From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Claire Danes is about to give the other latte drinkers at her favorite Manhattan coffee joint an early morning jolt. "AAAAeeeeeoow!" the 28-year-old New Yorker brays in a cockney accent during a recent breakfast. It's all part of the prep for her Oct. 18 Broadway debut as Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the theater classic that inspired My Fair Lady. "It's a very vocal role," she explains apologetically. "Eliza is in hysterics, yelping and hollering." That would make her the opposite of the soft-spoken actress. Despite being famous since her teens, when she starred in TV's My So-Called Life, Danes doesn't love calling attention to herself. "I have to have a sense of humor about it," she says of being covered in the tabloids. "It's not anything I have a say about."

It's been a big year for Danes—even before her name went up on a Broadway marquee. Over the summer she starred in Stardust with Michelle Pfeiffer and Evening with Meryl Streep. But Danes's favorite Evening castmate, it's safe to assume, was Hugh Dancy, who went from being a costar to boyfriend after the film wrapped. Dancy, a stage vet, helped inspire Danes to try theater. But the itch to perform hit when she was a 4-year-old "hamming it up" for her artist parents in their loft in New York's SoHo neighborhood. "My favorite movie was Footloose—and I loved John Hughes movies," she recalls. Soon Danes was a teen icon herself because of her role in Life, for which she won a Golden Globe in '95. But her drive—"I admire Claire because she's so serious," says Pygmalion director David Grindley—took her far from a normal adolescence. In '98 she left show business to attend Yale. "We ordered pizza at midnight, played video games, and I went to a few frat parties," she says. "I didn't know how to hang out properly before that." But acting drew her back—and she left Yale after two years.

Danes returned to work and now lives in the same neighborhood she grew up in, spending her days off puttering around her apartment wither schnauzer-poodle mix Ouija and "attending to my domestic life." That life now includes Dancy, 27, whom Danes calls "fabulous." On the Evening set, "we played a lot of Scrabble and listened to music," Dancy recalls. The low-key couple have been known to take trips to the top of the Empire State Building or strolls across the Brooklyn Bridge, but "the best way to preserve it is to not talk about it," says Dancy. Likewise, Danes doesn't discuss her previous relationship with actor Billy Crudup, which sparked a media frenzy. She was linked to him after his relationship with Mary Louise Parker came to an end in '03. ("It's a bit indecent," she says of such media coverage. "The best response is to ignore it.")

Danes will be under scrutiny again this month when she steps onto a Broadway stage in the role immortalized by Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 movie version of My Fair Lady. But Danes—who has never seen the film—doesn't seem to be worried. "There's no way I can compete with Audrey," she says, taking a final sip of coffee before heading to rehearsal. "But," she adds firmly, "that's not my intention."