romantically attached to is still rare these days," says the actress who herself has been linked in the tabloids to Aussie rock star Ben Lee and actors Billy Crudup and Dancy. "I'm still amazed at how threatened people can be by a woman's recognition of her power."
Danes herself comes from "as Waspy a background as you can imagine," the daughter of a professional Manhattan couple and the product of private schools. She says that theatregoing was not a habit in the Danes family although she recalls Cherry Jones's Tony-winning performance in The Heiress as inspirational. She caught the stage bug, however, from her 2004 film "Stage Beauty," in which she plays the first English woman to trod the boards. Set in London of the 1660s, a time when women were forbidden to be actors, she takes on the role of Desdemona in Othello from the leading "male actress" of the day (played by Crudup). The movie was helmed by a man steeped in theatre, Richard Eyre, who has directed numerous productions on the West End, Broadway, and at London's National Theatre. Danes says that the process was akin to rehearsing a play. "I was impressed with [Eyre's] commitment to the theatre, his passion and enthusiasm, and especially the ability to be so exposed," she recalls. "I wanted that kind of challenge." It was her performance in that film, in fact, that convinced Grindley that she was right for Eliza. "When I saw her in that last scene in Stage Beauty," the director says, "when she transforms herself into an actress in the final act of Othello, the play-within-the-movie, I knew she could be a great stage actress."
While Danes admits that perhaps she should be intimidated by the "novelty of the experience" of such an exposed stage debut, she feels protected by Dancy (they've been practicing lines over cell phones while he's in London) as well as by her director and cast ("incredibly generous and supportive").
Asked what she may be seeking in this stage debut, Danes is direct: "I'd like to feel comfortable onstage and have a deeper understanding of who I am as an actor." After a pause, she adds, "And I'd like to, God forbid, have a little bit of fun."
This piece originally appeared in the October issue of The Insider's Guide, Playbill's new monthly listings and features publication distributed in and around New York City.