Claire Danes is mortified. She is hustling up Thompson Street in New York, head down, forehead wrinkled in worry, arms pumping, flip-flops flipping and flopping at a staccato pace. When she arrives at the sidewalk café up the block, there is a sheen of sweat adorning her porcelain complexion. She's late. She collapses into a chair and pulls back her hair, which is blonder and longer than usual. It's dirty, she tells you—she hasn't showered since yesterday and she's been on a Vespa all day. She had the wrong time for dinner. She had to run here. "And now I smell," she says. "I'm late and I smell."

Crossing the 60-minute tardy barrier is unusual for Danes, though she does cop to being a "consistently seven-minutes-late person. And it's just excusable enough to never be resolved. But it's bad enough to dog me personally and maintain this kind of low-grade anxiety. God, I mean, it's probably very deep, whatever it is." She puts her head in her hands. "I'm very vulnerable right now!" she says. "There's not much lower I could go!"

In fact, Danes' trajectory has been consistently upward. From her breakout role as Angela Chase in the 1994 Gen Y drama series My So-Called Life to her current performance opposite Steve Martin in this month's Shopgirl, the film based on Martin's novel of the same name, Danes, 26, has held our attention quietly, saying more in a single gaze than many actresses can in a soliloquy. In the flesh, however, Danes is more like a Woody Allen heroine: self-flagellating, sensitive, neurotic. You know those Woody Allen characters who speak as if they got an 800 on their verbal SAT? And you say, "Come on, who talks like that?" Claire Danes does.

Danes earned her status as a New York type: She's the daughter of two artists and grew up in a SoHo loft. She started acting at age 6, playing a duck—not in a cutesy-wutesy school pageant but in an avant-garde production involving stilt-walkers. She enjoyed atypical preteen independence, hanging out with a cadre of other preternaturally accomplished friends (including Julia Stiles and designer Zac Posen). But the absence of overweening parental supervision had its price: "I was chased a few times by men trying to feel me or molest me, she says. "I was flashed constantly. I mean, I can't tell you, men would be jerking off, they would come. It was constant. So I was angry, because I was subjected to a lot of harassment and abuse at that age. And I was alone in the city a lot."

Since then, Danes has grown up very publicly, appearing in 20 films (ranging from Little Women to Terminator 3), entering and dropping out of Yale (she missed acting too much), and even experiencing a brush with tabloid infamy two years ago, when her Stage Beauty costar and current boyfriend, actor Billy Crudup, left his seven-months-pregnant girlfriend of seven years, Mary-Louise Parker, allegedly for Danes.