Danes' father was born in Austin, Texas, in 1944 and, after studying Biology and Civil Engineering at Brown University, received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design (1968), where he studied with Harry Callahan.

Danes played a teenage murderer in a guest starring role on Law & Order in the season three episode "Skin Deep." She appeared in an episode of HBO's Lifestories: Families in Crisis entitled "The Coming out of Heidi Leiter".

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From 1998 to 2000, Danes attended Yale University before dropping out to return to acting.

She appeared in an Off-Broadway production of The Vagina Monologues in 2000, and made her Broadway debut playing Eliza Doolittle in the 2007 revival of Pygmalion.

Danes' mother was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1945 and has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Education from Rhode Island School of Design (1967), an Associate of Applied Science in Textile Design from Fashion Institute of Technology (1971), a master's degree in Early Childhood Education from Hunter College (1987), and a Master of Fine Arts from Otis College of Art and Design (2002).

During Danes' childhood her mother ran a small toddler day-care center called Danes Tribe out of the family's So Ho loft to supplement her work as a painter and textile designer, and later served as Danes' manager.

In 2010, Danes starred in the HBO production of Temple Grandin, a biopic about the eponymous woman with autism.

She won the 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, the 2011 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film and the 2011 Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries award. She is the recipient of three Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards.In 2012, Time named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015.Danes gained recognition with her role as Angela Chase in the acclaimed 1994 teen drama series My So-Called Life.The role won her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.In 2007, she appeared in the fantasy Stardust, which she described as a "classic model of romantic comedy".