How exactly do you play a fallen star? It
The subtle nuances of being a star in human form is a discussion that Danes has had with her director, Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) on countless occasions.
“It’s ridiculous isn’t it?” she laughs. “Playing a star! She is very personified and when Matthew and I were joking when we first started talking about the role and he was saying ‘do you have any ideas what you might do with her?’
“I said ‘maybe occasionally I might introduce a couple of jazz hands or something pretty subtle, and you know, occasionally emphasise certain lines here and there..’
“And his face dropped and he was truly panicked! And he thought I was actually serious. But no, it’s not like I have any star affectations or anything. But I do have longer hair than I normally do..”
Indeed, Danes long platinum tresses, coupled with bleached eyebrows, piercing blue eyes and pale make up adds up to a striking look which may even be a little other worldly. “We were going for the ethereal look,” she laughs. “I think that’s the idea. We wanted her to look slightly different and that there should be something arresting about her appearance. But it’s discreet and not overly star like..”
Based on Neil Gaiman’s critically acclaimed book of the same name, Stardust is a romantic fairytale for young and old. “And I love fairytales,” says Danes. “And I always have, since I was a child.”
Tristran Thorn (played by newcomer Charlie Cox) lives in the charming English village of Wall and has fallen in love with the beautiful but distant Victoria (Sienna Miller). One night, when they see a star fall from the sky, Tristran promises to bring it to her if only she will give him her hand in marriage.
She does, safe in the knowledge that he’s setting off on an impossible mission, and the young lad sets off to climb over the Wall and into the mysterious, magical land beyond to find the star. When he does it’s not at all what he expected. Instead, he discovers Yvaine – Claire Danes – a star with a very human form now that she is earth bound and one with very strident opinions at that.
As he sets out to bring her back to Wall, Thorn begins to realise that there are others who are hunting the star for their own selfish and murderous reasons, including an evil witch, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), and a ruthless Prince, Septimus (Mark Strong).
For Danes, a long time admirer of Neil Gaiman’s work, playing Yvaine is a dream role. “This is why I started making movies in the first place so I could run around in a silk dress, fight evil witches and get kidnapped by pirates. I mean, that’s what it’s all about!”
And working with a cast which includes Robert De Niro (as a pirate), Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O’Toole, Sienna Miller and one of her comedy heroes, Ricky Gervais (The Office) provided the icing on an already tempting cake.
“That was one of the most joyous days of my life and I’m not speaking hyperbolically,” she says. “Really, I was giddy. Ricky Gervais is a hero of mine and The Office is a favourite of mine and one of my favourite fictional works of all time.”
And Charlie Cox, a 23-year-old newcomer who plays Tristran, also receives a glowing report from his co-star.
“He’s fantastic. I remembered when I auditioned he already had the part. I did some scenes with him and I was kind of disarmed by how good he was. But I had never seen his work before and I didn’t have a sense of him. He was so truthful and so present and charismatic.”
Danes, 27, was born in New York and was just 16 when she starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s remarkable screen version of Romeo and Juliet. In 1999, she decided to take a break from acting and studied psychology at Yale University. Since her return she has appeared in numerous films including It’s All About Love, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Stage Beauty and Shopgirl.
Q: Were you familiar with Neil Gaiman and his work?
A: Yeah, and actually I wrote a forward for a book he wrote called Death. And I’d also done the English voice for a Japanese animation project he was involved with. So we have a bit of a history. And I just think his writing is so witty and full of feeling and warm and imaginative. I’ve been having a wonderful time getting lost in his Stardust world. And obviously it’s fantastical but it’s not saccharine – adults can appreciate it and it’s got bite and iron and it’s a bit more mature.
Q: What’s it been like making Stardust?
A: I get to ride a Unicorn which is a big deal (laughs). And I finally get to realise the fantasy I had when I was six years old of being in a fairytale, which is great.
It’s a beautifully written script, really charming and engaging and you know, as absurd as my character is and the circumstances she finds herself in she is pretty well drawn and there is an arc to make and that’s always a thrill.
Q: How familiar are you with fairytales? Did you read them when you were a child?
A: I loved the Grimm’s fairytales when I was little. I liked them dark and grim and scary. And even when I was young I knew the Disney versions were sanitised and manipulated for my sake and I kind of didn’t want them to do me any favours. I liked them raw. There is something very cautionary and sinister about a lot of fairytales.
Q: You auditioned for this role. Do you normally have to audition?
A: Yeah, I usually do. I think it’s becoming more common for actors to audition. I don’t consider myself somebody who can easily get offered everything. But I would say that even actors who are considered big movie stars are having to petition and audition for roles. I can’t say why that is. But it is much more pervasive. And this was a very special project; the writing was spectacular and such a good cast had already been assembled.
Q: Is becoming a movie star a little like living in a fairytale?
