TORONTO – What if Angela Chase, the fragile teen Claire Danes (search) played on the short-lived TV drama "My So-Called Life," had gone on to take a few more hard romantic knocks into her mid-20s?
What if she found herself on her own, a continent removed from her parents, sharing only a superficial family relationship with her folks?
And what if Angela, who always seemed like a good candidate for Prozac, found herself diagnosed as clinically depressed and dependent on antidepressants to keep the blues at bay?
Danes acknowledges the similarities between her first big role and her latest.
"I think they're both inward-looking. That's the most obvious parallel between the two," Danes said in an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Shopgirl" premiered. "Thoughtful and kind of raw, emotionally. The feelings are very close to the skin.
"That's pretty easy for me to play, I guess," the 26-year-old Danes added with a long laugh.
Danes herself comes across as anything but a somber, brooding wallflower like Angela or Mirabelle. Gabby, lively, even a bit goofy, Danes chatters earnestly about relationships, her forays into action films and her first nude scene.
In "Shopgirl," Danes' Mirabelle lives in the slow lane as a sales clerk at the tranquil glove counter at Saks in Beverly Hills. Longing for love, Mirabelle finds herself pursued by a chivalrous older man (Martin) and an awkward young slacker (Jason Schwartzman).
Danes took her clothes off for Mirabelle's first love scene with Martin's character, a moment that left the actress uneasy. A friend told her, "It's good you're doing it at 25. When you're 80, you'll look back on this and think, I was pretty firm, so there's that," Danes said. "Firm at 25. That's a feat.
"It was uncomfortable, I have to say, but I did think that it was relevant and useful," Danes said. "Also, it's erotic. There's no reason to pussyfoot around that. I thought it was vital, so I stripped."
Danes felt similarly anxious with her romantic scenes in general, and not only because the 60-year-old Martin is more than twice her age.
"It's just as weird doing it with Steve as it is doing it with somebody my own age," Danes said. "You're not supposed to be kissing somebody who's not your boyfriend. You're just not. I don't know when I'll become more comfortable with it. You have to depersonalize it."
Martin, who wrote the screenplay and was a producer on "Shopgirl," had some difficulty articulating the ethereal quality Danes possesses that he wanted for Mirabelle.
"It's hard to find the right expression for this, but her beauty that she keeps within, you know?" Martin said. "The character of Mirabelle really requires stillness and no artifice, and that's what she has."
"Shopgirl" director Anand Tucker recalled going to Sunday tea with Martin and Danes as they were casting the film. Almost instantly, he and Martin shared a glance and knew Danes was right for the part.
"She has this incredible capacity to be beautiful and plain. She allows you to see right into her in some extraordinary way. She's not frightened to be vulnerable," Tucker said.
"This film really happens on her face. She's in 90 percent of the movie, and a lot of the time, she doesn't say anything. You're just watching her face. She has that ability that allows you to put yourself into her. That's a very rare quality. That's what great movie stars have. That's what Ingrid Bergman had."
Danes grew up in an artsy home in Manhattan's SoHo district and began studying acting in grade school. In her early teens, she landed the lead in "My So-Called Life," and though the show lasted only one season, it was a critical darling.
Early films included "Little Women," "How to Make an American Quilt" and "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday." Danes starred with Leonardo DiCaprio in "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," appeared in Oliver Stone's thriller "U Turn" and tried her hand at action with the big-screen flop "The Mod Squad."
After taking time off to study at Yale, Danes has worked steadily the last three or four years, her films including "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and last year's "Stage Beauty," in which she co-starred with Billy Crudup, now her boyfriend.
"Terminator 3" came Danes' way after she finished three sensitive, character-driven films, "Igby Goes Down," "The Hours" and "It's All About Love."
"I was really tired of that, so this opportunity landed on my lap. I was cast literally the day before I started working," Danes said, noting that another actress cast for the "Terminator" role had not worked out and director Jonathan Mostow needed an answer from her immediately.
"It was basically a shrug of the shoulders. OK, I'm available. I like the `Terminator' movies. I like Jon Mostow, so OK. It wasn't so calculated. It was more intuitive. I just thought, `You know what? After a year of being really heady and really sensitive, I just want to blow some (expletive) up.'"
Late this year, Danes co-stars with Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson and Craig T. Nelson in the ensemble holiday tale "The Family Stone." The role was a breezy departure for Danes, who plays the well-adjusted, easygoing sister of Parker's character, an uptight businesswoman making a mess of her first meeting with her fiance's family.
"I played a girl. There's really nothing controversial about her. She's just fine. She has to be fine in order to make Sarah Jessica's character pop," Danes said. "I say I just play a white girl in that movie."
Her experiences on "Shopgirl," in which none of the characters has their act together on romance, got Danes talking with acquaintances about their own relationships. One friend, a woman who has been married for 41 years, told Danes it was only within the last year or two that she had begun to really feel secure and honest in her marriage.
"In a way, that's really reassuring. I'm not just a very limited person to not have figured it out at this point. But it's also intimidating. Well, how long is it going to take before you can have a good time?" Danes said, laughing.
"It's not easy. Many, many, many songs have been written about it. We wouldn't have anything to read if relationships were easy. There would be no art in the world if we actually got along."