From director Silas Howard (who has directed episodes of Transparent, This is Us and Pose), the family drama A Kid Like Jake follows Brooklyn parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons), whose bright and highly creative son Jake just happens to prefer Disney princesses and skirts to toy cars and jeans. And while Jake’s “gender expansive” behavior is no big deal to his parents, his gender non-conformity does seem to play a role in the process of navigating New York City’s hyper-competitive private school system, leaving Alex and Greg split in their opinions on how to handle the situation and determine what’s right for their kid. The film also stars Octavia Spencer, Priyanka Chopra and Ann Dowd.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Emmy Award-winning actress Claire Danes talked about why she wanted to be a part of telling this particular story, how A Kid Like Jake seems so light and fuzzy compared to her Showtime TV series Homeland, what a joy it was to work with co-star Jim Parsons, why this set was a pinch me moment, every day, and what the vibe on set was like, with the story centered around such a young child. She also talked about how her pregnancy will allow the writers of Homeland to have more time to figure out how to wrap up the series with Season 8, and the mixed emotions in saying goodbye to a character that she’s played for so long.
Collider: I thought this was such a beautifully told, completely human story.
CLAIRE DANES: Oh, thank you very much!
You work so hard on Homeland, for a big chunk of your year, that I would imagine you get really picky about what you do in your time between seasons. So, what was it that made you want to be a part of telling this particular story?
DANES: Well, it was just a beautiful script. It’s not all that often that you find a script where the characters are this nuanced, the language is this beautifully crafted, and the dialogue was so musical and authentic. It was a play, originally, and I think it was adapted really beautifully, with scenes that are so dialogue rich. You just have lots of time to spend with characters talking and being with each other. That was very appealing. And I, of course, happen to be a New York mom with a four-year-old son, or he was four, at the time, and I’d just gone through that gauntlet of applying to schools in New York City. That is, unfortunately, all very true. That’s pretty specific to this culture, but there’s obviously this idea about gender norms, and conforming or not conforming. I just thought it was a really wonderful portrait of a family and a marriage, and I thought it was really interesting that these heady ideas that are so politically charged are explored in such a human, intimate way. I invited a bunch of my friends to the premiere, and they were yelling at me afterwards because I had told them that it was a comedy. Compared to Homeland, it seemed so light and fuzzy. They were like, “You really misrepresented this. You smile sometimes, but I don’t think we can safely say that that’s what this is.” I still think there are really fantastic comedic elements, but it’s a little more complex.
I loved how real and honest the relationship between this couple is. You can tell that they love and they care about each other, but they also drive each other nuts, which seems pretty natural.
DANES: Yeah, I think they’re just scared. It’s a really interesting time for a family, when the child turns five. I think of it as an exiting of Eden. You’re safe in your little bubble until you’re jettisoned out into the world and are subject to all of these labels and categorization and evaluation. It can be really intimidating and shocking. People often panic, even when there isn’t some overwhelmingly obvious issue at play. It’s unnerving to send your kid off into the world.
What was it like to also have someone like Jim Parsons to explore this with? What did you learn about him, as an actor, from working with him?
DANES: Oh, he’s the best! I talked about the writing when you first asked me about what drew me to the project, but I also knew that I’d get to play that beautiful language with Jim, who is so deft with all that stuff. He’s so technically proficient, but also has so much soul. That’s really unusual, and it was such a joy to get to work with him.
You share scenes with some pretty incredible women in this film, from Octavia Spencer to Priyanka Chopra to the absolutely lovely Ann Dowd. What are the memories that you took away from working with those women?
DANES: Oh, every one was wonderful! It was a pinch me moment, every day, going to work with the caliber of talent. Everybody was so lovely. This was not a money gig. We were there because we all really loved the story. Ann Dowd is just a dynamo. She’s an improvisational virtuoso. It was really fun to just field this barrage of passive-aggressiveness. Priyanka is just so charming and so kind. Octavia is obviously just insanely good at what she does. She’s so present, and she’s very generous and alive. It made my job very easy.
What was it like to have Silas Howard as the director, especially when you’re working with a child? How did the vibe on set feel?
DANES: Oh, it was loose, especially with a kid. There was a big question about how to film Jake because, in the play, he’s not featured, at all. In the movie, we really needed to introduce him, as a character, because it would have been very weird, if he wasn’t present, at all. I think the focus really was always meant to be on everybody around Jake. They’re in a tailspin, but he’s fine. So, they were just careful about shooting him directly. There was just always a fabric around him, or they’d shoot him from surprising angles or from behind. We just played and improvised, and the DP was always moving his camera around and just collected a lot of raw material that they would make sense of in post-production. I had a four-year-old, who’s five now. My son, Cyrus, came to set a lot and got to be friends with Leo [James Davis], who played Jake. I was so much in the habit of playing with a boy that age that it wasn’t a stretch for me. In fact, Cyrus and Leo, and I would be playing Duck, Duck, Goose, in between takes. The cameras could have just been constantly rolling.
This is a delicate story that’s so beautifully told. I really loved the feeling of just acceptance that the movie leaves you with, and the feeling that this kid is going to be okay.
DANES: Yeah, without being maudlin or cute, which I was glad for. Not everybody is gonna be okay, and I love that, too. All of the characters are clearly well-intentioned, loving, and decent, and they falter in their fear, which is unavoidable. They hurt each other because they’re desperate. To be with them through that ugliness, move with them, and arrive on the other side, is really beautiful.
You recently said that Season 8 of Homeland would be the last. Have you talked about an ideal ending for the series?
DANES: Oh, gosh! I have no idea. The writers don’t know. And now, I’m pregnant, so we start a little later than we would have, normally. They have a little more time to dream it up, so we shall see. Your guess is as good as anybody’s.
Does it seem like a scary thing to say goodbye to a character like that, that you’ve played for so long, or is it a combination of scary and exciting?
DANES: Yeah, I think it’s a combination. That was also a nice thing to talk to Jim about. He’s on a very different kind of television show, but also a very long-running one. We were on our respective hiatuses, about to start our penultimate seasons, and were already starting to brace ourselves for that. It’s such a specific experience. There aren’t that many people that you can that that through with. I think it’s gonna be a mixed experience, for sure.
A Kid Like Jake is in select theaters on June 1st.