Dressed in a chocolate brown v-neck sweater and black pants, her delicate face framed by long blond hair streaked with red, and multiple piercings dotting her ears, actress Julia Stiles looks the part of a funky New York City college student. In fact, it's a role the 19-year-old, seated in a room in Manhattan's Essex House Hotel, is happily playing in real life.
But with the release of two new films, Save the Last Dance and State and Main, and the upcoming The Business of Strangers with Stockard Channing, Stiles is juggling more than just classes (she's a freshman at Columbia University). As one of Hollywood's busiest young leading ladies she's stepping into the limelight, including a recent appearance on The Tonight Show, which Stiles found slightly intimidating. "I was very nervous beforehand," she explains. "They do pre-interviews and basically they're like, 'Tell me a funny story -- go!' "
Nervousness aside, Stiles is taking her skyrocketing career in stride. She's the youngest costar in the David Mamet-scripted and -directed Hollywood satire State and Main, joining Sarah Jessica Parker and Alec Baldwin, who was impressed with Stiles's ability to hold her own. "She's very serious and definitely very focused," he says.
Though her work ethic is undeniably strong, Stiles says that in real life she's pretty carefree. "I'm a lot goofier than it would seem on screen. I look at the world so much more humorously. I blow snot rockets and I'm just not that serious."
In State and Main she got to flex her comedy muscles to play a precocious teenager in a small Vermont town invaded by a film crew. "It was great because everybody could share their Hollywood horror stories and laugh about it," she relates about bonding with the cast.
In the more serious Save the Last Dance, she shows off her dance skills as a teenage ballerina wannabe who moves to a tough inner-city neighborhood after her mother's death. She stars alongside Sean Patrick Thomas (Cruel Intentions) in the interracial love story set to a hip-hop beat.
A minority in junior high
"I love to dance and this was a great opportunity to do ballet, which I gave up when I was little, and hip-hop, which I really enjoy," she says, adding, "I related to the journey that the character goes through." Stiles drew on her own junior high experience of being one of the few white students in her New York City school, admitting that she had her own identity crisis back then. "I even had a Puerto Rican accent for a while," she says with a smile.
Raised in New York City by Judith, 49, who owns a ceramics business, and John, 54, a second-grade teacher (she has two younger siblings, Jane, 8, and Johnny, 10), Stiles says her theatrical tendencies were in full bloom early on. "I think I probably was very loud and annoyed a lot of people," she giggles.
When she was 11, Stiles wrote to a local theater company and asked to be cast in one of their productions. She scored an audition and soon began appearing in off-off-Broadway shows, then signed with an agent. Her breakthrough film role was playing Harrison Ford's daughter in 1997's The Devil's Own. "My best friend was dying because I was working with Harrison Ford -- we were obsessed with Star Wars," she recalls. TV came calling, with roles in Oprah Winfrey's 1997 movie Before Women Had Wings and the 1999 mini-series The '60s.
And Stiles is cornering the market in Shakespeare adaptations, with 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You (inspired by Taming of the Shrew), last year's Hamlet and O, a modern-day Othello, due out this spring. O director Tim Blake Nelson has plenty of raves about his female star: "She's this extraordinary lady. She's bright and you read that in her every gesture. And what's best about Julia is that she's going to college, and it just makes me like her all the more."
Mom introduced her to boyfriend
Stiles wants to major in English or Latin American history at Columbia. Adamant about keeping her acting work to a minimum while she's in school (though she'll soon film a small role in the spy thriller The Bourne Identity, starring Matt Damon), she also makes time for going to clubs and playing soccer. And her footwork on the field should only get better, thanks to her new boyfriend, who's her younger brother's soccer coach (she declines to name him). Her mom was the cupid for the match. "She kind of set it up so we would run into each other at one of the practices," Stiles says.
As happy as she is about her personal life, Julia Stiles is equally content with her career. While driving to the NBC studios for her Tonight Show appearance, she had a flashback. "I remember coming there with my first agent and I screen-tested for some sitcom. I didn't get it and I was hysterical. I thought, 'I'm never gonna be an actress.' So, to be back in that same place was really awesome to me. I was like, 'I've come a long way.' "
Originally published at people.com - Posted on January 12, 2001