Find out what Ms. Stiles has to say about her cute costars, new movie O, and life as a coed in New York City.
In your new movie, O, you play Desi, who is such a different character for you. Is that what appealed to you?
It was actually hard because she's not like me at all -- well, I think there are aspects of me that come out in that character, but Desdemona is so trusting and loving, and she forgives Othello so easily that it's easy to really judge her.
And she's so passive, too.
Yeah. You want to always play the aggressive characters, the ones who stick up for themselves -- or at least I do, because you're inspired to be that way yourself! So to play a passive character is harder because you feel like, Oh God! Why is she doing this? [Laughs] She's doomed.
Didn't you live in dorm-style rooms in South Carolina when you were shooting O?
Yes. Well, we lived in a hotel, and we were all pretty much on the same floor. We bonded a lot. Josh [Hartnett], Rain Phoenix, Mekhi [Phifer] and Andrew [Keegan]... we'd have one day off a week, and we'd all hang out with each other.
Do you worship Shakespeare or is it just coincidence that you've starred in more than one movie adaptation?
It's a coincidence, but at the same time it makes sense. I do really like Shakespeare a lot, but I also think -- like a lot of other people who have short attention spans -- that the adaptations and the way you can show that Shakespeare is so timeless is much more interesting to me than seeing an old-fashioned version.
Were you surprised by the huge success of Save the Last Dance?
Yes and no. After I finished it, I knew it was going to be a good movie, but I was worried. You can never predict how a movie's going to do. And especially when I was promoting it so much -- I thought, the bigger you are the harder you fall, and I didn't want to have high expectations at all.
You trained for the dancing scenes?
I trained for it a lot. But that's why I wanted to do the movie. It was a wonderful opportunity -- and it was also terrifying. Especially with the ballet, which is a lot more technical, I almost quit. Well, I didn't almost quit, but I remember having a conversation with my mom and I was like, I don't want to do this! I'm going to look terrible! But luckily I didn't.
Have you ever gone through a bad patch with your parents?
Yeah, there are certain rites of passage. It's not even really bad -- it's just a rift. Like at the end of junior high and the beginning of high school -- when there are all those questions about boys and quote-unquote bad behavior like drugs and cigarettes and all that stuff. Drinking. It's just a matter of figuring out how to deal with it, and parents are worried of course.
Can we talk about college?
[Smiles] I love to talk about college.
Why did you choose Columbia University?
I almost didn't apply there. I thought, I grew up in New York City, I shouldn't stay in the city. But my college advisor is just an incredible guy and he went to Columbia in the '60s. He said, "You should just go see it and I know you're going to like it." I did and after I looked at other schools, Columbia just stood out to me because the core curriculum classes are smaller. I liked the idea of being on a campus with the city outside of it -- it keeps a perspective on what you're learning. You feel isolated, but you also have an out if you feel too claustrophobic.
What has stood out in your core curriculum?
Unexpectedly, the best class was "Logic and Rhetoric," which every freshman complains about because you have to write so much -- two papers a week. But we would end up just sort of philosophizing about logic and rhetoric. The topics are sort of random, but they get you to really think.
What's a topic?
Censorship was one. You had to choose some controversial issue like abortion and pick the side you wouldn't agree with and argue that point. Or try and argue something that nobody in their right mind would ever agree with. I tried to argue that murder was not immoral. [Laughs] I don't think I was very successful! But in a way that's a good thing.
Did you pull any all-nighters?
I had a very memorable one during my last final. It was music history and I don't know why this happened, but I totally procrastinated and waited till the very last minute and ended staying up literally all night studying with another person in the class. It was so annoying because I was doing so well, and it just screwed me over. I was completely dead.
Do you get good grades?
I get good grades in English and Spanish and philosophy. I took psychology and I thought I was going to do really well, but the final was this insane multiple choice test, which again sort of screwed me over. I mean, I did okay, but that was my worst class. The whole sort of right-and-wrong-answer thing, I don't do well in. I'm better at essays.
How do you juggle your school schedule?
It's hard. On the one hand, I'm really happy that I can be working and I'm really happy to have opportunities but I also want to go to school. It's sort of like a day-by-day thing. It's the same with any college student -- at the beginning of the year you think, I'm going to read every page of every book and then ultimately you realize you have to skim or otherwise you're gonna die. So you learn how to do that.
Could you describe your dorm?
[Laughs] Yeah. It was really dirty! It's funny, I came back from school at the end of the year, and everyone is like, Oh my God, your skin looks so good! What are you doing? I'm like, I guess I don't live in a dirty dorm anymore. It was kind of like a cell block -- one long hallway with tiny rooms the size of shoeboxes. And a lounge on every floor with a TV. But, you know, it was a good experience to have.
If you were banished to a desert island and could only take one book, one CD, one video, and one gadget, what would you take?
I love those questions. Hmmm... The CD would be Stevie Wonder -- oh God that's hard. Or Ani DiFranco. CDs are really hard. Okay, a book: [Screws up her face] It would have to be a book that you could read over and over again and keep finding new things so maybe Moby Dick? Actually, you could go with something really funny that would entertain you. I really like David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day or Naked would be fun. But after awhile, I think you'd start to memorize it or something! A video would be Splendor in the Grass. That's a good movie. And then a gadget -- something useful. So I would not bring a can opener, because I wouldn't have any cans. [Laughs] A Swiss army knife, I guess?
What music are you listening to these days?
Hip-hop and just a variety of things. Nikka Costa is really good. I actually went CD shopping for the first time -- all during college I didn't buy CDs because I just used Napster, unfortunately.
Do you have a favorite book?
Oh, yes -- do you know what? I changed my mind. This would be the desert-island book: John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent. It's a book you could read over and over again.
Are you still writing?
Yeah, I started writing treatments for two different screenplay ideas that I have, which are just sort of synopses but once I have time to sit down and write them, I will.
Okay, random question: How has Bill Murray, with whom you costarred in Hamlet, influenced your life?
He is amazing, and besides the fact that he's a really good actor, I admire that he has a life outside his career. And I want to emulate that. That's why I went to college. He told me that when Ghostbusters came out, he went to the Taj Mahal and just traveled around India for a while, just to keep a perspective on his success, which I think is really good for your head. I think it's also important as an actor. If you are only an actor, you can't really pretend to be other people, and if you're only having experiences through Hollywood, then the world gets really small and you lose touch with reality.
Do you think you'll continue to make acting your career?
Yes, I think so. I have a lot of fun with it -- I love it.
Originally published in the August 2001 issue of Elle Girl Magazine