Claire Danes loves a lot of things about starring on Homeland, but the thing she loves most is the week she gets to spend at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, each year, geeking out with real-life spies. "It's so wild, you have no idea," she says, her eyes glowing. "They curate a group of people who have good stories for us—experts in social media and counterterrorism and drug trafficking—and it's just fascinating. It's my favorite thing about the job."
We're sitting at Cafe Clover in New York's West Village on a warm October afternoon, and at the moment, Danes couldn't look less like a spy. Dressed in a yellow cotton blouse, Acne dark skinny jeans, and Chloé snakeskin flats, Danes fits right in with the rest of the stylish downtown crowd—most of whom happen to be staring at her.
At 37, Danes is even prettier in person than she is on camera, with pale, luminous skin; fine features; and a friendly, curious manner. It's easy to imagine her photobombing her old friend Lena Dunham at the 2013 Emmys, or running around Soho with husband Hugh Dancy and their 4-year-old son, Cyrus. But get her talking about Homeland—the addictive homeland-security thriller returning to Showtime for its sixth season this month—and flashes of her alter ego, bipolar superspy Carrie Mathison, start to surface. Danes' eyes widen and her head tilts quizzically to one side like a praying mantis. She's an interesting combination of calm and alert. "We're block-shooting two episodes at once right now, which is intense," says Danes, who rises at 4:30 a.m. to get her six-mile run in and is on set 12 to 15 hours a day, five days a week, during production.
It's also, Danes knows, the role of a lifetime, one that rescued her from the post-ingenue doldrums that followed My So-Called Life and Romeo + Juliet, and established her firmly as one of Hollywood's leading ladies. She's been nominated for five Emmys for her work on Homeland and won two, in addition to two Golden Globes. "I've never worked with an actor like Claire," says Homeland executive producer Alex Gansa, who wrote the part of Carrie with Danes in mind. "Mandy Patinkin [who plays Carrie's mentor, Saul Berenson, on the show] says acting in a scene with her is like playing one-on-one with Michael Jordan. She can literally make you laugh and cry in the same sentence."
Here, a few highlights from our interview, in our February issue on newsstands January 10:
On Homeland: "My goal is always to do something that feels just beyond my reach, and Homeland continues to do that. Every season, they find new ways to scare me. The show is like a diamond that fell from the sky. I'll always feel slightly bludgeoned by it, but in the best way possible."
On holding out for meaningful parts, which meant not working for two years: "It was a nightmare. I was in such agony. I had been so stimulated and energized, and I felt really robust and capable and eager. But I couldn't go back to the ingénue role or the limited secretary-type roles. I wanted to play someone who would move the story forward."
On meeting her husband Hugh Dancy and falling in love: "I was very recently single, and I had never been single before, so we were just friends for a while. [Hugh and I] met in Rhode Island when it was at its most audaciously beautiful, in the fall. And there was one day when we were bicycling by the water and it was sparkly and idyllic, and I just had this dumb epiphany, like, I'm really just happy."
On her initial thoughts after reading the Homeland script: "Carrie's so audacious and effectual and unaccommodating, and all these things that I'm not. I was nervous. I felt like, This is going to be a workout, and will I be able to sustain that?"
On realizing acting was her passion and pursuing it: "My parents really empathized with our desire to express ourselves and I was so forceful and sure and annoying about it. I really insisted."
Read the full interview and see more photographs in the February issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands January 10. And for a little behind-the-scenes action to hold you over, see more of Danes at her cover shoot here:
Featured Music: TONYTRITONE - "Brand Nu"