And now, in Shopgirl, which focuses on a highly sexual relationship between a much older man (Martin) and a woman just finding her way into adulthood, Danes is finally tackling that other milestone of young actresses: the nude scene. It's really just a little rump-flashing—getting "literally butt naked," according to Danes—but it passes the actress's personal flesh test: that it's essential to the plot and not "perverse or exploitative or pornographic." And yet Danes can already see the headlines—she's come of age! she's taken her clothes off!—and wants to preempt them: "I'm not more of an adult actor because I've mooned America. I think that's pretty reductive and misleading." Which is not to say it was no big deal for her. "It was not the easiest thing I've done. But they played jazz. That helped," she says. She sighs. "Acting is a humiliating job, from start to finish."

Questions of nudity aside, it is her willingness to reveal so much of her emotional self in her roles that made Danes the first actress that Martin and Shopgirl's director, Anand Tucker, thought of for the role. Neither has any regrets about the choice; they both turn rhapsodic in their compliments, comparing her to Meryl Streep in separate phone interviews. "She's so good, it's that Zen thing—it's not craft anymore," says Tucker. "It's just a beautiful joining of technique and freedom and creativity." Martin is equally effusive: "You'd never think for a moment that she's acting," he says. "If there's any justice in this world, I think she should get an Oscar nomination."

But Danes is not trying to achieve red-carpet ubiquity. Her goal, she says, is to maintain a kind of celebrity equilibrium, where her fame is enough to land her plum roles but not so excessive that the paparazzi force her into house arrest, something that did happen, she says cryptically, "about a year ago." Photographers staked out Danes' apartment, hoping for a shot of her and Crudup canoodling as Parker gave birth to Crudup's son, William, now 21 months old. And though Danes was cast as a home-wrecker—the Angelina Jolie of her own gossip-column soap opera—the moniker never really stuck. No matter how much time goes by, we have a hard time seeing sweet, angst-ridden Angela Chase as the archetypal other woman, claws sunk into someone else's man. Helping to further obfuscate the scandal, none of the principals have ever publicly discussed what happened (in fact, Danes' publicist declared the entire topic of Crudup off-limits before our interview). Danes will not even speak Crudup's name. Ask her, "Do you live with Billy?" and she'll reply, "I live alone," and lapse into silence. If you ask, "What do you and Billy do on weekends?" she'll reply, "What do I do? Well, I..." Ask her whether she and Crudup are thinking about marriage and she pauses for 30 seconds or so before saying, slowly, "I feel very accepting of what I have right now. Yeah. I'm kind of not desiring anything else."