Toronto Sun - August 26, 2001

 Julia Stiles blond, but in hair only 

Smart actress has feet firmly on the ground

This is her time, that moment when it is obvious to Julia Stiles and the starmakers of Hollywood that she is a chosen one, a celebrity waiting to be shaped, hyped and exploited.

Except that this 5-foot-7 beauty with translucent skin is not just another airhead blond who stumbled off a bus at Hollywood and Vine looking for stardom.

"It's been an incredible year for me," Stiles deadpans in an exclusive Sun interview before she is whisked back to the set for her latest movie shoot.

Incredible, indeed.

This past January, Stiles starred in the racially charged teen romance Save The Last Dance, which exploded for Paramount Pictures at the box office. It's currently on the VHS and DVD bestseller lists.

Her latest feature film comes out this Friday. Lions Gate will finally release O, a modern retelling of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello set in a U.S. high school's supercharged basketball milieu. The film had been held up for two years by previous distributor Miramax because of concerns over real violence in American schools.

Stiles' eventful year continues in two weeks as she is scheduled to appear at the Toronto International Film Festival for the second straight year, this time with The Business Of Strangers, a dark thriller in which she costars with wily veteran actress Stockard Channing.

The 20-year-old, New York-born Stiles, who has already finished a support role in a remake of The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, is currently shooting the dramatic comedy Carolina with the eccentric legend Shirley MacLaine, who has been regaling her on set with stories of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the infamous Rat Pack.

And it's not just acting that's keeping Stiles busy. She has distinguished herself by building houses in Costa Rica on a Habitat For Humanity team, and by writing a film script that was workshopped at the Sundance Institute's Writers Lab. She's now preparing for a second year at Columbia University.

Consequently, Stiles feels torn between her acting career and her education.

"I do feel that I am constantly going between these two worlds of school and work," she says. "I'm still navigating how I'm going to be able to balance the two.

"It's hard because I want to take advantage of all the opportunities that I have as an actress now but, at the same time, I really want to go to school and I don't think that school is something I should do when I'm 30. But it's also a nice balance because, with school, I think it lets me have a perspective on my place in the world."

She is talking about pursuing a place of humility, not an ego-driven one as a movie star expecting to be fawned over.

"Because, with most people in my situation -- and I can see it in myself -- it would be really easy to have your world become more and more narrow," Stiles says. "It's easy for every conversation to be about you (she grins, acknowledging the irony that she is actively involved in a conversation with The Sun that is primarily about her). You start to think that the world revolves around you, which is not a good thing!"

The Habitat For Humanity trip was a reality check, both for the chance to experience a different culture and for the physical accomplishment involved.

"I like to travel because, again, it does make you realize what a small role you play in the grand scheme of things. Then Habitat was a phenomenal experience because I had never done anything like construction before, so it also made me appreciate (physical labour). Actors sit around all the time and we like to wallow, saying what a hard job we have. Then you realize that people are doing manual labour and that's physically much harder than what we have to do."

One other footnote to the Habitat excursion, which took place when she was still a teenager: It reminds one of just how young Stiles is, despite her seeming maturity. "Actually," Stiles says of how she ended up in Costa Rica, the safest Central American country, "it was the only Latin American country my parents would let me go to."

But Stiles is also warming to the bigger theme as the conversation unfolds. "The reason that I keep stressing 'the reality-check thing' is that, even though this is 'my time' in Hollywood, I hope it doesn't mean that 'my time' is going to end any time soon.

"It's so easy to feel that you don't have any control over your career when it starts to take off. But I hope that doing things like going to school and pacing myself will mean that I will have a long career and not just be a blip. What is also nice about school is that I don't feel dependent on my career, and I can make more careful choices."

The Othello adaptation O, which uses modern language as well as a contemporary setting, might help Stiles prolong her career past the blip stage. And it certainly ranks as a careful, if risky choice. The film was shot in early 1999 but held up because of marketing concerns after the Columbine school shooting tragedy. Like Othello, O ends with an orgy of violence fuelled by envy, jealousy, manipulation and incomprehensible rage.

"I was scratching my head when the release date kept getting delayed," Stiles says of O director Tim Blake Nelson's struggles with Miramax, first to get the film released and then to get Miramax to sell off the film to Lions Gate.

"I felt that this movie could only help us understand what is going on behind the school shootings."

What she will not accept are the fears of some film executives that young people might copycat O and turn to violence because of the film, which does not overtly condemn its charismatic anti-hero, Mekhi Phifer's complex character Odin. Nor is Josh Hartnett's character Hugo -- the modern equivalent of Shakespeare's Iago -- treated as pure evil.

"I don't think that the job of a movie is to preach," Stiles says, "and I don't think that we tried to preach. I think it's very subtle in its approach to violence and I think that saying that a movie influences somebody to go and shoot their fellow students is taking all the responsibility off the murderers. I think that's wrong. I was as flabbergasted as everyone else was when all these school shootings started to escalate out of control, but I would think that would be the reason that we would want to make movies about it.

"At the same time, the story of Othello is 500 years old. It just proves how timeless Shakespeare is, that the characters and the themes he wrote about could be put in any environment -- in the 17th century, or in a high school two years ago when we started shooting O -- and still be relevant. I think that this movie has content."

Article by Bruce Kirkland
Originally published in the August 26, 2001 issue of the Toronto Sun