Manhattan File - January - February 2000

 10 things we love about Julia Stiles 

Well, It's way more than that, but we stopped counting. Helen Eisenbach introduces an 18-year-old screen ingénue who's about to steal your heart.

Julia Stiles is reading David Mamet. "He said something that has been ringing in my ears: 'In Hollywood everyone is treated like a commodity, but you work really, really hard to one day be treated like a valuable commodity," she says. "That's sort of what my last year has been like."

Julia Stiles could break your heart

She's sweet and shy and radiantly lovely, sort of a coltish young Jane Fonda crossed with Dominique Sanda -- but with "a New York City kind of guard." She's just flown in from Chicago for her first week off in eons, and if she'd rather be sleeping or catching up with friends or "going on a movie binge," instead she's rushing to meet a stranger -- pink-faced from the cold, her hair still damp from the shower -- to talk about the oddities of modern life. She's the kind of girl who's so upset at being 15 minutes late for an appointment that she spends two hours with you to make up for it, even if it makes her late for her next meeting. She's 18 years old: a perfect Manhattan blend of innocence and wisdom, "hyper-critical" of herself but eager to please others, a wholesome girl next door.

She also happens to be the star of five movies waiting to come out this year.

Here are some things I learned about Julia Stiles

She's the child of parents who remember Woodstock fondly, who make their living in ceramics, who exposed their kids to theater early but have little use for stardom, who raised them in SoHo "before it becomes pretentious," and who still live where she grew up.

She's direct and open ("sometimes to my detriment, I am so not the kind of person who sugarcoats"), and if some people don't appreciate that in a woman, she's as worried about offending them as she is determined not to be weak. She's going to Columbia this year, majoring in liberal arts like any number of precocious New York kids with angel faces and city skills, and if she isn't ashamed of being an actress, she hopes it won't make the other students "hostile" towards her.

When she was little, she wanted to be "everything from a teacher to a lawyer to a politician -- even a stewardess at one point." During her senior year of high school, she wrote a paper on sexual taboos against women about, she says, "people being afraid of women being sexually powerful" (she still isn't completely satisfied she made all her points).

She's hobnobbed with the likes of Harrison Ford, Bill Murray, and Brad Pitt, but the only person she's ever been starstruck by is a musician, the personal and political Ani DiFranco. She strives (apologetically) never to talk about her private life after seeing Oprah confront Matt Damon with a clip of himself talking about his breakup with Minnie Driver. When she saw it, she thought, "Note to self..." Though "normally a very assertive person," she's always "afraid people are going to think I'm being a prima donna."

The fact is, Julia Stiles is about as far from a prima donna as any movie-star-beautiful, talented-and-wise-beyond-her-years, already-famous actress in her teens could possibly be.

Here's what I learned about Julia Stiles's acting career

When she was 10, inspired by a local experimental theater company's work, she wrote its founder a letter "with all these pictures of me playing dress-up," asking if perhaps they had any potential for future roles for a child actor. "Because I was 10, I didn't have the voice in my head saying, 'You shouldn't send this letter, it might be embarrassing.'"

Soon young Julia was making her debut in "a really weird avant-garde play," spoofing 1940s jungle movies and lip-synching to pre-recorded lines about cannibalism. She had no idea what she was actually saying at the time. It was perhaps the last time she'd be cast for her innocence.

When she was 12, her mother almost ended Stiles's acting career. Auditioning for films while going through adolescence, young Julia found herself crying hysterically after certain rejections (she really wanted Interview With a Vampire). "My mother said, 'I don't know if I want you to be doing this anymore.' And there was a year in which all I heard was, 'You're really a good actor, but you're not a name so we can't hire you.'"

That would soon change. In her first film role, a little-known Claire Danes picture, Stiles was seen but not heard in flashbacks, cast "because I have the Aryan look," she says dryly. (That it might have been her heartstopping, ethereal beauty doesn't occur to her.) Next came a winning, unsentimental performance at 15 as Harrison Ford's daughter in The Devil's Own, which Stiles credits entirely to the coaching of director Alan Pakula: "When I saw the movie I was like, 'Wooo, that's what I was doing?" Her first lead role, in Wicked as a girl who gets a little too close to her father after her mother's murder, won Stiles festival awards and cult followers, though her chief concern is that the one extant copy of the film is rapidly deteriorating and may be lost to viewers altogether.

