Julia juggles college life, movie roles
Julia Stiles can look and sound like a typical college freshman, lounging on the couch in hiking boots, dark jeans and a comfy, charcoal grey wool sweater. She plays with her stick-straight blond hair and talks about being undecided on a major.
She's far from your average university student, though.
When she's not studying at Columbia University, the 19-year-old actress is making movies. She appears in David Mamet's latest film, State and Main, in US theatres now. In February, she'll jet to Paris to start shooting The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon.
And in late January she'll squeeze in a sojourn to the Sundance Film Festival "in between writing papers."
"But it's cool," she says. "I'm happy that I get to have both experiences."
Her latest experience is trying out her moves in the film Save the Last Dance, sort of a cross between Dirty Dancing and Jungle Fever, which has also opened in America.
Stiles, who's taken dance lessons for most of her life, plays Sara, a middle-class ballerina who transfers to an inner-city Chicago high school and falls in love with Derek, a hip-hop dancer played by Sean Patrick Thomas. Friends and family on both sides disapprove of their interracial relationship.
While Stiles believes people are more open-minded than ever about interracial dating, she thinks a lot of the apparent acceptance is just talk.
"I think people pay lip service: 'Oh, let's all just get along, everything's fine, there's no difference between black people and white people,"' she says. "But no matter what... people are uncomfortable with what they're not familiar with and that culturally, there's a lot of differences."
Even so, her costar, who grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, found that Stiles was more familiar with hip-hop music and street slang than he was.
"The dancing, the talk, everything," Thomas says. "She knew more than me in many ways because she's from New York."
Stiles grew up in downtown Manhattan and started acting onstage at age 11, performing in plays with the La Mama Theatre troupe and the Kitchen Theatre. Her first big film was 1997's The Devil's Own, in which she played Harrison Ford's daughter. In 1999, she graduated from New York's Professional Children's School, which prepares students for careers in the arts.
Diversity in the student body is one of the things that attracted Stiles to Columbia. Just like the other freshmen, she lives in a dorm. Actress Anna Paquin lives a couple of buildings away.
"It's cool!" Stiles says, a smile bursting across her face. "I really wanted to live in the dorm. That's part of the college experience that you have to have. I have a single and I'm glad about that because I couldn't deal with a roommate.
"But I come home and I have, like, 40 roommates if I open my door and it's just a different way of living. There's no privacy but it's OK. It's fun hanging out with people on my floor, walking around in flip-flops. I like it. It's like being away at camp."
Most people, she says, don't treat her like Julia Stiles, Movie Star.
"My friends, the people that I have met through my classes and who live on my floor, are awesome. They treat me like a normal human being," she says. "And I kinda went into the situation feeling, 'I'll command the way I am supposed to be treated, so if I act like I am -- well, I AM a normal person -- and I don't expect to be treated any differently, then hopefully people will respond that way.' And for the most part that happened.
"The coolest thing is that, like, my professors have no idea who I am. And if they do they haven't said anything, so they don't treat me differently. And they don't care. It's like, 'So, you're an actress. That's great. What do you know about Homer?"'
Whether or not she knows the Greek classics, Stiles knows Shakespeare. She starred in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You, a high school version of The Taming of The Shrew. Last year, she played Ophelia in Michael Almereyda's modern-day Hamlet, which has re-released in New York and Los Angeles theatres.
But the Shakespeare adaptation Stiles is most proud of is O, a violent, faithful retelling of Othello set in a private high school. She plays Desi, the Desdemona character.
The film initially was to hit theatres in October 1999. Miramax -- owner of Dimension Films, which is releasing O -- held onto it after the April 1999 Columbine High School shootings, in which two students shot and killed a dozen classmates and a teacher before killing themselves. Now, the movie is scheduled for release in March.
"It really is the story of Othello, but people make comparisons to, like, Columbine and stuff and so they're worried about influencing people or whatever, and that's kind of ridiculous but I understand," she says. "They just have to be careful."
Stiles has yet another new film screening at Sundance at the end of January, The Business of Strangers with Stockard Channing.
She says the primping and handling that go along with being a young film star aren't exactly her style.
"Generally people like to paint me as, like, the tough, blunt New Yorker that's really precocious," she jokes. "I have, like, a really goofy side that a lot of people don't get to see."
Article by Christy Lemire
Originally published in the January 17, 2001 issue of the Sidney Morning Herald