Danes is born to Chris, an architectural photographer turned computer consultant, and Carla, a textile designer. She grows up in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood in a loft with her older brother, Asa. At six, Danes begins studying modern dance and develops a passion for acting. She hones her skills on the off-off-Broadway stage, the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and New York's Professional Performing Arts School.
After making her film acting debut at 13, playing a molested child in the student short Dreams of Love, Danes makes her TV debut on NBC's Law & Order. That December, the 13-year-old auditions for the starring role on a new teen series by the executive producers of thirtysomething. "I knew that I would do anything to have Claire play the part," writer Winnie Holzman tells PEOPLE. "She had incredible self-possession and grace."
A 15-year-old Danes stars in the critically acclaimed, short-lived ABC series, My So-Called Life. She portrays Angela Chase, an inquisitive everygirl dealing with the common struggles of high school and adolescence. The Washington Post's Tom Shales describes Danes as "deep and mercurial and strikingly complex." Although the series hits a chord with viewers and earns Danes a Golden Globe for Best Actress, it lasts for only 19 episodes before ABC pulls the plug.
Danes makes her feature debut as Beth March in Little Women, costarring Kirsten Dunst, Christian Bale and Winona Ryder (left). "We got to be really close," Danes tells USA Today of Ryder. "She's sort of a mentor to me." The pair appear together again in 1995's How to Make an American Quilt.
Baz Luhrmann directs Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the title roles of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet . DiCaprio (right) tells Entertainment Weekly of his leading lady, "She was the only girl when we did the audition who came straight in my face to do the lines. She said them looking at me right in the eye. And some of the other girls did, like, the affected flower thing...and it was not nearly as truthful as Claire's performance."
After briefly dating Andrew Dorff, brother of actor Stephen, Danes moves on to a five-year relationship with musician Ben Lee (left). "I want to be in love always," Danes tells The Times. "It makes life more colorful and you have a partner in crime, who you know is going to give you a cuddle when you need one."
Danes, 18, is named one of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful. "Everybody falls in love with Claire," Luhrmann says of Danes.
Danes is featured in John Grisham's The Rainmaker as an abused wife who falls for lawyer Matt Damon (right). "She just reaches out and wins you to her, convinces you that she is whatever character she's playing," director Francis Ford Coppola tells the L.A. Times of Danes. In May 1998, she also portrays Cosette in the Victor Hugo classic Les Misérables with Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman.
After completing The Mod Squad and Brokedown Palace with Kate Beckinsale, Danes, 19, lands the cover of Vogue. She also announces plans to take a break from filmmaking to attend Yale University. "I'm really fearful that I'll be completely inadequate as a student," Danes tells Vogue. She later tells the Toronto Sun, "I needed to find myself. I had played so many roles but I didn't really know who I was." She completes two years at Yale.
Danes takes a small role in the critically-acclaimed drama The Hours, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. She also appears in the black comedy Igby Goes Down with Ryan Phillippe before taking a high-profile role in 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (right).
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Classmates; Everett Collection; MIRAMAX; Steve Granitz/WireImage; Everett Collection