The tough luck of Julia Stiles
She's sitting pretty, but this is one young actress who knows she's still paying her dues.
Three years ago I got a call from a publicist who pitched me on a young actress I'd never heard of who was starring in a movie I'd never heard of. This actress would only be in LA for a day or two, did we want to talk to her? "Hey, we'd like to, but we're all full this issue." That's what I was about to say, but the publicist kept talking. This actress is also a screenwriter, the publicist said, and had recently workshopped a script she co-wrote at Sundance. (Hmmmm. An angle) She's from New York City (With attitude, no doubt - that's gooood) and, at her tender age of 16, has been performing for years. (Come again? She's how old?) Suddenly it seemed like this Julia Stiles might be perfect for our "Flash Forward" section, so we set up the interview.
We spoke for a while by the swimming pool of her hotel, and I was struck by how composed and articulate she was. Smart kid. And pretty, too. Charismatic, but quiet, with that Manhattan-bred self-confidence simmering just beneath the surface. Most surprising was that she didn't know a soul in the business when she started. She got her "break" by writing a letter to a director. We took a couple of pictures and ran the profile in issue #28. This precocious, ambitious actress seemed to have the right alchemy to rise quickly in the movie business, I thought.
Since that first MovieMaker interview I learned that Julia has worked with the most impressive creative talent in the business, including directors David Mamet (State and Main), Alan Pakula (The Devil's Own), and M. Night Shyamalan (Wide Awake). She's been paired with some of the hottest actors of her generation and routinely wins accolades for her work. She can be seen at Sundance this year starring in The Business of Strangers with Stockard Channing. At press time she signed to do Doug Liman's (Swingers) new movie, The Bourne Identity, and was considering other new projects. The girl is busy. But what's even more amazing is that she basically does this stuff in her spare time. She's a full-time college student at Columbia University in New York City. Yes, our heroine is a bona fide movie star who resides in an ivy league dorm room.
We met in mid-December at a little Chinese restaurant near the Columbia campus. Julia had just gotten back from a weekend press junket in LA, and was about to begin her finals. The eldest of three children born to free-thinking New York artists Judith Stiles and John O'Hara (the couple decided to alternate surnames for their kids; Mrs. Stiles must've won the coin toss) said she was beginning to feel a little stressed. (You think?) But being the accomplished thespian and cool customer that she is, you'd never have guessed if she hadn't confessed.
Tell me about your new movie, The Business of Strangers, which we just heard is premiering at Sundance.
I can tell you that I'm desperate to see it. I had such a great time on that one. It was completely different. It was only me and Stockard Channing, it was so much about the acting. And it came at just the time when I needed to be doing a smaller movie where everything was less complicated and the actors got most of the attention.
That's pretty funny to me. Here you are, you're 19 and you're already longing to do smaller movies.
[Laughs] Well, I'd like to go back and forth. But this was special because the script was so interesting and simple and it all came down to the interaction between Stockard and myself. And Stockard was so respectful toward me. She's assertive and smart, and so experienced. She knows her craft really well, and I learned a lot from her.
What are some of the things that you didn't know? Actually, I have to remind you of something. When we first talked, almost three years ago in LA, you said something to me that I thought was both funny and profound at the same time. You said, "I've really paid my dues in this business ".
[Burst of laughter, followed by a groan] God, I can't believe I said that.
I remember thinking "I bet she thinks she has." So tell me what you've learned since then, now that you've done so much more in this business?
I can now tell you that I'm sure I have more dues to pay, for one thing. Actually, I was thinking about that recently. You always believe you'll come to a place where everything is suddenly easy. But maybe it's more of a constant uphill battle. I still can't believe I said that at 16!
But when you first started acting it was years prior to that. I'm sure you did feel like you were a veteran. The real question is what kinds of things are you still learning from people like Stockard Channing? Is there anything that you can put your finger on?
Yeah. I mean, it's so many things. I think it's a lot about predicting how a movie will turn out, seeing the difference between what you interpret when you read a script and what you see when it's put together. And then in terms of getting into the minds of the characters. Like in The Business of Strangers it wasn't always clear what my character was thinking, and that was sort of confusing for me. But to see how Stockard would tackle problems, or her approach in how to think about a character.
What criteria do you look for when you're evaluating a project? Does it have to be profound art? Or will you do something just because it's fun?
Oh, absolutely. I actually really want to do a comedy. I'm sick of crying every day. I would love to do something that's just entertaining. I mean, as an actor there's a sense of satisfaction in spending the day in the mind of a character that's really messed up. But for some reason, I don't want to do that as much right now.
Is it because of your life at the moment? The fact that you're at this school, being a full-time student? Is something lighter more do-able?
Yeah, but also I think I just look at things more humorously now. I don't take myself so seriously. I don't take other people so seriously.
