We have a theory, a Roles of Claire Danes Theory, and we're waiting for the starlet to arrive. It's 12:01. 12:02. 12:03 . . . And -- poof! -- here she is, marching toward us.

Here are the wide, gray-green eyes. Here's that wry Joker's smile. And here she is: Tiny? Onscreen she looks so broad-shouldered and edgy, like the girl in school who had all the answers and easily derailed others with an immediate, caustic but so true remark.

She shakes hands, but we aren't yet starting. She must first hand off her schnoodle puppy, Weegee, to her assistant. And she has questions about lunch.

So, no asking her yet about the Theory, which seems pretty solid: Take any film in her oeuvre, dissect, and you'll see her quietly transform her male co-star. In "Stage Beauty," she helps Billy Crudup master Shakespearean virility. She ushers Kieran Culkin's boy into manhood in "Igby Goes Down." She sparks Leonardo DiCaprio's romantic awakening in "Romeo + Juliet."

Even in her latest films, the theory holds true: "Shopgirl," opening Friday, sees her inspire Jason Schwartzman to achieve Helmut Lang style and desirability, and in the forthcoming "Family Stone," Dermot Mulroney discovers, through her, the creative vigor and passion he had repressed.

"Claire Danes!" friends have been saying all week. "Isn't she -- is she the one who stole Billy Crudup from his pregnant girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker?" "Claire Danes! Didn't she used to date that Australian rock guy Ben Lee?" "Claire Danes. She has such great skin."

She is, she did and she does. The skin is one of the first things we notice -- that and the fact that, in person, she's so delicate. Onscreen and in paparazzi snaps in Us Weekly, her face looks pie wide, and she projects the healthy wholesomeness of a lacrosse player. In real life, the planes of her face converge to one angular point. She looks like a bird, though a really, really pretty bird.

Keeping her silver, lipstick-smudged Stella McCartney coat buttoned up ("I'm always cold"), she sits at the table by the window. Outside, sunny Washington glows -- the blue Potomac, the white Jefferson Memorial, the green, leafy shore of Virginia and the bobbing, peaceful boats at the Washington Marina. She does not look. She is starved, and as the following questions unfold, her fork clangs, she chews while answering and guzzles a fizzing Coke.

We start at the beginning, with "My So-Called Life." Hailed immediately as a star of uncommon talents, Danes and her character, Angela Chase, wowed a generation of TV critics and inspired such a fervid following that DVDs of the show's one season ('94-'95) now sell on Amazon.com for $159.99 to a flat $500.

So -- it's been 12 years. Where is Angela today? What's she doing? Whatever happened to. . . .?

"I have no idea," she interrupts. "I don't know. I'm not the writer."


But we press on, slightly confused: But you inhabited Angela . . . you spent 19 episodes with those characters.

"I've played a lot of different characters since then."

Moving on. Characters. Here's the opening for our Theory. Gently, we ask about how, in so many of her films, her women are there to reflect men back at themselves and help men see themselves anew, and -- "In my movies?" she asks quickly. "In every movie. . . . I mean. It's rare to have something not about that."

Exactly. So why is that?

"I don't," she starts. "You know." She takes another bite of chicken. "More people see movies with men in them than they do with women in them."

Right. So -- why is that?

"I'm not in a position to say," she snaps. "I mean, I'm just not."

Danes spent two years at Yale. Where's the conversational brio? Where's the analytical discourse that even half of an Ivy League education would seem to confer? Do we really have 35 minutes left of this? This is, after all, her career we're talking about. Her milieu. Her life. She can't "say" anything about the gender breakdown of filmgoers? If she can't say, who can?

"Someone who really studies that," she says. "Or thinks about that."

Someone who thinks about that.

But then, suddenly and somewhat revelatorily, she begins talking about how she approaches roles and prepares to act: "You have to find what's virtuous in everybody, even if they're fallible, or flawed, or grating, or dangerous," she says, leaning back and seeming to open up. "And that's why I love to act because you have to act with generosity and forgiveness and benevolence, always."

Oooooh. Aren't we jerks? Generosity. Benevolence. How did we so readily fall for the stereotype of the vapid, diva-like actress (she did, after all, bring her dog on the press tour) who cannot escape self-obsession? "And you know," she continues, "when you forgive the character's flaws, you are invariably forgiving your own."

Your own? This generosity and benevolence and forgiveness is all about Claire being generous, benevolent and forgiving of -- herself?

Yeah, she says.

Silly, hopeful us.

Okay. Okay. Okay. It wasn't all bad. There was the Luke Wilson part, where Danes slipped into a hilarious and spot-on imitation of her co-star from "The Family Stone."

She has finished lunch and is now complaining about how "really tired" she is, and how this press stuff "is not my favorite thing to do" (news flash) and how "it's been incessant -- thousands of interviews in the last couple of weeks." Then she describes this exchange with Wilson during a press tour for the film. "What have people been asking you?" Danes inquired. "Some guy just asked me like what the meaning of life was." (Answer: "I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm not actually God.")

