It didn’t take her long, but teen sensation Julia Stiles is one of Hollywood’s major new stars. With a number of high-profile projects, a variety of magazine covers, and a spot on Teen People’s 1999 The 21 Hottest Stars Under 21 list under her belt, actress Julia Stiles has come a remarkably long way in a very short time.
Born March 28, 1981, in New York City, Stiles was interested in performing from a very young age. When she was 11 years old, she wrote a letter to a Manhattan theatre director asking to be cast in a production, and was soon acting onstage in avant-garde plays at both the La Mama and Kitchen Theatres. In 1996, Stiles made her film debut with a small part in I Love You, I Love You Not and, the following year, had her television debut in the Oprah Winfrey Presents: Before Women Had Wings, in which she played an abused child. The same year, she made a brief appearance as Harrison Ford’s daughter in The Devil’s Own and followed this with roles in two 1998 films, Wide Awake and the Sundance entry Wicked.
1999 proved to be Stiles’ breakthrough year, as she played a prominent part in the television miniseries The ’60s and the lead role in 10 Things I Hate About You, the latest film to mine gold and product endorsements out of William Shakespeare. The film was a hit and Stiles was soon being heralded as one of the Hottest Young Things of her generation, a label cemented by the box office hit, Save the Last Dance. Stiles then appeared in 2 more contemporary takes on Shakespeare: Ophelia in Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, and the controversial ‘O’, a provocative retelling of Othello. In her latest film, The Business of Strangers, Stiles delivers her finest and most mature performance to date, a chilling drama co-starring Stockard Channing. Following the film’s US premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Stiles talked to Paul Fischer.
Question: Julia, correct me if I’m wrong, but Business of Strangers is the first film of yours you had where you were not in your teen years?
Answer: Yes, that’s true except for the one I’m shooting now.
Question: How challenging was it for you to play that older character?
Answer: It was only really challenging in terms of the physical transformation. I wanted to make sure that when we chose the tattoos, my wardrobe, and we changed my hair a little bit, that I looked older, but in terms of what you call acting, I wasn’t concerned with that, because of the anonymity of the situation, she had the tendency to be anybody, as long as she’s in her surroundings, and being around other people who were just out of college, or around people who she’s working with, so I felt like it would be more a little more believable.
Question: You seem to do some of your best work in Indie films. Is it as difficult to find those characters in more mainstream films?
Answer: It’s difficult, yeah. What was great about Business of Strangers, is that I think when I’ve done mainstream films, I’ve learned to maybe back away from being so – how do I say this? What Patrick reminded every day on the set, was not to be ashamed to be as blunt as this character is, and I think I’ve learned that from doing mainstream movies, so it was nice to be learning that.
Question: Is there a conscious effort on your part to balance mainstream with independent roles or do you just take good roles as they come along?
Answer: It’s both. I mean I do want to do both mainstream and independent films but it’s more about what is good, and I don’t really care about how much money is behind the movie or what I get paid.
Question: How surprised were you that Save the Last Dance was this remarkable hit and having that success alter the industry’s perceptions of you?
Answer: Well, I mean it helped me a lot certainly, and it DID exceed my expectations because I like to keep my expectations about commercial success, relatively low, because I have no way of predicting, especially that, the market place or how people would respond to the movie, so I was totally happy when it did well and it’s helped me a lot. I feel that I can make more choices and I just like working.
Question: Even though you’re sort of moving out of that kind of teen film, you always seem to have the admiration of little girls, and yet you seem almost too smart sometimes for the teen roles you play, and you seem to be a very knowing person, and that. How do you figure that is, they admire you but yet your kind of playing above them a little bit?
Answer: I don’t think it’s playing above them. I guess teens that I talk to get it. You know, I think they’re generally a little more knowing than we expect to. I think that’s what they find refreshing about me.
Question: What about this affinity you’ve had with William Shakespeare, three Shakespeare films; I mean two contemporised versions and Hamlet. Are you surprised that you have suddenly become more identified now with Shakespeare?
Answer: I’m glad you asked me that. The Shakespeare trilogy, I guess, was like any choice that I make in the work that I do. It’s just what interests me and it’s not really a calculated plan. Each project comes to me separately and I take each project on its own merits and for different reasons. it’s not like I planned to do three Shakespeare movies; it’s not as calculated. Even with Business of Strangers, after Save the Last Dance, I was looking for something different from the character that I played in Last Dance, but it was more because I just wanted to feel stimulated when I went to work.
Question: Were you disappointed that ‘O’ took so long to get released in the US and that you had to end up promoting ‘O’ as well as Business of Strangers, even though ‘O’ was made quite some time ago?
Answer: Yeah, you know it’s weird because it SEEMS like I’ve just been on automatic drive doing movie after movie after movie and that’s really not what has happened. I’ve taken time off and have done other things, and it’s just that all of these movies seem to have come out at the same time. Um, but I – yeah, I was surprised it.
Question: I understand you will be resuming your life back in the dorms of the University of Columbia. Are you getting more comfortable with that situation?
Answer: Yeah, it’s gotten a lot better. This year I’ve only had a week of school, but I’m living in a different situation, where I’m with people that I know more and other Columbian students are over it and are not surprised that I’m going there anymore, so it hasn’t been awkward.
Question: If I were a student at Columbia, I would be bothering you every day.
Answer: Maybe I’m just in denial. Of course it’s weird. I mean I have this weird dual life., I remember I had to go to the Video and Music Awards for MTV, and they sent this huge stretch limo that says like ‘MTV Styles in front of it, and they set it outside my dorm room waiting for me. And I’m like: Oh my God. Then I see these sorority girls walk into their house, and they’re like ‘Oh, did you see that superstar Julia Stiles get collected by that limo? So of course, it’s really weird, but mean that’s what I do everyday.
Question: What are you taking in college?
Answer: Right now I’m going to probably major in English and Latin American studies.
Question: why Latin American studies?
Answer: Because I am interested in Latin American history, which I’m taking now, and it was really because I just wanted to keep taking Spanish and I wanted to get credit for it, but not so much Spanish literature, but like I’m more interested in the way of Latin Americans.
Question: Would you do something beyond the degree? I mean if you get in a situation where you’d maybe give up the acting and do something academic or something related to teaching?
Answer: I don’t think so. I mean I think English is actually very relevant to acting, and very relevant to writing and I like doing both. I wouldn’t want to just be in school or just be acting. I like going back and forth because they complement each other very nicely.
Question: You do get paid very nicely for your work. Does that allow you to create a world of complete independence for you, such as putting yourself through college, not dealing with the normality of student loans, etc.
Answer: Well, it will definitely pay for college, and it IS security, certainly. Keep in mind, it’s still a ridiculous amount of money, but after my taxes and payroll, my agents and managers and lawyers and whatever, there is less money than what you see in print.
Question: Is it surreal when you talk about managers, agents, lawyers and all that kind of stuff?
Answer: Yeah, and that is a sort of dependence.