I have to tell you, both your mom and dad called me back. Which was really nice and a little surprising. How involved are they, day-to-day, in your career?
I talk to them a lot about the future, what kinds of projects I want to do, mostly because I value their opinion a lot. It's good to have sort of checks and balances with the people I work with.
There's a line in 10 Things I Hate About You that goes something like "You don't come across as the kind of girl who would take her father's advice." That's not you at all?
No. I definitely have my rebellious side, too. But my parents are very helpful. I don't want to be taking a lot of calls while I'm at school. It's distracting. I also don't want to jeopardize anything. My parents are really good about that. And they're also very respective of me. They don't try to exert too much control. They're there to help me.
They trust you. You seem like a very direct person -
- Sometimes it's my downfall.
- even in many of your roles. Is that a conscious thing or do you just bring your personality to the screen. Let me put it a different way. Are you a "tough" girl?
[Laughs] The response from people when they meet me, like at school, they think I'm really tough, initially. They think I'm like this tough New Yorker. I guess I am. I definitely am blunt and sometimes that's not a good thing. But it's the way I was raised. I almost wish sometimes I was better at being polite and demure.
Do you ever feel self-conscious at all on set? I'm thinking of some of the dance scenes you've done. That takes a lot, to shut the camera and everything else out and appear so natural. Do you ever struggle with that? Did you ever?
Sure. It totally depends on who I'm working with. It's definitely a struggle for me to not be self-conscious about the way I look. I've worked with directors who seem to have an appreciation of me and the way that I look. But other directors have made it an issue. Or have made things about my personality an issue.
Yeah. Like "You're too tough." It makes them uncomfortable or something. I try not to pay attention to that. Because I may seem tough, but.
You've worked with some amazing directors already. People like Alan Pakula and David Mamet. What's the difference on set, working with seasoned directors and first-timers who're finding their way? Is it the director's experience, or his personality that makes an actor able to do her best work?
It definitely makes a huge difference if the director commands respect from the crew. Things run much more smoothly. Actors and crewmembers will devote 110 percent to whatever we're doing if we think he's leading us in a direction that's good. I've also been on sets where people have lacked respect for the director and everyone was always complaining about the long hours they were working, and the crew was discouraged and the actors were discouraged from putting the effort in. And little things like noise level. If people have enough respect, it's always quieter.
So actors do their best work because it's a "respect" thing, when it comes to directors, not necessarily a "technique" thing.
Yes. But respect and technique overlap. Because if a director says something I don't agree with, or gives a line reading, that's a lack of respect. I've seen that happen to actors I've worked with. You cringe.
So, are you getting sick of this whole journalist/press/publicity dance yet?
[Laughs] Some of my friends on my floor were teasing me, saying "She's not that interesting. Why do they want to talk with her?" Which is great. It brings you down to earth.
How hard is working and going to school at the same time? It would seem impossible, really. You're going to this Ivy League school, you're starring in movies that are premiering at Sundance... it's mindboggling, really. Do you ever stop to think, "God, what am I doing?"
Definitely. I mean, on weekends I'm flying to LA for press junkets, doing photo shoots, working on promotional things for Paramount and Fineline. It's pretty chaotic, really. I do want to help out as much as I can for movies I've done, but it's like "Wait, you don't understand how little time I have. It's not just that I have to be there to take the final, I have to study for it, too."
Do you see your family much while you're at school? You have a younger brother and sister, right?
I do see them. I go home occasionally on weekends. I looked at other colleges outside the city, but I would've gone crazy.
What are some of your favorite movies?
Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Quills, which I still can't stop talking about. Splendor in the Grass. I could watch that over and over.
Any directors that have made an impression on you?
Christopher Guest. I think he's brilliant. Woody Allen. Paul Thomas Anderson. I saw Magnolia recently and thought that was great.
What in your career thus far are you most proud of?
Wicked, which is all the more painful because I have no idea what is going on with it. Just because I was the most fearless making that movie, the most eager, the most dedicated, the most naive, the most trusting (of Michael Steinberg, the director).
Which character that you've played is most like you?
I guess I'd say Kat in 10 Things because I was definitely like that in high school. But being opinionated often gets misconstrued as being bitchy or bitter, which has been a lot of people's response to her. I don't think I am bitter at all. I think Desi in O is my real inner self. Much more loving and trusting and easygoing.
Some say it's easier to play characters that are nothing like your real personality. Which character was most "satisfying" for you to play, thus far?
Playing Paula in The Business of Strangers was extremely cathartic and wonderful for me because Patrick Stettner (the director) constantly encouraged me to be un-self aware. The character is very elusive and bold, but my experience of having people confuse bluntness with bitchiness has made me shy away from it, or it has made me too aware of the reactions I get from people. So Patrick undid all that by telling me to ignore what the response might be to Paula. It was almost like being a kid again, and it was a very empowering feeling.