And Wilson, in the hall outside the room, says to her -- and here she leans back her head and twangs Wilson's voice from the side of her mouth -- " 'People keep askin' me if ah swap women with mah brother.' " She laughs, a deep, throaty laugh. "He said, 'They actually use the word SWAP,' which I thought was very funny. I should be so lucky to get such questions. 'Do I actually swap women with my brother?' Not yet." She shakes her head. "Not yet." Her grin turns mischievous. "But a girl can dream."

During this riff, we start to realize we kinda like this Claire.

Maybe this is the same Claire that Schwartman's talking about. In a hotel suite across the hall from Danes, her "Shopgirl" co-star leans back in a coral-upholstered chair, brushing his floppy black hair from his eyes and crossing one tan-corduroy-suited ankle over his knee, quirkily dapper in a pair of Adidas Rod Lavers.

"I got to work with Claire Danes," he is saying, his hair sliding back into his right eyebrow, "and I wouldn't even call it work." (He wouldn't? we think to ourselves.) "I'd call it being with her." He's clearly a fan. Continuing in a breathless, enthusiastic rush, he says, "I wouldn't be surprised if they scanned her body and found her heart is bigger than others'."

He says the 26-year-old actress is "like organic coffee" (we think he means that she's pure and natural), and gushes, "You watch her work, and she's just good."

Playing Jeremy opposite her in the movie was, he says, "like the character was invisible ink inside of me, and she was the lemon juice."

(Thank you, Jason. Why is our story not about him? We like him!)

"To me," now comes the patrician-sounding accent of director Richard Eyre, who is phoning us from Britain to speak about Claire, "she's the outstanding actress of her generation."

"She was the standout performance in 'The Hours,' " he adds. (In that film, Danes played the small part of Meryl Streep's daughter in an ensemble cast of mostly women, so the Claire Danes Theory -- inspired by Virginia Woolf's observation that "women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size" -- doesn't hold.) Eyre directed Danes in last year's "Stage Beauty," where she starred opposite Crudup. The film never broke out at the box office, a disappointment that some attributed to the bad press Danes and Crudup received after her co-star dumped his longtime partner, Mary-Louise Parker, who was pregnant with their first child.

That film was one of her biggest starring roles since "My So-Called Life," and Eyre, who knows a thing or two about actors -- he has just finished shooting "Notes on a Scandal," starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett -- says he was impressed by her "grace and wit, which are in rather short supply," and "her intelligence as an actress."

From the beginning, says Winnie Holzman, creator and writer of "My So-Called Life," her show's success rested on Danes, "with your emotional involvement with her, and also with your delight in watching. There's something about her that makes you want to watch her. You're so drawn to her."

At the time, Holzman remembers, Danes was 14, still in school, and "dashing back and forth," so they had no time for rehearsals. "They would shoot . . . and then she would run and take a French test, and then come back and do the rest of the scene. We're talking about a person who's on an extraordinary level of ability."

Since "MSCL," Holzman has written the Broadway hit "Wicked," and the other day, she says, she watched a trailer for "Shopgirl" and "I turned to my husband and whispered, 'Have you noticed how Claire always seems to have better lighting than everyone else?' " She laughs. "To me it's because she's lit from within."

"From the minute I met her, I just felt like this is an incredible actress who will have a long and I think very, very rich and interestingly complex career. She just really hit me full force."

She hit us full force, too, but Holzman probably means something different.

"I'm curious about comedy right now," Danes is saying, pushing ahead to what she'd like to come next. "I want to know what it is to tell a good joke. How does that happen? Um, yeah. So that would be fun. I'd like to do something farcical next."

Her next project, though, is "The Flock," with Richard Gere. "I play a cop," she says. "Not a farce. . . . Well. We don't mean it to be."

She's been in town all weekend, rehearsing for and then speaking at the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony honoring her "Shopgirl" co-star Steve Martin. Eight hours before the grand extravaganza, she is fretting about her speech.

"My speeches are always really earnest and formal. That just happens to be my voice when I write. So it's going to be really ridiculous because everyone else is going to be hilarious."

Diane Keaton, she notes enviously, plans to sing, but she has no such escape hatch: "I could do a modern dance, but I don't think that would be really appropriate. I wouldn't quite know how to dance to Steve."

We laugh. Sincerely. She is funny.

And (how to say this?) she has been memorable. While wrapping up lunch, we debate with ourselves: Which is worse -- the consummately professional actress who sits kindly and mouths perfectly bland and sports-actressy cliches like, "I just wanted to go out there and do my best for the ensemble."

Or the one who shows up with the schnoodle on a worn, navy blue leash, who turns a tad snotty when explaining the provenance of Weegee's name (the famed street photojournalist of the mid-20th century, as though we didn't know), then admits that a friend had to tell her exactly what Weegee specialized in, at which point she decided, she says, "Well, that's exactly right. Weegee essentially is New York low life -- as low as it gets."

We know what she means.

"That's why I love to act because you have to act with generosity and forgiveness and benevolence, always," says the "Shopgirl" star.Co-star Jason Schwartzman: "I wouldn't be surprised if they scanned her body and found her heart is bigger than others'."In "Stage Beauty," Claire Danes plays an ex-dresser-turned-actress who takes it upon herself to help Billy Crudup. Claire Danes with younger man Kieran Culkin in "Igby Goes Down."