Interview with Julia Stiles
What was it like to work on a film that was so intimate, with only two main characters both of whom were women?
That actually is one of the main reasons I wanted to do it. Because it's two main characters and because it takes place in one night in one location, you sort of strip away all the baggage and just explore the dynamic between the two characters, and that's what's really fun about moviemaking. I thought it was really bold. I couldn't believe that it was dealing with all these issues through two female main characters.
How do you define the issues and the dynamic between the two characters?
It's all about power and control and trust. But aside from that, just having these women in control of the situation -- or even out of control -- without a male influence, you can explore how they react differently. You see more of their true nature. And then the relationship between the two of them: It starts off as the employer/employee relationship, but they are in this forced situation of being stuck in the hotel that makes the relationship morph into sometimes being a friendship, sometimes being mother and daughter, sometimes being distrusting.
As an actress who is relatively new in your career, what was it like exploring all the relationships you just mentioned with Stockard Channing, who is such a respected and accomplished actress?
It was really, really wonderful. I have so much respect for the amount of work that she's done and the variety of work that she's done, and I thought, this is just a wonderful opportunity to learn so much. People ask me if I was intimidated by her, and of course I have this incredible respect for her work, but I wasn't intimidated because she doesn't flaunt that, she doesn't throw it in your face. I love that she doesn't have the emotional baggage that comes with years and years of working as an actress.
Did she ever offer any advice or act as a mentor at all?
Well, no, she never took the sort of patronizing "I'm going to teach you a few things" tone of voice with me, so instead I could relax and learn more from watching her.
There's a scene where Stockard's character Julie and Nick are flirting in the bar and you feel like they're attracted to each other, and then you walk in, and there's this moment of, oh God, is he going to stop being interested in Julie because the young hottie walked in?
A lot of people have asked us how we got along, and I think people expected that it would be a situation where it could have been catty, but it wasn't that at all and I'm so glad because it defies the stereotype. I mean, it's a huge part of the character of Julie, how she is going to treat this younger girl, and I think that Stockard maintains a huge level of dignity in that scene and in her character in general. Stockard is still really sexy.
That's why you don't question for a minute that Nick would be interested in her, but then you wonder, faced with the presence of this younger girl... Did it bring up anything for you about the way Hollywood functions with regard to youth and beauty?
Sure, I don't think I would have been allowed to look the way my character looked in a big studio film. I would have had to be that sort of sexy bad girl at the expense of what my character really would have done with her hair or her tattoos or wardrobe. And I thought that it was really refreshing that they wanted to have Julie be the main character. You know, the monologue that she has about the hot flash was just so fascinating. That's such a huge turning point in a woman's life, and nobody ever talks about menopause in movies.
The film offers an interesting exploration of women's sexuality at different periods in their lives.
Yeah, definitely Stockard's character has more years of experience with men and certainly sexual situations, and to see her have that catharsis over Nick at the bed resonates a lot. I guess what is different about Paula is that she -- unlike me, unlike other people I know, unlike Julie -- hasn't been socialized to be so accommodating or make everyone else around her always feel comfortable, like most women do. So in the climax of the movie, what comes out is that frustration with Julie of having to accommodate everybody at the expense of herself for years and years and years. Whether it's in sexual situations -- and I'm reading into it a lot -- but whether it's in sexual situations pleasing her partner or in business situations kissing up to her male coworkers.
You are very articulate and accomplished as an actress and yet part of your currency is your beauty. Do you think that your roles have been sexualized, and how do you feel about that?
Hmm. I think that it's almost inevitable because unfortunately people do go to see movies not purely for artistic reasons. We want to see good-looking people [laughs]. I mean, I do it, too. It's almost inescapable that people are going to critique the way you look. I mean, I think to myself, if I had to gain 50 pounds for a role, would I be able to do it, and would people accept that? I don't really know the answer to that question.
I would think there would be more pressure on women to be beautiful than men in the industry.
Sure. I mean, I certainly feel pressure, but I try and just feel good about myself and then hope that other people will follow. But it's weird, it's totally weird. I mean, even just being here at this festival, I'm just coming back from school and people are like, oh my god, you are so skinny, you are so skinny, you're so skinny. And they go on and on about it, and there's weird subtext there. It's like, what does that mean? Was I not skinny before? The subtext is don't ever get that way again or something. You feel under a microscope.
How much do you think in the movie the dynamic between the two characters came specifically from the two of you as actresses as opposed to how the script is written?
The script was great, and a lot of it was there already, but I think that naturally our own personalities came into it, or the way Stockard and I interacted came into it. If you think about it, if Stockard had been the kind of actress that needed to boost her ego by bringing other people down, then I might have been intimidated. Or, not to toot my own horn, but if I was the kind of actress that needed to be the center of attention all the time, then she might have kind of resented the younger, catty upstart 20-year-old. I think that because there was a mutual respect, that made the movie work more.
It's really a fascinating set-up, a film about a relationship between two women, one who's a product of the male-dominated business world and another, younger woman, who is just starting to think about all the choices out there and maybe wondering if there freedom in working in a male-dominated world. Is that freedom at all?
Absolutely, and how much do you sacrifice to get there? Julie says at the end of the movie, You take away my job and I'm not really sure what else is left. And sometimes I think about that as an actress. I look ahead and think, how do I want to see my life play out? I want to be successful, but do I ever want to get to the place where I'm only working and there's no real life experience? Of course not.
So, you can relate to both of the characters in a way.
I certainly know a lot of girls like Paula that I've always been fascinated with, the way that they need to be the center of attention. They like to make the room uncomfortable, they like to be provocative and say things for shock value, just to get a reaction. And I've never been like that. I've always been uncomfortable doing things like that. So maybe it was sort of testing that thing to see if I had it in me. And then with Julie, I am fascinated by how after feminism and after women have demanded that they get to have these careers, these high-powered positions, either at the expense of their own energy in life, or at the expense of having a family, because if they have a family they have to constantly go back and forth. It hasn't quite been solved yet.
What do you see as the ideal?
The ideal would be a working marriage where it's shared, where both partners have a successful career and will help each other manage a family, to kind of play both roles but cover each other's backs, that kind of thing. But that's really hard. And I guess what's happened is that, I mean it's a huge generalization, but women have kind of found their place in the male-dominated world of business, but men haven't slipped into the caretaker role quite as easily or quickly.
In the movie, there are certain scenes where it just feels like traditional female bonding, but then by the end you see that you have shared something much more intimate than that, and at the same time you are still totally disconnected from each other.
It's very much like making a movie actually. They're in this anonymous environment where there's no real consequences to what they do. And they don't have the trappings of their own lives that they can fall back on. So Paula can take on any identity she wants, which is perfect for her. And that's probably why at the end they don't really know much about each other except for what they've experienced in that hotel. And that's exactly like making a movie. You only know people based on what you're experiencing with them day to day, and I guess what they tell you about their past. But how much can you trust that? And then by the end you've shared this intense experience and yet you don't know much about them.
Article by Andrea Meyer
Originally published in the November 2001 issue of IFC Rant The Magazine