Animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin knew HBO was making a movie about her life. Plans had been in the works for years. But Claire Danes? She didn't know anything about the young actress who had been picked to play her. When the announcement was made, Grandin looked her up on the Internet. Her first thought: "Oooh. This little blond lady … she's going to be able to play me?"
Not coincidentally, that was Danes' first reaction too, when director Mick Jackson approached her for the project. Grandin has lived an extraordinary and most unusual life. She was born autistic at a time when little was known about the disorder. Grandin applied her keen visual thinking to the study of cattle, becoming a leader in improving conditions at livestock yards and slaughterhouses. Grandin also became a prominent speaker and author on autism, inspiring a deeper understanding of the condition.
"She's a genius autistic cowgirl," Danes says during an interview in a corner booth at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont. "She's so imaginative and resourceful and tenacious. She's almost impossible to describe other than using the word 'hero,' so it felt very presumptuous on my part to think I could portray her."
Danes did accept the challenge and used the pressure she felt to her advantage. "Temple Grandin," which premiered in February on HBO (and will be out on DVD on Aug. 17), won rave reviews both for the insight and imagination it brought to its subject and the way Danes so completely disappeared into her role. The 31-year-old actress calls the movie the highlight of her career, and Grandin still can't get over how Danes captured what she was like at so many different stages of her life.
"You would never know it was Claire Danes if her name hadn't been on the credits," Grandin says by phone. "I remember listening to an NPR show where they interviewed me. And there were clips from the movie, and I was listening to her voice and I thought, 'Oh, man. I can't tell the two apart.' The voice, the movement, everything. She became me. It was unreal."
Adds director Jackson: "In hindsight, Claire seems like the obvious choice. But I can tell you she wasn't necessarily the actress everyone thought was right from the beginning."
Danes approached Grandin with the kind of exhaustive research you might expect. She already had a small library of books on autism in her house, owing to the coincidence that her husband, actor Hugh Dancy, had played a character with Asperger syndrome in the indie film "Adam" just six months before. Danes dutifully studied those books as well as anything Grandin had written.
But the big event was meeting Grandin herself for lunch and conversation in Danes' New York loft. By the time Grandin knocked on the door, Danes admits she was a "nervous wreck."
"Temple had grown pretty large in my imagination, and my respect for her had completely mushroomed," Danes says. "She was a rock star. It was like, 'Temple's coming! Temple's coming!'"
Grandin remembers thinking Danes was "very, very serious, earnest and interested in doing things right." Danes videotaped the conversation, both to get the voice right and to study Grandin's movements. Danes' friend, choreographer Tamar Rogoff, was there too and later worked with the actress to capture Grandin's somewhat off-kilter movements.
And when Grandin got up to leave that day, she walked over to Danes and gave her a hug.
"Which I know for her is hard to do," Danes says. "That was a wonderful gesture, and I felt very moved by that, very grateful. I really just wanted her permission, her validation."
Not that Danes suddenly believed she had unlocked the role after the meeting. When Jackson first approached her about playing Grandin, Danes felt overwhelmed by the differences between them. But as she listened to Grandin's voice on her iPod, one piece of commonality began to make an impression.
"It occurred to me that while I'm hardly a genius, I am a goofball, which Temple is too," Danes says. "I'm also a fairly raging nerd. I've found a way to temper and disguise that over time, but that's a drag. I was that really annoying kid in school who always had her hand up. It was fun to be able to just indulge in that as much as I liked and just let it rip. Temple is very funny, and she has a playful sense of mischief that I just loved."
Those qualities weren't exactly on display when Grandin arrived at the movie's Austin, Texas, locale late in the shoot to make sure the cattle scenes were being done accurately. ("No Holsteins!" Grandin says. "I told them if they're black and white, don't use them. That ruined 'City Slickers' for me!") Grandin and Danes steered clear of each other that day, both recognizing the need for space. By that point, Danes' reverence for her subject had grown exponentially.