A Conversation with Claire Danes

Posted by on Jan 16, 2008 in Stories

Back in college, I was a social recluse and Internet junkie. I sat in my dorm room and chatted online with strangers on IRC (a text-based online chat service) every night. It wasn’t like Facebook or even AOL, where user names are tied to accounts and profiles. There was simply no way to confirm anyone’s identity, so you could be whoever you wanted. Quite often, especially in the local LA chat rooms, users would pretend to be celebrities. It was probably never true. Or so I thought.

Once, I found myself talking to someone who said she was SNL’s Cheri Oteri. Her jokes were awful, so I’m pretty sure it was her. Another night, it was Mindy Cohn, the chubby one from “Facts of Life” who claimed she was making a living as a phone sex operator in the Los Angeles area. I later found some articles confirming she went into that line of work after she quit acting.

The Call

On the evening of my 21st birthday in September 1997, my roommates refused to take me out for drinks, claiming they were tired after taking another roommate out for his birthday the night before. Rejected, I retired to the bedroom, hopped onto IRC, and found myself chatting with a girl who claimed to be Claire Danes.

I didn’t think it was her, but I tried to play it cool just in case it really was. I pulled up IMDB (still in its infancy back then) and tried to casually ask questions about her life and her work, testing her and to see how she’d respond. Without hesitation, she answered every single thing I asked her correctly. Either this was a nerd using IMDB just like me, a groupie fan who knew everything about her, or it was in fact Claire Danes. My curiosity grew.

I asked if we could talk on the phone. After a little persuasion, she accepted. I asked for her number, but she said that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for her to give out her number, seeing how she’s famous and all. So I gave her my number, and she called.

I was a bit nervous, but I tried my hardest to play it cool. I explained that it was my 21st birthday, and that it was very lame as far as 21st birthdays go. I discussed how poor I am, how I don’t watch TV, how I don’t go to the movies (as a film major, no less), and how I don’t travel. I’m going to come right out and say that I was a pretty big loser back in the day.

Claire discussed her first time drinking, her ex, her celebrity friends, her upcoming movie (“U Turn”), and her computer dumbness. After telling her that I was a big Chevy Chase fan, she described how she and her family went to Chevy Chase’s house for Christmas dinner. And she thought he was a nice guy. As we talked, I did my best to verify things, furiously searching IMDB and fact-checking every tidbit of information she revealed. Everything flowed, everything seemed natural, and everything she said checked out. It didn’t seem to me like this was a girl making up stories on the fly. At the time, I wasn’t really familiar with Claire’s voice or movies, so I couldn’t tell for sure if it was her. Was this an obsessed wannabe? Or was it Claire Danes? I didn’t want to call her out, because if it really was her, she might be offended by the accusation.

A few minutes into the conversation, I got the idea to flip the switch on my answering machine, awkwardly connected to my phone in a late 90’s kind of way, to record the conversation. If this really was Claire Danes, I thought it would be pretty awesome to get it on tape. Of course, it was only one of those 15 minute mini-cassettes, so that’s as much of the conversation as I got. We continued talking for a few more minutes after I ran out of tape. As I remember it, the whole conversation lasted about 30 minutes.

She had called my land line, and the university’s phone system didn’t offer Caller ID or *69, so at the end of the conversation, I decided to ask for her number again. She refused, reminding me that it probably wasn’t a good idea to give out her number. I asked for her e-mail address, but she wouldn’t give that to me either. I wanted to continue my correspondence with her, but she wouldn’t bite. So our conversation ended, and that was it.

For the next 3 years, I wondered: Was it her I talked to? Would I ever get a chance to find out?

The Trip

On December 26, 1999, I was on my way down to Australia for a life-changing trip to celebrate the New Year. My connecting flight stopped at Los Angeles International Airport. I headed to my gate, which was mostly empty and spotted a girl sitting on the floor by herself who looked a lot like Claire Danes. Was it really her? I took a few steps to my right for another angle. Yes! Holy crap.

My heart started going. I considered approaching and going right into my story, but I was scared. I was naturally shy to begin with. By this time, she was also quite famous, and it didn’t seem like anyone else knew that she was sitting there. But her head was down, and it looked like she was enjoying her privacy. I didn’t want to blow her cover and create a little scene in the airport by causing a mad rush of fans.

I needed to confirm that she was actually getting on the same long flight to Sydney as me, so I patiently waited. After a few minutes, she got up to go to the ticket counter to ask a question, the same ticket counter I checked in at. Perfect! We’d be on the plane together, and I’d have 15 hours to talk to her. I wanted to figure out if I really talked to her on the phone and also wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed her work on the recently released Princess Mononoke.

