Julia Stiles: The Latest Stiles

Who put Hollywood on notice with her uncanny love of humanity and good old romantic love?


Julia Stiles has a face as wide open as the ocean. Sometimes her features seem calm and welcoming, other times they turn distant and cold. Especially the eyes--born and raised in Manhattan, Stiles knows how to look right through you. "I learned it early," she says proudly. "By the time I was 10, I could walk around by myself and no one would bother me because I had on my killer look." Seated in a downtown New York restaurant (near the apartment she shares with her parents and three siblings), Stiles demonstrates the transformation for me, changing from a gorgeous 19-year-old to a New York hard case in a matter of seconds. "You see?" she says, going back to adorable. " My parents' friends used to give them a hard time about raising us kids in the city. They'd tell them we needed a backyard to play in. Well, that's bullshit, because I learned how to create a backyard in my head."

It's nice to know that Stiles has parents. She was so self-possessed in her best known film, 10 Things I Hate About You, it seemed like she'd been deposited, fully formed, right onto the screen. Stiles has known since forever that she wanted to be an actress. When she was 11, she wrote a letter to the head of the famed La Mama Theater requesting an audition, and within months, she was performing in avant-garde plays, most of which she didn't understand. Soon she began to get small parts in movies (she was Harrison Ford's daughter in The Devil's Own) and even got the lead in the stylish indie Wicked. Stiles remembers those years as a time of rejection and soul searching. Her parents ("hippies who worried to death about me but are now so proud") kept telling her she could just stop and save herself from agonies like getting close to a part and then losing it, but she kept at it. The payoff was winning a starring role in the NBC miniseries The '60s and the lead in the popular (especially on video) 10 Things I Hate About You an updated, high school version of The Taming of the Shrew. After that she seemed to work nonstop. She starred opposite Freddie Prinze Jr. in the love story Down to You. She played Ophelia opposite Ethan Hawke in the updated film version of Hamlet. She'll be seen as "Desi" (the Desdemona character) in the updated film version of Othello (titled O) this fall and she'll appear in David Mamet's ensemble film State and Main in the winter. Next month she stars in the interracial love story Save the Last Dance. For a teenager, Stiles seems to have chosen her scripts especially well, and she brings a sophistication to her work that is often far beyond the material. When I tell her this, she is literally speechless. "Really?" she finally says, for the first time sounding her age.

So what will Stiles do as a follow-up to this whirlwind year she's had? Try theater? Tackle a grown-up role? No, she's going to college in New York this fall and plans to take classes in English, anthropology and Latin American studies. "I can't wait," she gushes. "Classes, papers to write, studying all night..." She makes this sound like a dream come true.

"Won't that stuff be kind of a letdown after the rush of stardom?" I ask.

Stiles waves the notion aside. "Believe me, I'm so excited about living in the dorm, about being around kids my own age, about making friends that will be around for awhile. I can always make movies in the summer."

If you think I'm gonna burst her bubble, think again. "What are you reading now?" I ask instead.

"I just finished a book called Life After God by Douglas Coupland. The weird thing is that I tried to read it in Spanish, because I'd been in Costa Rica. I'm not sure if got it all." Stiles says this as if it's the most normal thing in the world.

I decide to stick to movies. "Having played Ophelia, in Hamlet," I say, "what kind of psychotropic drugs do you think they'd have her on if she was alive today?"

Stiles laughs. "They'd put her on antidepressants, definitely. Yes, Prozac for Ophelia. But I think she'd have an eating disorder, too, because she's so quiet and into herself I imagine her sitting in her room, taking diet pills and vomiting."

"Can you relate to that?"

"You'll never find me vomiting in my room," says Stiles. "My mom has really helped me with that. I have contempt for all the bullshit that's put on young girls, and I hate how self-absorbed young girls can become. I'm a victim of it, too, bur we get so worried about how we seem to other people, and that seems like a bourgeois problem to me, I was with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. The people there work hard just to have three meals a day. To know that there are girls here who forte-feed themselves and then puke--well, it's just an invented problem."

Since I've drawn out the tough Julia, I decide to try to get the sweet Julia back. "You worked with Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You, who went on to costar with Mel Gibson in The Patriot. Were you surprised to see that?"

"I knew Heath was going to do great," she says, smiling. "He is so sexy. He's quick and funny, which was perfect for 10 Things. We got along really well. And I was very relaxed on that shoot, because I knew my character inside and out. We sparred a lot and laughed even more. Heath is very much his own person. He's very confident and I loved that he never seemed fragile."

"Then you costarred with Freddie Prinze Jr. in Down to You, which didn't do as well. What did you think of Freddie?"

"He's so down-to-earth and into being uncool that it's really charming. He's also a serious, skilled actor and I wish that people could see that more. Because of his teen-icon status some people dismiss him."

