Into the O zone with Julia Stiles
The latest Julia to make it big in Hollywood admits she owes it all to William Shakespeare. Alison Jones meets the bard's number one fan.
You know you're getting older when the film stars are getting younger.
Meeting Julia Stiles, one is struck by how self possessed and mature she seems, more than able to hold her own with a roomful of battle scarred hacks.
But when she starts talking about her unrequited passion for Prince William it is with a sudden jolt that we realise that this is a girl who is younger than most of our record collections.
Julia, 21, is the unofficial successor to the title of angry young ingenue vacated by Juliette Lewis (thankfully without the latter's annoying kookiness).
A former model for Calvin Klein she has a cool prettiness with the porcelain skin of the average young starlet off-set by intelligent brown eyes. Her familiar long blonde curls have been shorn, replaced by the type of choppy bleached bob that women tear pictures of out of magazines and take to their hairdressers demanding 'make me look like that'. With the release of O this week you will be able to catch her in two films down at your local multi screen.
She has a small role ("Don't go for popcorn or you might miss me") in The Bourne Identity, playing a CIA operative running the understaffed Paris office.
It is, to be honest, unworthy of her talents as she seems to have has little more to do than worry about whether the photocopier is out of toner.
"I liked the director (Doug Linman's) work and I got to wear some vintage French clothing.
"We decided my character would be a sort of go-between, in over her head. The rest of it was just improv on the day. "
But wouldn't she have liked the pro-active part taken by Franka Potente (Run, Lola, Run) who goes on the lam with Matt Damon's Jason Bourne, falling for him in the process?
"It would have been fun and I thought Franka did a really good job," she agrees diplomatically.
"I'm a little young for Matt Damon I believe - not that he is old." (for the record the ageing Mr Damon will be 32 next birthday).
In O she is back on familiar territory playing a high school girl called Desi caught in a love/hate triangle between the school's star basketball player and a team-mate who is consumed with anger over the former's success.
If the story line of a schemer whose plot to make his friend mad with jealousy leads to tragedy seems familiar, it is because it is loosely based on Othello.
This will be the third time Julia has starred in movies inspired by the scribblings of Stratford's most famous son.
The first Ten Things I Hate About You was a reworking of The Taming of The Shrew, and she followed this by playing Ophelia to Ethan Hawke's Hamlet in a modern day adaptation of the drama about dysfunctional Danes.
"I wasn't going to turn this (O) movie down because I thought it was a good adaptation and if I was going to get pigeonholed in Shakespeare movies I would be okay with that."
She is also certain that by updating the settings and the language, they are bringing the bard to a younger audience who are put off by the idea of actors pontificating on stage.
"I like Shakespeare but sometimes it can get a little archaic, dry and stodgy.
"I was intimidated at the idea of playing a classical role like Desdemona and if I'd played it in a traditional version I would have been competing against Dame Whoever...
"This way gives me more freedom to make the role my own."
However, she is not completely averse to treading the boards in more conventional versions of Will's work - though not too conventional.
"I played Viola in an open air production on Twelfth Night in New York City this summer .
"It was traditional, sort of, to the point where we had corsets and all of that stuff. My shipwreck was depicted as an 18 foot slide and I'd come down it as if it was a wave screaming at the top of my lungs. And that was the start of the play."
She has been acting since she was 11 after writing a letter in crayon to the artistic director of a theatre company and asking for a role in his next play.
"I didn't want to be famous. I just liked to play dress up a lot and thought I could run around on stage and pretend to be these characters."
She made her feature film debut in The Devil's Own, as Harrison Ford's daughter.
"I did that when I was 15 and hadn't seen or talked to him since. Then I went to the concert for New York City after September 11 and Harrison was there.
"My boyfriend at the time said 'Didn't you used to work with him?' but I thought he wouldn't remember me. I was too embarrassed or shy to say 'hi'.
"Then Harrison walked up to me and said 'so you're a big movie star now, you can't say hi to me?' He was joking, thankfully."
Readers with elephantine memories might recall the film, about an IRA hitman (Brad Pitt) hiding out in a cop's home, caused a bit of a furore when it was given a Royal Premiere and the under-age Princes William and Harry were allowed to see it.
Julia seems undisturbed by the possibility this caused our future king any lasting psychological damage.
"That fact that Prince William has seen a movie I am in is wonderful. I think he is smashing.
"I wouldn't be too upset to be at a Royal Film Premiere if Prince William was there. I'd fly over for that,' she says, her hip veneer slipping just a little in her teen-like enthusiasm.
"I don't care how they act. It just depends on whether they are good looking or not."
After dismissing the idea of dating Harry on the grounds that he is the spare rather than the heir, she confesses she thinks the Queen would baulk at the idea of her becoming a British Princess Grace
"They would never accept me at Buckingham Palace. I never have manicured nails or anything like that."
Although she has appeared in several school based projects, including the inter -racial relationship drama Save the Last Dance, Julia has moved ahead of the teen queen pack by tackling edgier projects.
These include State and Main, David Mamet's satirical swipe at the movie industry, and the acclaimed The Business of Strangers where, as an enigmatic young business woman, she went head to head with the formidable Stockard Channing.
Her acting commitments occasionally have to take second place to her education as she is half way though an English degree at Columbia University.
"It's funny so many people in Hollywood like the idea of me saying in the newspapers that I go to college but when it actually comes down to me having to go to class they don't seem to recognise I have to do that," she laughs.
"I often find an actor's work gets worse if they are working back to back. If I go from movie to movie it becomes harder to distinguish between the characters so it is nice to throw school in there.
"I've figured out I can take a semester off if there is a film I want to do and when there isn't I go back to school."
She has found that her burgeoning fame has become a double edged sword when it comes to making friends.
"I've had a couple of little security problems but that was because I was living in a dorm which is very intimate.
"Everyone knows everything about you. I've since moved off campus.
"I don't get hassled too much, it has mostly been gossip and that can only affect me as much as I let it in my head."
She admits to one major slip up on a TV show while she was promoting Last Dance when she was a little franker about college life than was diplomatic.
"I hadn't done many interviews and I was eager to please so I'd say whatever the producer wanted me too basically.
"I made jokes about things going on at school and somebody wrote an article trashing me in the school newspaper quoting everything I'd said on the talk show. That was a little disconcerting and made me very self conscious as it seemed like a pointed attack."
For the moment she feels she has an acceptable level of fame.
Familiar enough for passers by to do a double take in the street but not at the stage where the paparazzi are rifling though her bins.
"In the US it has gone from nobody having any idea who I am to people saying 'I think I know you from somewhere, did we meet last Tuesday?' to being asked 'weren't you that girl in that movie?' a couple of times a day.
"It's kind of interesting. On bad days, you just want to be alone you're in a mood, whereas on good days it's kind of flattering to have somebody say that they like your work."
So far she has not felt it necessary to resort to the classic diva tactic of slipping on a disguise when she wants to pop down the shops.
"I always think dark glasses make you look more conspicuous. I've started wearing a baseball cap, but if it's a cloudy day out and you're wearing sunglasses it makes you a little more recognisable. People start asking 'Who's that -- I've seen you in a movie!'. "
Article by Alison Jones
Originally published in the September 16, 2002 issue of the Birmingham Post