The Bard's babe
New York (CNN) -- Hollywood is crammed with them, those blandly cute and wholesomely charming teen actresses. Even the most die-hard fans would have a tough time picking Rachel Blanchard and Rachael Leigh Cook out of a teen queen lineup.
They're like daisies, fresh and dewy and decidedly alike.
So it's refreshing to stumble across a Julia Stiles, something of a prickly cactus amid all the blossoms.
She's a young woman who's tackled William Shakespeare three times on the big screen. At the cusp of the teen-film craze, she's cutting back on her acting to attend college. And -- perhaps most astonishing -- she fearlessly confesses her fondness for one of the most crassly commercial, patently un-hip of today's music sensations.
"I actually like Britney Spears," Stiles pronounces. "Especially in comparison to the other female pop stars.... She seems so much stronger and more independent than Mandy Moore."
The same adjectives could apply to Stiles, 19. She kicked off 1999 playing a good girl gone bad -- and then good again -- in the NBC miniseries The 60s. The same year, she broke through as the prematurely cynical, permanently cantankerous Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, the teen-centric re-telling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.
And now, on the heels of the critically trashed romantic comedy Down To You -- Entertainment Weekly dismissed it as the "dreckiest of teen puppy courtships" -- Stiles rebounds by playing the doomed Ophelia in Hamlet, the latest updated adaptation of the Bard's plays to hit theaters. The film, starring Ethan Hawke in the title role, opens May 12.
Hawke, for one, has confidence in his co-star, regardless of her tender years. "She's very bright," he says. "She doesn't need any advice. I just told her to not to forget to enjoy it."
Stiles seems to be listening. The one aspect of show business that really bugs her, she says, "is how bitter some people can be. When I first started to realize that, it shocked me."
Yet in a one-on-one interview, she comes across as anything but a wide-eyed innocent. She's confident and contemplative, someone who says that if showbiz doesn't work out, she may relocate to Costa Rica and work as a counselor.
Career aside, Stiles also is a college freshman, taking classes at a major university that her publicist asks not be named. But much of her learning has taken place outside of a traditional classroom, Stiles says.
"I really like studying people," she says. "Acting is like therapy for me -- that I get to change my personality and draw on emotions that I've experienced."
She's all that
Stiles picked up acting when her contemporaries were just starting to drop their Barbie infatuations. Raised on The Breakfast Club, early John Cusack films and other hormonal staples, Stiles heard stage's call early on. At the august age of 11, she sent a self-promoting letter to a stage director, which convinced him to hire her for an avant-garde theater production. Thus did she launch her career.
"I watched The Honeymooners and thought it would be the coolest job," Stiles says. "But I never really expected that I would be successful at it."
She should have set her expectations higher. Stiles these days is on a star track defined by press junkets and talk-show appearances. It all happened so quickly, too.
In 1997, Stiles left the stage for the big screen, portraying Harrison Ford's daughter in The Devil's Own; the same year, she played an abused daughter in the television movie Before Women Had Wings. Then, in 1998, the actress got noticed in Wicked, a black comedy that featured her as a character whose angelic looks belied a devilish nature.
That role apparently spoke to her. Since then, she's demonstrated a penchant for darker parts with a headier content than the fizzy soda-pop films so many of her contemporaries favor.
"A lot of times I play a character who's either the way I would want to be, or different enough from my personality that I'm not playing myself," says Stiles. "I want to do things that are dark and serious."
Perhaps that's why Stiles likes Shakespeare so much. In addition to her role in the playwright-influenced 10 Things, and her portrayal in the soon-to-be-released Hamlet, Stiles also will be seen in O, opening later this year. That's O as in Othello. She could be known as the Bard's babe.
It's all coincidence, she insists.
"Shakespeare's writing is so compelling and so timely," she says. "It seems to me that classic writers were better schooled and knew what would make for a good drama. But it wasn't a calculated thing. Each of these movies came to me individually."
But unlike the deliberative women she generally chooses to play, Stiles says she actually has a lighter side, albeit one seen by few outside her inner circle.
"A lot of times people take me way too seriously," she muses. "I'm really kind of silly and goofy, and I guess I don't reveal that to people until I get to know them."
Hence, says Stiles, comedy is calling her name -- not that she has any desire to be a sexy sidekick a la Felicity Shagwell, thank you very much.
"I would have a lot more fun playing Austin Powers than I would have playing one of his ladies," she laughs.
Article by Donna Freydkin
Originally published at CNN.com - Posted on May 4, 2000