Fame hit while she was filming O, Tim Blake Nelson's Othello set in the world of high school basketball, the second in what be Stiles's neo-teen-Shakespeare trilogy (it comes out in May). Thanks to her star turn in the Shrew-ish 10 Things I Hate About You (and TV roles in The 60s and Oprah's When Women Had Wings), Stiles was, seemingly overnight, the girl on everyone's lips, unlike any of the teen starlets crowding the screens, timelessly beautiful, and somehow projecting a charisma, strength, and intelligence beyond her tender years.

Here are some things Julia Stiles will never do

She will never take a role in which "the only thing the girl cares about is the guy." "I've read a lot of ridiculous scripts -- like 90 percent of them -- where the description of the female character is just gross," she says. "I'm all for women being sexy -- especially if the woman is strong, intelligent, and then sexy on top of that. It sends a good message. But when you see a movie where that's all the actress is about... I would never want to play that sort of stupid male fantasy of a sexpot."

She will never let fame change her. "It seems that once actors become superstars, it's harder for them to lose themselves. The scary thing for an actor -- I know it is for me -- is to let fame go to your head."

She will never give in to snobbery about actors' activism. "I'm actually doing something for Planned Parenthood, an organization I'm very glad exists. Whenever I talk to people who are anti-choice, it always comes back to religion. What frustrates me the most is that people are not willing to see or understand the separation of church and state."

She will never forget the role surface charms play in her business. "It's something you want to escape, but you're also relying on it; every actress knows how important it is to look attractive. It's really hard: in order to be a dramatic actress, you have to be a beautiful leading lady, but in order to be comedic, you have to forget about vanity." Which is just what she'd like to do, after reading Wally Lamb's novel She's Come Undone, she decided that it would be fun to play the heroine's role in a fat suit. "Of course, Eddie Murphy can do it in Nutty Professor and be brilliant and hilarious, but if a woman does it" -- she rolls her eyes -- "it would be shocking."

Here are some movies with Julia Stiles which she and countless fans are curiously awaiting

Michael Almereyda's East Village Hamlet, out this month, in which she plays opposite Bill Murray and Ethan Hawke. Down to You, also coming out this month, with Freddie Prinze Jr., an Annie Hall-esque -- "only younger" -- tale of a couple looking back at their first love.

Stiles was experiencing the "complications and beauty" of her own first love, as well as getting an education in the pitfalls of success. "We did scenes in Columbus Circle and there were girls standing outside on their balconies with big posters that said 'We love you, Freddie' -- like he's a Beatle! It's one thing to be a really well-known actor, but also to be sort of a heartthrob..." Still, she doesn't see mob adulation in her future: "It's not really in my nature to be the bombshell. I think I'm in the actor category."

Next comes State and Main about a film company that comes to a small town to make a movie and ends up corrupting it. "Every character in the town is despicable except for the writer," she says brightly. Happy for the chance to make fun of Hollywood and work with David Mamet (who wrote and directed the picture), she found joining the tight-knit troupe, which included Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Macy, and Alec Baldwin, "a very humbling experience."

Save the Last Dance, which she is just completing, chronicles the tale of a sheltered ballet dancer who stumbles across Chicago's hip-hop scene. To prepare for the role, Stiles trained with the Joffrey's choreographer ("he's not like one of those strict French women who yell at you all the time") and performed with its principal dancer ("I was like, Could you make me look any worse?"). About shooting outside at night in Windy City winter, clad only in little skirts, she says it was "all about rushing to the heaters in between takes."

Here are some things Julia Stiles is grateful for, without having to be asked

That she didn't grow up in the suburbs.

That she gets to do films that mirror her own experiences ("acting is definitely therapy").

That she doesn't have to live in L.A. with its focus on appearance "in a very sort of cookie-cutter way."

That opportunity hasn't made her jaded. "I've learned a lot, and I'm continuing to learn. It's just recently that I've come into more success, so I'm appreciating that. I guess I have my cynical side," says Julia Stiles, movies star. "But I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing."

Originally published in the January-February 2000 issue of Manhattan File