My double life
When Julia Stiles isn't being an international movie start she's studying hard in her dormitory at New York's Columbia University.
Julia Stiles is regarded as one of the hottest female actors of her generation, but don't expect to find the 20-year-old star of hits like Save the Last Dance and O -- the contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's Othello - living in a mansion and attending Hollywood parties.
"I live in New York so I don't get to go to many parties and I don't even have a home because I live in a dormitory," the soft spoken actor chuckles to TV Week, pondering her parallel lives as movie star and student. Julia - who's currently getting rave reviews for the drama The Business of Strangers - has put her red-hot career on the sidelines for a while to attend New York's prestigious Columbia University where Oscar-winner Anna Paquin also goes to class.
"I'm really happy that I get to be working because I love working, but I'm also happy to be kind of juggling that with school and, as crazed as my life is sometimes, I like the two worlds I live in," she says.
Julia first caught Hollywood's eye in 1999 in the comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, a modernised retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew which also launched the film career of Aussie heart-throb Heath Ledger.
"Heath and I still talk but we don't see each other much because I live in New York and he lives in LA," she says. "But my other costar from that film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, actually goes to Columbia with me and one of the other girls in the movie goes to another college in New York, so we are all really good friends. Everyone really bonded well on that movie so it was a lot of fun."
Not surprisingly, after working on three Shakespeare films (also playing Ophelia in Hamlet last year opposite Ethan Hawke), Julia decided to study the Bard for her Bachelor of Arts.
"I had no idea what I wanted to major in but then on the spur of the moment I decided I wanted to take a Shakespeare class and I was reading Titus Andronicus and started crying, so It completely made me want to major in English," she explains. "There is more of a classical model of writing to Shakespeare, whether it's in the books or screenplays, and it was great to do those movies and now get a chance to study him for real."
In The Business of Strangers, Julia plays a young corporate assistant stranded at an airport hotel with her boss (played by Stockard Channing from The West Wing). After too many drinks at the bar, the pair begin to play mind games on a womanising business associate who is also stranded, which leads to a shocking outcome for everybody.
"I had just done Save the Last Dance," she says, referring to her successful hip-hop interracial romance, "and I really wanted to do a character that was completely different. I also thought It would be really fun to play a character that is so mysterious you never really know if she's lying or telling the truth because everything happens in one night with people who don't really know her."
Julia -- who also appears opposite Matt Damon next year in the action thriller The Bourne Identity ("It was basically a free trip to prague during my Summer break," she jokes of her attraction to that role) -- attributes most of her success at such a young age to her parents, who run a ceramics company out of their New York home.
"My parents used to be hippies so I grew up in a very creative environment," she recalls. "They always encouraged me to throw caution to the wind and try anything, and I think that's why I'm sitting here now, because they never discouraged me."
A family excursion to see an experimental Opera production of the Manson Family, performed by the Ridge Theatre Company, was Julia's first exposure to acting at a young age.
"Don't ask me why at the age of 11 I was going to see a play about [US Cult leader] Charles Manson," she laughs, "but when I got home and couldn't stop talking about it, my parents suggested I write to the theatre company asking for an audition.
"They gave me a three line part to test me, I think, and they thought it was cool to have a little kid in their plays. But eventually I became a member of the company and worked with them for years until I found an agent and a manager and started doing movies."
Although this down-to-earth actor has her hands full trying to graduate from college and make movies during her limited time off, she still finds time for romance away from the big screen.
"I have a boyfriend I go to school with who is not an actor, so I'm sure you don't care [about him]," she says, politely, "but I think he's wonderful because he's normal and keeps me grounded."
Although Julia admits attending college won't change her passion to pursue acting, she's content with her double life for now.
"I know it almost seems like on some level it's not productive of me to be in college but I think, in an indirect way, it is," she explains.
"The more well-rounded a person I am, and the more I study things I'm interested in, the more interesting I'll be to watch on the screen -- or at least I hope that's the case!"
Originally published in the December 2001 issue of TV Week Magazine