Stage Beauty offered formidable thespian challenges for the TV-trained (My So Called Life) Claire Danes, playing a 17th century British wench, Maria, who, on the Restoration stage of Charles II, breaks the sexual barrier. She becomes, according to Jeffrey Hatcher’s fictive screenplay, the first female ever allowed to act in Shakespeare. Prior to Maria: boy Ophelias, guy Lady Macbeths.
"Maria has an unbridled enthusiasm and passion for acting," Danes described her role, interviewed at this September’s Toronto International Film Festival. "She’s unschooled, so, surprise, surprise, she flounders at first on stage. But I admire her audacity and pioneering spirit. She was learning experientially, as I did. It’s the first time I ever stepped on a stage like that. I was intimidated by the others’ legitimacy and my lack of legitimacy. Richard Eyre [the director] was the head of the Royal National Theatre for twenty years, which earned him the title of ‘Sir.’ Billy [Crudup] has a Master’s Degree from the Tisch School of the Arts. I’m from TV, of all places. Luckily, we rehearsed for three weeks before shooting, an anomaly in film, a luxury."
How authentic did she try to be to 17th century acting styles? "There was a bit of information in books about how they genuinely performed, but Billy and Richard and I made things up. I have to assume the human experience is timeless. I did try to make the character plausible. I tried to sit straighter at the dinner table and speak more clearly."
There’s one (dubious?) anachronist scene in Stage Beauty, when, as Othello and Desdimona, Crudup and Danes dramatize the Moor’s murdering of his bride in a brutish, post-Stanislavski manner. "We were working in a current style, a naturalistic performance," Danes acknowledged. "That was pretty whimsical and fantastical. We took a leap and trusted the audience to follow." She defended the odd staging: "It’s a leap of 300 years, and Richard [carried it out] elegantly: Marlon Brando with his heart in the Restoration."
Maria has more problems than becoming the first female ever on the British stage. She’s enamored of actor Ned Kynaston (Crudup), gay-sexed and gender-muddled, whose specialty is female impersonation, portraying Shakespeare’s heroines. Could Ned possibly love Maria in return? "He’s very confused, in some denial, and a little deluded," Danes admitted. "But because Maria loves him so much, she has an X-ray vision, and she see his authentic self. She sees a center, though it’s not really defined. It’s unclear if he could have a girlfriend. But their love for each other transcends sexual orientation, and sexual biases.
"I think we’re starting to accept that gender is much more fluid than we used to believe. Thank goodness! I have a good friend who’s a lesbian and is dating a man who had a sex change operation. It’s so wonderful that people now can tolerate and accept it."
For a time, Danes matriculated at Yale University, but she’s dropped out permanently to concentrate on acting. I reminded her that even George W. managed to graduate from there. As she laughed, I asked her preference for president among the two Yale candidates. "I’m a Democrat," she said. "I hope that Kerry will be our next leader."
Boston Phoenix, September 2004