Cinema Confidential - August 2001

 Julia Stiles 

Tim Blake Nelson's O was originally scheduled to open over a year ago, but the anticipated release date was delayed when the Columbine incident occurred. Studios felt that the caustic high school drama, which ends with a tragic school shooting, too strongly paralleled the real life Columbine incident to not seem, in some form, exploitative. Of course, the violence in Nelson's film complemented Columbine coincidentally, and took its queue from the most reputable source.

O is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello, updating the original Elizabethan setting to a rich prep school with a triumphant basketball team. Josh Hartnett portrays a version of Shakespeare's jealous and underhanded character, Iago, adapted into the belittled son of the school basketball coach (played by Martin Sheen), while Mekhi Phifer portrays Odin, (a revamped Othello) the only black student and MVP on the school basketball team. Julia Stiles highlights the film as Desi, Odin's loving, but tragically fated girlfriend.

I recently sat down with one of the stars, Julia Stiles, for a tête-à-tête about her respective concerns, viewpoints, and struggles with O.

How have people reacted to your performance in this film?

Last night we had the screening that was a benefit and my 18 year old cousin was there who is a girl, and I asked her what she thought because, in the midst of all of these adults talking about politics and controversy and all that, I just wanted to see what the average normal teenager who grew up in Jersey would think of it, and she said "It was really disturbing," and I felt like that was the greatest compliment ever because what is so disturbing about it is that it's realistic.

You've had your hand in three different versions of Shakespeare adaptations. What's the primary draw, other than that, "It's Shakespeare."

Well, I didn't plan to do different versions of different plays; it wasn't some Machiavellian plan. I took them as very different projects. Ten Things I Hate About You is a loose adaptation, just the plot of Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet does use the old language but in a different setting. Actually, especially with O, (the reason) why I have no objections and I'm certainly intrigued by the idea of doing an original version of a Shakespeare play is that I get more excited at doing an adaptation because it shows how wonderfully written a lot of the plays are, that they bring up such timeless human emotions, and when you get rid of the trappings of 17th century wardrobe and the language that is beautiful and poetic, but not as familiar, you can really get at the heart of what makes Shakespeare's writing great. And I was floored when I read the script of how relevant it is to society today.

Shakespeare imbued his work with a genuine sense of dramatic tension that is markedly different than the "high school melodrama" so typical today. In updating his work to a high school setting, did you ever feel yourself moving towards melodrama, or did the pluses of the revamped script cure you of those worries?

The pluses of the script definitely cured me of those worries and Shakespeare himself has the tendency to steer into melodrama, I think more with a traditional version of it because people have put him up on a pedestal. I think American actors especially have this idea that with Shakespeare there's this special kind of acting, but I felt like the dialogue that was written in the script didn't go down that route, because at least what I find melodramatic in movies is when characters are very self aware and they have more of a running self commentary and I don't think that's in the script at all.

You're going into your second year at Columbia. In the past, you've expressed some concern over your academic life vs. the time it takes to do press promotion. Are you worried that perhaps, your acting career will hinder your education?

Well, I love working, so I'm happy to be working, and it doesn't frighten me. Sometimes, I wish that I could be more in control of my schedule, but at the same time I'm very fortunate to be going to college and to be able to afford it, and I'm very fortunate to be a working actress, so I'm happy to be going back and forth. I'd rather be busy than not.

You're living on campus this year. Why?

Why? (Laughs) Because I don't want to come home to an empty apartment at night. I have good friends and I enjoy being around them and that's a huge part of the college lifestyle, is being around people your own age and commiserating over the amount of work you have to do. But I'm not going to be in the same dorm situation, I'll be in a suite, which is nicer, plus I'm too cheap to get an apartment.

Certain promotion, you won't do, such as the Maxim cover.

I don't know how heavily I can criticize anyone for being on the cover of Maxim, but I do, personally, I go back and forth a lot. I don't think I could ever do it, I think it's irrelevant to the job I do as an actress, but I see, well, I have the rare experience of being in college with hormonal young men, and when they see an actress on the cover of maxim, they say oh she's hot and they want to go see her movie, so it's an intrinsic part of promotion I guess, but it's sort of upsetting me to see a lot of actresses my age on the cover of Maxim, because I don't think it should be so necessary to be an actress and promote your films (that way) but I'm not going to disrespect another actress who's on the cover.

What's it all about?

Well, they're always in bikinis on the cover basically, and they have these cute captions that always have these sexual puns. It's more accepted than Playboy, but is it any different than Cosmo really, that's just for woman.

I think it's fair to say that you stand out from a lot of these women by consistently taking roles that don't exploit your own sexuality.

Well thank you. But I don't know, what if I decided to play a bimbo one day? I mean, bimbos exist in the world, right, so as an actress I'm sure I will eventually. That's what I was saying before, it's about being realistic as opposed to trying to play a role model on screen, because then you just do movies that are unrealistic.

Article by Phil Van in New York
Originally published at Cinema Confidential - Posted on August 2001