Julia Stiles makes all the right moves
This is where Julia Stiles lives, here in a small dorm room hung with a blue tapestry, a bulletin board full of snapshots of friends and a poster for Alice in Wonderland. It is here that the 19-year-old Columbia University freshman just pulled an all-nighter for her last exam of the semester - which is why she is tired and feeling a little weird. Like most of her classmates, she can't live without her morning latte, stresses about skipped classes and would rather be wearing pajamas. None of this makes her special on campus; what does are her starring roles in the teen hits 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Down to You (2000), and the fact that for the past month she's been balancing responsibilities to two new movies, State and Main and Save the Last Dance, which should establish her as a quickly maturing talent. In fact, the most-asked question at school about the actor is why she's in college at all.
"There are things I want to study that I can't learn on a movie set," she says. Nearly fluent in Spanish, Stiles took classes in Latin and constitutional law at New York's Professional Children's High School and is now interested in Greek literature and sociology. Having cowritten a screenplay lauded by the Sundance Institute when she was 16, she also plans to write. "I'm not afraid to assert myself" is how she explains her start in acting. After a summer YMCA acting class at age 9, Stiles impulsively wrote to the director of the experimental off-Broadway theater group La MaMa and began, by age 11, her life on the stage. She's confident, which also helps when she's playing forward with her Irish women's soccer league team in the Bronx - or when she's dancing.
"I love to dance, I love to go to clubs. I'll dance in my room, imitating hip-hop videos," says Stiles, who has tried everything from modern to tribal African dance. She felt qualified for Save the Last Dance, in which she plays an aspiring ballerina thrust into the hip-hop-heavy world of inner-city Chicago. To prepare for the role, she took a six-week crash course in both ballet and hip-hop. "At first," she says, "I thought I should just quit -- I didn't know what I'd gotten into." But, she admits, "I definitely surprised myself." Born of Irish, English and Italian stock to politically progressive lapsed Catholics, Julia O'Hara Stiles was raised in a loft in downtown New York, where her mother, Judith, makes pottery and her father, John, runs the business of selling it. When Julia was 9, Judith and John added sister Jane to the family, then, three years later, brother Johnny. The family of J's remains very close, and Stiles admits that even living across town has created some mutual separation anxiety.
No wonder, then, that her parents allowed their city girl to visit Costa Rica only last year, after Stiles joined up with a Habitat for Humanity mission to build housing. She has since returned to Costa Rica alone. "I have some weird obsession with Latin American countries," Stiles says with a laugh; she also wants to see Africa and India.
Of her work, she's most proud of her Ophelia in last year's experimental film adaptation of Hamlet and of her stint in the revolving cast of The Vagina Monologues. Stiles may be the youngest cast member to have taken part in that sexually charged production, but she's mature enough to have handled it. "I think it's cathartic for women to talk about that kind of thing," she says, adding that the show gave her more confidence as an actor and as a female. She keeps a baseball cap from the play, emblazoned with a certain four-letter word that starts with c, on her dorm-room shelf, just to gauge her friends' reactions. "People will come into my dorm room and they'll be kind of freaked out, like 'What's... that... hat... on your...?' I love that!"
While Stiles declares that "the mating ritual [is] really ridiculous," she will say that she's currently dating someone who's neither an actor nor a schoolmate - and won't add anything more. Her real-life romances have included a relationship with 3rd Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whom she met on 10 Things and dated for a year. But right now, school, not boys, is her first priority: "I feel like college will help me as an actress, because it makes me a more interesting person to watch." Besides, she adds, "I like having a variety in my life. I can't just do movie after movie after movie for the next 10 years. I want to have other experiences."
Originally published in the January 22, 2001 issue of US Weekly