WHEN Claire Danes was just twelve years old, she cycled through five boroughs of New York in order to make a call-back audition for the film Dazed and Confused.

"I was beet[root] red by the time I got to the audition and exhausted, so I don't think I was at my best!" says the 30-year-old actress, laughing at the memory.

In fact, she didn't get the role because the director, Richard Linklater, finally decided she was too young for the part but her efforts and talent made a lasting impression and 18 years later, Claire's now appearing in Linklater's latest project, Me and Orson Welles.

Based on Robert Kaplow's historical novel, the film depicts Hollywood legend Orson Welles as he was in 1937, a young and brilliant man preparing for what was to be his celebrated production of Shakespeare's, Julius Caesar. Overnight, Welles became the toast of Broadway, paving the way for his illustrious film career.

RADA-trained newcomer, Christian McKay, puts in a stunning performance as the despotic and tyrannical Welles, while Zac Efron, the heart-throb from the High School Musical franchise, gets to flex his serious acting muscles as Richard Samuels, a teenager who manages to talk his way into a minor role. The film follows the theatrical troupe over one week in which time Richard makes his Broadway debut, finds romance with an ambitious, older woman and experiences the dark side of genius after daring to cross the imperious Welles.

"The dialogue was very special," says Claire, looking every inch the Hollywood star in a designer blue dress, all flowing blonde hair and flawless skin. "It's very rare to find writing of this quality. It's very witty and engaging and I had a lot of fun with those Thirties slang words, that kooky vernacular."

In the film, Claire plays Sonja Jones, the ambitious production assistant who Richard, and every other male, falls head over heels in love with.

"I thought the scenes were very tender," she says of working with Efron. "Zac's amazing. I was really delighted to discover how fine an actor he is, it's true. And he can move very well. We took some dancing lessons for a brief scene in the dance hall and that was very humbling. Zac was a much quicker study than I was, he's a very coordinated guy!"

As for her character, there's no doubting Sonja's dogged ambition. "She's very forthright about that, unapologetically so," says Claire. "She's very critical of others and she doesn't ever see her own weaknesses but I also think she think she's very charming and although she wants to succeed, she doesn't want to tear anyone down in the process."

As for whether Claire can relate to such ambition, she pauses for a moment before smiling and saying: "I've always been pretty focused but maybe not as driven as she is.

"I've always known I wanted to act and that provided a clarity which I feel almost undeserving of. That almost makes it easier to have such a clear idea of what you'd like," she adds.

Claire first came to public attention as Angela Chase in the 1994 teenage TV drama series, My So Called Life. Her performance won her a Golden Globe Award and proved to be the platform she needed to make the leap to the big screen. Over the next four years she went on to forge a successful Hollywood career, starring in films such as Baz Luhrmann's ground-breaking Romeo + Juliet opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Oliver Stone's, U-Turn and Francis Ford Coppola's, The Rainmaker.

The fact she appears so grounded despite her immense success is she says, down to taking time out from Hollywood in 1998 and enrolling on a psychology course at Yale University.

"I took a lot of time off and went back to school and back to college and really kind of defined myself in that safe environment outside of the business. I think that was really good for me."

Having grown up in New York, where she now lives with her husband of two months, the actor Hugh Dancy, she adds, "I've had the same friends since I was three and I think that's a good foundation."

After two years, Claire decided to leave Yale and re-establish her film career and has since starred in the likes of Brokedown Palace, The Hours, Shop Girl and Star Dust. As for her favourite project, she takes a moment to consider before saying: "It's hard... I mean it's funny because the things that people have appreciated over time tend to be the things that I'm reminded of and return to and settle on as being good."

Although she marks U-Turn out as a "weird and cool" experience, she adds, "The things that have excited people the most are My So Called Life and Romeo + Juliet and Shop Girl, so I guess those are the things that were most successful because they resonated the loudest and longest."

She also fondly recalls her theatrical Broadway debut in 2007 as Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion.

"I finished that just before I did Me and Orson Welles, so I felt a little awkward suddenly being on a film set again. I'd kind of got out of the habit of working in that way."

Critical opinion of her Pygmalion performance was polarised but Claire says she tends to shy away from reading her reviews.

"I think it's generally a good idea not to [read them] because they're not written for you or for your benefit as the artist, so it's just not very useful. The general vibe usually seeps through though."

Instead, Claire mentions the "wonderful relief" it was to discover she liked theatre as well as film. "It kind of expanded the horizons," she says.

Having now filmed Me and Orson Welles, how does she think she would have coped with being directed by a man like Orson Welles, a mercurial genius with an eye for an attractive woman?

She laughs before saying: "He was brazen and a little insensitive but he was also incredibly specific about what he wanted and perceptive about the actors and any direction that is that astute is very helpful."

Then she pauses.

"I'd like to think I would have responded well. I don't ever feel combative with my directors, I need them. I get very anxious when a director's not really making himself very available."

But that's not to presume Claire doesn't assert herself if required.

Asked how she thinks she's changed since those early days on My So Called Life, she says, "I probably feel a lot more comfortable asking for things I need when working on a project.

"I used to worry that was a sign of arrogance and now I know it's a sign of responsibility and maturity," she adds.