Claire Danes hasn’t done much TV since making an all-too-brief but memorable splash in 1994-1995 as the precocious teen star of the ABC drama My So-Called Life. Several dozen feature film roles have followed. But the 31-year-old Danes came back to TV and received rave reviews for her starring role as the autistic title character in the HBO biopic Temple Grandin that premiered in February. Her competition in the Primetime Emmy category as lead made-for-TV-movie/miniseries actress is formidable: Maggie Smith (Capturing Mary), Joan Allen (Georgia O’Keefe), Dame Judi Dench (Return to Cranford) and Hope Davis (The Special Relationship). Media see Danes as the favorite to cart off the trophy on August 29th for the film which generated 15 Emmy nominations in all. Danes spoke this week with Deadline Hollywood contributor Ray Richmond about the difficulty of portraying a living person — yet how rewarding the experience turned out to be:
Deadline Hollywood: What were the challenges of portraying a character based on an actual woman who is still very much alive?
Claire Danes: It was quite daunting. That would be true of anyone who were living, but particularly so in the case of someone as complex as Temple. I respect her so completely. I didn’t want to fail her or the millions of people who cherish her. I was very aware of the dangers of disappointing Temple, and all of the people who care so much for her. Also, the lady has such an amazing eye for detail, like no one else. I could only attempt to interpret that, not duplicate it. No way could I be her.
DH: Was it difficult portraying a character that has such a tough time connecting emotionally with people?
CD: Absolutely. I often found myself apologizing to some of the actors I shared those scenes with, because they were so brilliant, and I could never look at them to let them know that it wasn’t personal.
DH: Did you spend much time with the actual Temple, observing her?
CD: I spent an afternoon with her. It was a little terrifying. At the end of the meeting, she gave me a hug, which really touched me. I called in a friend, a choreographer whom I’d worked with before, to help me interpret how Temple’s autism manifests itself physically. Her condition was much more acute when she was younger, though, and so it was really a different person I was seeing that day. I broke playing her down into two parts. I worked on her body and her physicality first, then how she spoke. A great dialect coach helped me figure the last part out.
DH: Is that all you had to go on was that one afternoon with her?
CD: That, and Temple gave me a tape of herself as a younger woman. I also recorded some of the four hours we had in conversation. I created what I referred to as the Rosetta Stone of Temple. I just listened to it obsessively. It was like having a Temple Grandin exercise tape on my iPiod. I kept listening until I felt more comfortable with how she spoke, but I only became moderately comfortable moving like I imagined she moved.
DH: How comfortable was Grandin with this whole process of being observed so closely by you?
CD: I’d say much more so than I was. She’s so accustomed to being a model and an example. She’s a pioneer in so many fields. It was just such an honor to play her.
DH: Are you still in touch with her since the film aired?
CD: No. It isn’t as if we were ever chummy. It wasn’t like that.
DH: What did you take from the whole experience that maybe you can apply to any future acting roles?
CD: Oh God, that’s hard to say. I mean, I can’t imagine that I’ll find a character this surprising and spectacular and rich anytime soon. It’s not like, well, I can play a string of autistic women from here on. The one thing I really learned out of this is that there is no such thing as a single kind of autistic person. There are so many sides to it. It would be like trying to identify a tree by simply calling it a tree.
DH: What are you doing now career-wise in the wake of Temple Grandin? Any roles in the offing?
CD: Actually, I have nothing going on right now and nothing on tap. And it’s a good place to be. I’m in a holding pattern. We’ll just have to see what happens.
DH: Is the fact you aren’t doing anything acting-wise a product of the fact there’s nothing you’ve recently been offered that interests you?
CD: It’s hard to say. What I’ve noticed though is that it’s a strange time in that there aren’t a lot of movies being made that are character-driven, certainly very little that’s similar to what I had with ‘Temple.’
DH: Yes, to some degree it seems that if it isn’t 3D or CGI animated, it doesn’t get made.
CD: It’s funny you should say that. I was joking with someone the other day. We were talking about animated and action movies, and I actually thought, you know, Temple would make a really great 3-D movie.
DH: That’s something maybe the studios ought to look into.
CD: For sure.