By Tom Gliatto
Updated October 03, 1994 12:00 PM

ONCE UPON A TIME, NETWORK television’s notion of a 15-year-old American girl was Sally Field in the role of dimpled, happy-go-lucky Gidget. Today, in a more self-conscious, ironic age, you get Claire Danes. She’s the remarkably self-possessed 15-year-old who stars in My So-Called Life, ABC’s acclaimed new series about a confused, pensive 15-year-old who grapples so earnestly with the issues of schoolwork, hair, parents and boys that she seems on the verge of disenchantment before she ever reaches sweet 16.

“This character, Angela Chase, is going through a lot of the things I’m going through,” says the husky-voiced Danes. “She’s very different than I am, but the feelings she’s feeling I’ve felt, so it’s not that big a stretch.” Danes, with quiet detachment, ticks off the emotional hallmarks of their respective adolescences: “Confusion, and taking life and yourself very seriously, being kind of curious, a little cynical, dealing with friends, dealing with who you are and who people see you as.”

What sets the two apart is that Danes’s own life has recently vaulted way past So-Called. The series, although faulted by some critics for being too glumly sensitive for its own good, has brought Danes rapturous praise (the Washington Post‘s Tom Shales described her as “deep and mercurial and strikingly complex”). And despite anemic ratings, the network has ordered an additional six episodes. On the basis of the one-hour pilot alone, she was tapped to play fatally delicate Beth in the big-screen version of Little Women, which recently finished filming in Vancouver, B.C.

Danes, in fact, seems not to have shed that character completely. Although she has one of the more naturally radiant smiles in all of TV Land, at the moment she is pale, bleary-eyed and sniffly with the beginnings of a cold. And she is preoccupied with all the academic assignments—six papers!—she has to complete between sessions before the camera. “I’m really discouraged now,” she sighs, “because it just seems like more and more schoolwork piles up and I’m not getting anywhere.”

It’s this hint of weltschmerz—Garbo in baggy denim—that so impressed the show’s creators, writer Winnie Holzman and thirtysomething executive-producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, when they were looking for their Angela. “I knew that I would do anything to have Claire play the part,” says Holzman. “She had incredible self-possession and grace.” Costar Devon Odessa, 20, who plays the sensible friend Angela leaves behind for a cooler crowd, describes her as an old soul. “I feel like I’m the immature one,” says Odessa. “I talk to her for hours, and you would have thought that this girl had been married 25 times. I mean, she just knows.”

“Everybody tells me that,” says Danes, nodding. “But I’ve been around some pretty wonderful, smart, neat, interesting people and, um, it rubs off.”

The stimulating environment preceding that “um” includes New York City’s trendy SoHo, where she and brother Asa, 22 (who just graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College), were raised in a loft by their parents, two former art students. Danes’s mother, Carla, was a textile designer before opening a school for toddlers; her father, Chris, was an architectural photographer and is now a computer consultant. She credits her parents with keeping her levelheaded and proudly reiterates the family motto: “You’re not the only pebble on the beach.”

Danes has been obsessed with acting, by her reckoning from at least the sixth grade. Her mother, Carla, remembers one day when “Claire came to us and said even if she had to be poor, even if she had to be a waitress, she was going to have to be an actress.” She enrolled in a performing-arts school, took Saturday-afternoon acting classes and landed an agent.

Danes was spared waiting on tables in the school cafeteria, but otherwise encountered the usual ups and downs of the biz. She did some episodic TV including Law & Order. She was cast as one of Dudley Moore’s daughters in a pilot that never aired. Then she spent a full two years waiting for My So-Called Life to reach prime time. She first auditioned for the role in December 1992, when she was only 13, and shot the pilot in early ’93. The show didn’t get a firm commitment from ABC, however, until last fall and didn’t begin shooting its first nine episodes until this past January. For the six-month shooting schedule, Claire and her parents relocated to temporary housing in Los Angeles. Carrying a show while trying to be a real kid—or as Danes describes her schedule, mandated for minors by state law: “three hours of school on the set, five hours of work, an hour of rest and recreation, and half an hour for lunch”—left her completely exhausted by the spring. “We shut down for four days because Claire was so wasted,” says Herskovitz. “But you wouldn’t have known it from talking to her. She would have worked till she dropped.”

You wouldn’t expect that sort of showbiz trouperdom from Angela, whose basic response to trouble—especially with her well-meaning but muddled parents (Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong)—is to stomp angrily out of the room. Danes, by contrast, sometimes feels impatient when her alter ego acts up. “You just want to say, ‘Cool it,’ ” says Danes. “I’m exceptionally open with my own parents, and they’re exceptionally open with me. I get so frustrated with friends who are nervous when their friends talk about underwear or sex or something in front of their parents. It’s just like, ‘Come on, you’re all so lame!’ As if the parents hadn’t gone through it themselves!”

There are, however, things that one has to discover for oneself. This past summer, Danes found time to read Jane Eyre (“I loved it, I loved it”) and to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (“I decided I want to dress up as a drag queen for Halloween”). Dating? “It isn’t at the top of my list,” she says. “But, sure, I’m always interested in boys. I’ve always sort of let boys come to me, you know?” Still, no less an authority than Little Women costar and former child actress Winona Ryder, who plays tomboy Jo, has advised Danes to devote more time to having a real adolescence.

That’s advice that Danes has respectfully decided not to heed. “It’s really hard being a kid doing a grown-up job,” she says. “You’re thrown up in the air, and you have to re-ground yourself. I never see kids. I’m so lonely that I just will sit on a sidewalk and look at the teenagers. But then I stop and think: I made this decision, and look what I have instead—a TV series. I’m getting to do what I love to do. I got myself here, and this is just part of the deal.”