A: Well, there are certain aspects of it that are really wonderful. I’ve had extraordinary adventures and I’ve seen so much of the world and I’ve met incredibly creative, energetic, brilliant people. I get to wear pretty clothes. And, you know, there are some hazards, of course but they are not as interesting as the virtues.
Q: Did you see this as essentially a love story?
A: Yes I did. With all the other magical things going on, it’s a love story at the heart of it.
Q: What’s it been like to work with Charlie Cox?
A: He’s fantastic. When I auditioned he already had the part and I did some scenes with him. And I was kind of disarmed by how good he was. He was so truthful and so present and charismatic. And it was like ‘oh my God, he’s like a real actor, I’m really going to have to act well now!’ (laughs). And that was so invigorating. He’s doing such a fantastic job especially considering the pressure he must be under. I mean, he is carrying such an enormous movie and he is in virtually every frame.
Q: You’re more experienced than he is, would you give him advice on how to handle fame and celebrity and his career?
A: Never intentionally, of course. There’s been no finger wagging. I think that he is doing so well, I wouldn’t know what advice to give him necessarily. It’s important to protect yourself. I’ve learned over the years how vital it is to create necessary boundaries. Because if they are not in place you will probably be exploited in some way so I think he is discovering that now.
Q: Has it been possible to improvise with your character at all?
A: No, there hasn’t been much improvisation. You know it’s such an elaborate story, really complex and there are a lot of layers and it’s carefully designed. If we change one line then it will potentially affect something eight scenes later. And also it’s so well written there’s no need for it and Jane (Goldman) the writer has been on set consistently throughout so if we have any problems with the dialogue we can just go to the source. And I’m not particularly gifted in improvisation anyway, it’s not a strength of mine. I much prefer to defer to the writer.
Q: How carefully do you choose your roles?
A: More now than ever. I took about three years off while I went to university and during that time I just started to appreciate how essential affiliating yourself with a certain type of project is. And also at a certain point I would find myself in a video store looking for a certain random movie and I would see one of my shockers and think ‘oh no, no, no! I can’t afford to keep doing that, I can’t afford to be appalled..’ I never have as much control as I would like, an actor’s influence is fairly minimal. I have to make educated guesses but as long as I go in with sound assumptions, then I can sleep well.
Q: Are your educated guesses getting better?
A: I don’t know, maybe time will tell. I’ve been fairly pleased with the movies I’ve made since I’ve been working as a more adult actor. Obviously some have been flawed, but I wouldn’t have wanted my money back.
Q: Charlie was saying earlier that he was really worried about doing screen kissing. What about you?
A: (laughs). Oh he didn’t seem worried! We high fived each other afterwards. Was I worried? Was he worried? (laughs) He did very well. He’s got a good pucker…
Q: Do you get to do much with Ricky Gervais in the film?
A: A little bit. That was one of the most joyous days of my life and I’m not speaking hyperbolically. Really, I was giddy. Ricky Gervais is a hero of mine. The Office is a favourite of mine and one of my favourite fictional works of all time. I was comparing it to Canterbury Tales or something. I love that show and I think he is so inspired.. And you know, he didn’t disappoint in person. He’s as imaginative and playful and funny as I imagined. And then he does a scene with Robert De Niro! Say what! It was so funny. I had nothing to do in that scene so I could stand there and try not to laugh – which was an effort, let me tell you because Ricky would make stuff up and was invariably hilarious. He would make himself crack up – he really does appreciate his own work (laughs). But I think that’s what makes him such a good comedian because he sees humour in everything.
Q: Was Robert (De Niro) flowing with it?
A: Yes, he was and he’s an excellent straight man. And they are both playing such wonderful stereotypes; you expect to see them in those roles, just not necessarily together.
Q: You had success at a young age. Was that overwhelming?
A: A little bit. I had done a television show before that (Romeo and Juliet) called My So Called Life which was more successful critically than anybody anticipated. Commercially it was a failure but it kept re running on cable stations and found a cult audience so that prepared me a little bit for the notoriety that followed with Romeo and Juliet. But it was totally overwhelming. I was 16 when I did Romeo and Juliet and at that point I had been working since I was 12 but still the momentum seemed fast. And yes, it took me years to catch my breath. And yeah I had a lot of opportunity and a lot of power actually and just had no idea what to do with it. How could I? I was just a child. So I went to school. I thought ‘OK, I’ll go back to school..;
Q: And what’s it been like since you returned to acting after college?
A: Much better. I feel like I have much more control because I know what my aesthetic is, what my values are and how to communicate them and assert them and I know that I can make my own culture within the larger culture of Hollywood. I can think critically and think discerningly. I can say ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that..’ and that’s OK or that’s appropriate. I can facilitate that happening. So that has been so useful. I kind of worry for people who don’t give themselves that opportunity because so much can happen to you, you can become a passive agent. I know that there is an alternative.