Alicia Silverstone almost landed the lead as Angela Chase in the My So-Called Life, but producer Marshall Herskovitz felt she was “too pretty” for the role.
Silverstone, who was 16 and “emancipated,” auditioned for the role first, and co-producer Ed Zwick said, “It’s done. Just cast her.” But in profile of Claire Danes for The New Yorker, Herskovitz said that the Clueless actress’ beauty didn’t fit in with some of the themes the series explored, including drug addiction, binge drinking, homosexuality, and promiscuity.
“Alicia is so beautiful that that would have affected her experience of the world. People would have been telling her she was beautiful since she was six years old,” Herskovitz said. “You can’t put that face in what’s been written for this girl.”
Casting director Linda Lowy suggested Danes, then 13, be allowed to audition before a decision was made.
“From the minute she walked in the room, Claire was chilling, astounding, and silent,” Lowy said. “There was so much power coming out of her without her doing much.”
One of the first scenes Danes read required her to cry. It was a bathroom breakup scene with Angela’s best friend, Sharon (Devon Odessa), who asked Angela what she did wrong.
“We get to that line and Claire’s face turns entirely red,” Herskovitz said. “Her body starts to vibrate and tears come into her eyes. You realize that she’s having a physical experience that is beyond acting.”
After Danes left, Lowy said, “No one could really speak.”
It helped that Danes had what writer Winnie Holzman wanted, the ability to transform her face from beautiful to ordinary in the blink of an eye. But choosing Claire Danes over Alicia Silverstone meant changing the script to accommodate her schedule.
“We turned to Winnie,” Herskovitz said. “Winnie said, ‘Let’s change the nature of the show.'” Claire Danes got the part, and won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a television series drama for the role.
The series ran for only one 19-episode season from August 1994 to January 1995, but has been named one of the best TV shows of all time by Time magazine. TV Guide also ranked the series #16 on its list of 25 Top Cult Shows Ever. In 2013, it ranked #2 on their list of 60 shows that were canceled too soon.