When boarding started, Claire boarded first with business class. I boarded a few minutes later.

Shortly after taking off, the flight attendant came through to hand out peanuts and serve drinks. I told her that I knew Claire Danes was on the plane and said that I would love to have a word with her. Trying not to sound like an obsessed stalker, I asked if she could tell me where on the plane she was sitting. The attendant told me me that she was in business class, which on this plane was a second deck of seats above me. I asked if I could go up there to say hello, and she said the only way I could get up there is with a business class ticket. I then asked if I could write a quick note to Claire on a napkin and have her pass it along for me. The attendant considered it but returned a few minutes later to tell me that she was cuddling with her boyfriend (Ben Lee at the time) and looked like she didn’t want to be disturbed. OK, no big deal, I thought. I had 14 hours to work something out with the fight attendant.

Over the next 14 hours, the flight attendant didn’t come back through the cabin. So I never got a chance to talk to Claire on the plane. I knew I had to catch up to her once we landed, because if I didn’t, this little thing would bother me for the rest of my life.

Business class would get off the plane first, so I knew that I would have to patiently wait and then rush to baggage claim to have any chance of catching up with Claire.

Off the plane, I sprinted through the terminal, backpack bouncing around behind me, and finally made it to baggage claim. Catching my breath, I looked around but couldn’t find her. I quickly scanned the exits to see if she was on her way out, but there was no sign. I began dealing with the disappointment and then spotted a girl standing alone on the other side of the carousel. She was wearing a parka with furry hood pulled down to cover her face. It was Claire, trying her best to look nondescript. Nobody except me knew that it was Claire Danes standing there.

My heart started going again. This was a one of those moments. My whole life, I had always been shy and nervous and socially awkward, never wanting to draw attention to myself and never comfortable around girls. And at this particular moment, I was scared shitless. But I knew that if I didn’t approach Claire Danes right at this moment, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

I felt a surge of adrenalin and walked to her. As I approached, she had just collected her bag and was turning away to walk out.

The Reaction

Knowing that I only had a moment before she was gone, I very quickly introduced myself, told my story, and asked if it was her I had talked to a few years back. She picked up her pace, and I could tell she didn’t want to be bothered. She pulled her parka hood over her head and blurted, “No, I don’t do that kind of thing!” before heading out the door. A group of girls thought they recognized Claire Danes and looked at me. I smiled and gave them a knowing nod.

I was overcome by a mix of emotions. Maybe Claire didn’t remember, maybe she didn’t want to admit it, or maybe she didn’t really talk to me. Who knows. But more than anything, I had a surge of confident adrenalin because I was so damn proud of myself that I had approached her and asked my question.

Corny as it may seem, this rush of confidence and a commitment to “no regrets” would have an impact on me for the rest of that trip and my life.

The Tape

In December 2007, I found the 15 minute mini-cassette of our conversation and listened to it. Just as I remembered, her responses are all snappy and frank, delivered without hesitation. Using today’s internet, almost everything checks out:

  • 18 years old at time of call = checks out
  • first time she drank was in Nantucket on the set of To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (1996) = plausible
  • was chatting to friends in California online = plausible, as Wikipedia says she moved to Santa Monica with her family in 1994
  • Andrew Dorff is ex-boyfriend = lots of teen websites confirm that Dorff was Danes’ first boyfriend, Danes and Dorff broke up around the time filming began on Romeo + Juliet in late 1995
  • three brothers = Wikipedia says she has only one brother, though perhaps she has two half brothers or stepbrothers
  • hung out backstage with U2 in Las Vegas on PopMart tour = plausible, the Vegas show was on April 25, 1997
  • Mom lives in Santa Monica = plausible, as Wikipedia says she moved to Santa Monica with her family in 1994
  • has a friend named Allie who goes to UCLA = who knows
  • described headshot she hated and recited line of dialogue from the movie U Turn (1997) = the line she recited did in fact appear in the movie, which wouldn’t come out until a month after the call
  • knew and was a big fan of Calista Flockhart = who knows
  • had Christmas dinner with Chevy Chase = who knows

While the higher, youthful pitch of her voice on the tape doesn’t match the deeper voice that she now seems to have, the accent and laugh and quirky humor are bang on. I really do think it was her. If it IS a fake, she did an incredible job.

So here is the conversation. What do you think? Was it Claire Danes I talked to on the phone?

Part 1 of the call

Part 2 of the call

For comparison, I found some videos of her being interviewed around the same time:

1996 (1 year earlier)

November 1995 (2 years earlier)

Claire has never contacted me about this. And she seems to have little if any social media presence. I tweeted about this but haven’t heard back.

Claire, if you’re out there…

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