How would you describe yourself?
Oh, hooooo! Hmmm. This is a dangerous one... I guess open-minded, curious, restless, occasionally neurotic, socially retarded.
Some would say your life has been pretty charmed, so far. What would you say to that, and can you remember a time in your life when you thought you really screwed up?
I do appreciate my life. I don't think I have ever had anything really screwed up, but in terms of acting there were a few years when I experienced a lot of rejection, and that discouraged me and made me doubt myself. Even now, as lucky as I am, I think my career will be a constant battle. Sometimes it seems so easy for other actresses in Hollywood.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about you from people who don't know you well?
Guys in high school used to joke that I was a lesbian because I never dated any of them... that's the biggest fallacy I've ever heard!
In fantasy land, describe your perfect acting experience.
I'd spend a month doing a comedy on stage, and it would be new and exciting and funny every night, and every night I'd learn something new and be able to experiment. Then I would start working on a movie where I had to do research (like visiting women's prisons or a psychiatric ward). We'd shoot on some exotic South American coast, I would love all of my co-workers... All my thoughts would be occupied by the complexities of my character. The weekends would be spent on the beach. The director would allow me to make "mistakes" (though he wouldn't consider anything a mistake, or "wrong"), the other actors and I would never repeat a take because we'd pick up on how the dynamics were changing.
Great answer. How do you feel about fame?
It has its pros and cons. Fame allows me to work more, but I have to be more careful about my decisions. Fame allows me to get free clothes, and sometimes comforts me with a feeling of importance, or that I command respect, but that can be very shallow and deceptive. Fame allows me to make more money, which is empowering no matter what any artsy fartsy punk says, but it gives you the sense of impending doom, too. I think the cons of fame are more in my head, like I constantly remind myself that "pride comes before the fall."
In the classic Hollywood pantheon, what actress do you admire most?
I love Natalie Wood, especially in her Splendor in the Grass days. Modern-day actresses, I guess I'd say Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Helena Bonham Carter, Parker Posey, Diane Keaton. I guess I'm not much of a film encyclopedia.
You've been in a lot of movies aimed at young adults. Do you think moviemakers are addressing young adults in an accurate way? In a respectful and intellectually stimulating way?
I think O was the most successful movie I've done that portrays teenagers. A lot of times movies about teenagers aren't stimulating because they assume we have nothing to worry about besides clothes and "he said/she said."
Some have maligned your generation for not "having a voice." Do you agree with that criticism?
I would say that nobody wants to hear our voice. Shooting up entire school cafeterias is pretty damn near screaming. I think a lot of people knock my generation because of the way it's presented in the media and that's pretty disturbing. It does seem like my generation is predictable or easily manipulated by corporations, record companies, movie producers, Coca Cola, but I still have faith that there are a lot of us who have something to say.
What is your greatest talent? Your greatest skill?
My greatest talent is in playing pretend. My greatest skill is that I'm almost fluent in Spanish.
What are you most afraid of and/or insecure about, both in terms of Julia Stiles the woman and Julia Stiles the actor?
As a woman, I'm afraid of being powerless. As an actor I'm afraid of people paying more attention to my physical appearance than my ability. I can't control people's perceptions of my physical appearance.
After watching your films, I was amazed by several performances. One that comes to mind is Kit Kat's birth scene in The '60s. How do you prepare for an emotionally demanding scene like that?
I imagined that it would be one of the most painful and scary things ever. It's almost easier to do something no holds barred. The director was great because he did like two takes and only blocking rehearsals. I broke some blood vessels in my eyes -- proud battle wounds.
Are there any kinds of parts you'd shy away from or wouldn't do? For instance, how do you feel about nudity? When you read a script what are the big red flags you look for?
Nudity is an issue that comes up a lot, believe it or not. And I don't have an across-the-board policy against it because it would take so much to get me to appear nude in a film anyway. I mean, right now I should just say no, I won't do it. But when I see Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham-Carter in movies where it's appropriate and they seem very comfortable with it, like it was their decision and are not self-conscious about it at all.
So it depends on the situation.
And my mental attitude about it. I'd have to be very comfortable with myself at the time.
Any other red flags when looking at a script?
Not really. I'm more concerned with a movie holding a mirror up to life. So that if it shows a lot of violence it just has to be truthful, instead of glorified violence. And I think there are some "women's" issues that I might have a problem with. Like if a script was very disrespectful to women. Certain horror movies are like that. But I wouldn't have a problem playing a passive or weak woman, because they definitely exist. And it would be a challenge for me.
[Laughs] Hey, you took the wrong fortune cookie. Don't you know you're supposed to take the one closest to you?
Oh, okay. Hmmm. Must be yours. "Find a peaceful place where you can make plans for the future." Like that's gonna happen.
Article by Timothy Rhys
Originally published in the January 2001 issue of MovieMaker Magazine