"Your new film, Save the Last Dance, is a love story between a ballet dancer and a hip-hop star. Is it sort of like Flashdance for a new generation?"

Stiles thinks for a few minutes. It's possible she's never seen Flashdance. "Different kinds of dance represent different cultures. My character comes from a very privileged upper-middle-class background and she's a ballet dancer. Her mother dies and she goes to live in the south side of Chicago, which is the ghetto, with her dad who hasn't really been in her life. And at first she feels very alienated, because she's the only white girl in a pretty much all black or Latino school, but then she meets this guy who's also really into dance--hip-hop--and he teaches her about being more comfortable and loose."

"Yup," I nod. "It's Flashdance without the ripped sweatshirt."

"I felt like it was truthful to my generation. Things have changed in the past decade. We're more PC, more aware..."

"Being PC is a good thing?" I practically shriek.

"You know, I wish I could be on 'Politically Incorrect.' Because Bill Maher basically dismisses teenagers, and I think I could give my generation a good name."

I don't think she answered my question, but no matter. I have other things to discuss with her. Like, who would she like to work with? "Reese Witherspoon. Wouldn't we make the most perfect sisters on-screen? And Jude Law, because he's so sexy I could cry."

"Have you ever done a nude scene?"

"No. I did one love scene in O, where it's all Othello's psychological imaginings and it's implied that I'm naked, but you don't see any T&A. It comes up, of course it does, and it's not so much that I'm against it, but I won't do it if it's to make up for the lack of an interesting scene, or if it's just titillating."

"Janeane Garofalo told me that maybe the only good thing about not being considered a sex symbol is that no one ever asks her to take off her clothes."

"That's just so sick. I think she is one of the best, funniest people out there. What does that say? That basically an actress's job is to be a prostitute? You have to be fuckable and then they'll hire you?" Stiles actually looks surprised.

"Are you eager now to take on adult roles?"

"I think it'll have to be kind of gradual. I'm at the age where I'm not completely an adult yet, so I can't go up against Heather Graham or whoever else is in that age range. But there are degrees. There are teen films that take place in high school, and then there are movies where I would have to play a character who's my age, but with more going on. The next movie that I'm doing before I start school in the fall is called The Business of Strangers with Stockard Charming and I'm playing somebody who's out of college. It's a lot more intelligent than your typical high school movie."

"Because this is the 'Love Issue' of Movieline," I tell Stiles, "I want to finish up by asking you some love questions."

She tells me she'd rather not talk specifically about her 10 Things costar Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whom she dated for a year until they broke up last year, but she's happy to discuss the whole subject of love.

"What was your first real date like?"

"My first real date?" she repeats a few times. "I didn't really date anyone, that's what's sad. It was that group thing, which was really confusing. It seems like guys have a little more control, because they don't have to commit to dating a girl. You can just be sort of seeing each other, and the lines between having a casual hookup as opposed to a serious relationship are unclear. I learned that the guy always pays attention to the girl that he doesn't like, because it's easier. The first guy that I ever really dated ... it consisted of going to his house and watching movies. He didn't take me out to dinner or anything close."

"Is it better to have loved and lost, or never to have loved at all?"

Stiles smiles. "It's better to have loved and lost," she answers. "I believe in all kinds of experiences, but love above all others."

"What's the best part of a relationship--the beginning, when everything you say seems magical and deep, or later, when you get to know each other?"

"I think the later part is much better, because that's the true test. You've crossed over from that goofy stage where you try to present yourself in the best light all the time, and you get to the point where you can finish each other's sentences. The true test of a relationship is traveling together. My boyfriend and I went all across America and Europe one summer, going to concerts..."

"You weren't on the Phish tour, were you?" I ask.

Stiles actually blushes. "We weren't really following them, but we did go to a few Phish shows. We also saw Ani DiFranco a couple of times. But anyway, when you can spend every waking moment with each other and fight and then make up, I think it's really nice." She pauses, and goes on in a more serious tone, "It's also great to have a companion. That's the thing I miss the most."

Just as I'm thinking this line of questioning is going to make her cry, Stiles starts giggling, "What I'd really like is to have a relationship with someone who lives in the same city I do. To not be on the road all the time. Trust me, that's one of the reasons I'm going to college."

I can't tell if Stiles is kidding or not with that last remark. Probably she isn't, but it's too late to find out. She's already putting on her New York face in preparation for going back out onto the streets. She says goodbye with the transformation complete and heads out the door, the postmodern Hollywood ingenue and the college freshman both hidden behind her don't-mess-with-me Manhattan mask.


Martha Frankel interviewed Barry Pepper for the June issue of Movieline. Check out more about Martha Frankel here.

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