Both established child actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes were on the cusp of worldwide stardom when they were cast in the titular roles of director Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation of the William Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet about star-crossed lovers from opposing and volatile families.
DiCaprio, a boyish 21 at the time, was coming off critically acclaimed roles in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries. And anticipation was already building for James Cameron’s Titanic, which wouldn’t come out until the following year.
For Danes’ part, the 17-year-old had already established herself as one of the It girls of the mid-‘90s thanks to the lead role in the short-lived series, My So-Called Life, with another up-and-comer, Jared Leto, and a child star-making role in Little Women. A year later, she would be seen in her first major adult role as Matt Damon’s onscreen wife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker.
Not originally cast as Juliet, Danes actually replaced Natalie Portman -- who is earning Oscar buzz for her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie -- after she was forced to drop out when executives thought she looked too young for the part. But for DiCaprio, it was Danes’ audition that ultimately proved her ability to play the young Capulet opposite his Romeo Montague.
“When we were first doing the audition, she was the only girl who came up right to my face and wasn’t afraid to grab the back of my neck and kiss me and hold my hand,” DiCaprio told ET while promoting the film. “All the other girls were staring off into the stars, trying to be flowery and beautiful. She was, like, hardcore.”
“We thought that’s what Juliet needed to be,” DiCaprio added. “She needed to be a different Juliet and Claire brought that to it.”
The film was a blockbuster smash, earning over $46 million at the box office and a MTV Movie Award for Danes. Romeo + Juliet would also mark one of Danes’ many “volcanic performances,” as The New Yorker described her work in 2013, writing that her “performance as Juliet is the most luminous of her early years, an effortless exhibition of her modesty, exuberance, and sensuality.”
“She’s a ball of emotion, a powerhouse, as I like to put it,” DiCaprio said on set. “It’s great to work with her. She’s able to get into the stuff like that [snaps fingers] and really feed you what you need.”
What would follow were Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe wins for her work in HBO’s Temple Grandin and on the Showtime series, Homeland, as well as the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Drama.
But DiCaprio wasn’t the only one singing his co-star’s praises at the time. On set of the 1996 film, Danes was equally impressed with her male counterpart, who went on to earn multiple Oscar nominations for The Aviator, Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wall Street. “He's brilliant and amazing at what he does and one of the most interesting and smart people I've ever met,” Danes said at the time. “I've had a really good time, working with him and learning about him as a person. He’s a good guy.”
Sadly, the two never reunited onscreen, despite Danes’ audition for a coveted role as J. Edgar Hoover’s secretary in Clint Eastwood’s 2011 biopic about the controversial FBI director. She ultimately turned down the part for the lead on Homeland. "I was like, ‘Do I want to play the secretary to the boss man or do I want to be the boss man?’” Danes recalled to Vogue in 2013. “I want to be the boss man.”
However, Danes’ appreciation for DiCaprio’s onscreen talent never faded. At the 2016 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where the actor was building momentum for his first Academy Award win for The Revenant, Danes was still as supportive as ever. “The dude is a genius,” Danes said in January.
“He's been a genius for decades and he's not very old. He's such an exquisite actor and we've all adored him. He's been underappreciated in that kind of formal, blingy sense,” she continued, referring to the lack of Oscar wins leading up to this year’s ceremony.