Shakespeare's fave modern heroine scores a hat trick with Hamlet.
Empire feels like a nuisance. Julia Stiles has much more important things to do than talk movies. It's 4.30pm on November 7, and the Bush-baiting Columbia freshman has yet to cast her vote. "Oh yeah," she says on the phone from her native New York. "I'm trying to figure out when I'm going to go. But no, you're not keeping me..." she adds reassuringly. "I was gonna vote late anyway, because I wanna see how Gore is doing. I might vote Nader (Green Party nominee)." Tactical voting is the very least you might expect from the sharpest teen talent in Hollywood.
Born in SoHo to hippy parents in what she calls a "very creative household" (her mum makes pottery), Stiles was "obsessed with pretending to be other characters" from the day she learnt to speak. Nothing unusual in that, but at 11 years old, young Julia wrote to her local theatre group asking to audition. "I included all these pictures of me playing dress up and said something like, 'If you put me in your play I'll give you all my costumes.'" She snorts sweetly. "Very ambitious." This being SoHo, the local group, La MaMa E.T.C., was kinda out there. "Really bizarre theatre. I couldn't even explain what those plays were about."
This "formal training" helped Stiles make the move to TV and films, scoring a notable early role as Harrison Ford's daughter in 1997's The Devil's Own. But she really turned heads as feisty Katarina in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), a slick teen re-make of Shakespeare's Taming of The Shrew. Next up was 'Desi' in O, a high school take on Othello (still waiting a UK release), while this month sees her play Ophelia opposite Ethan Hawke in Michael Almereyda's cellphone generation Hamlet. She laughs gamely at the emerging theme: "It's not a bad thing to be 'that Shakespeare chick'; better than 'horror movie chick.'"
Third time around it may be, but Hamlet presented new challenges for Julia: her first tangle with iambic pentameter, for starters -- "I tried not to get too hung up on the rules of speaking" -- and a wallflower heroine who is not at all like the 19 year-old actress. "Actually, I do have my romantic side," she protests, "but I guess on the surface I'm..." A typical New Yorker? "Yeah. Saying what's on your mind and not being afraid to keep it real, and sort of being suspicious of people."
This last trait can prove especially confusing. "It's funny," smiles Stiles, "because walking down the street, when people do a double take I don't initially think that they recognise me -- I think I'm in some sort of danger." She snorts again.
As a true New Yorker though, Stiles was well placed to see the shrewdness of Almereyda's staging of Hamlet. "Making Denmark a corporation was really appropriate because modern New York is like a kingdom. Maybe Donald Trump could be considered Claudius," she laughs, an astute point from the girl who hopes to major in Sociology. At the moment Stiles enjoys a low profile on campus -- "It's fine. Well, I don't have any stalkers yet" -- but has no desire to see her career slow down. "I'll work in the summer, and I might have to take a semester off here and there."
Julia also "banked" a lot of work in a year off before college, with an important role in David Mamet's star-studded showbiz satire, State And Main, due for release in February. And post-college, Stiles has a career plan pretty much mapped out. Anarchist's Daughter, the script she co-developed at Sundance, is unlikely to be resurrected -- "I'm over that subject matter" -- but she remains keen to write and produce her own projects, even if she is acutely aware that Hollywood is suspicious of "over-ambitious" females.
First, though, there is the little matter of finding a new President. She declares that the current US election would inspire Shakespeare to write a comedy (and this is before the farce of a recount): "A political satire would be awesome". Of course, with Shakespeare long gone, this task could be left to someone else: Julia Stiles, perhaps. "I tell you what would be even funnier. I've just read The Symposium by Plato -- that would make a really good farce." A modern-day satire based on Greek philosophy? Over ambitious? For Julia Stiles, maybe not.
Article by Colin Kennedy
Originally published in the January 2001 issue of Empire Magazine