Empire Online - September 9, 2002

 The story of O - Julia Stiles on reinventing Shakespeare... again 

Originally slated for a 1999 release, Tim Blake Nelson's modern reworking of the Bard's Othello finally makes an appearance on 13 September after fears that it might never see the light of day. Shelved after its climax drew unfortunate comparisons to the Columbine High School massacre, O transports the classic tale of the Moor of Venice to a South Carolina high school and substitutes battle scenes for basketball games. Playing Othello's beau, Desdemona -- or Desi as she's called in the film -- Shakespeare veteran Julia Stiles cast her mind back two years and shared her thoughts on the film, Shakespeare and the future with Empire Online.

Were you surprised by the amount of controversy stirred up by the film in the wake of the Columbine shooting?

When it was happening, and they kept pushing it, I though 'well, it's a good enough movie so hopefully people will see it eventually.' The distributor was afraid to release it because they thought they were going to be accused of exploiting current events then, because they didn't release it right away, they were accused of exploiting current events. Now, in retrospect it's kind of good that the release got pushed; the front-page news stories are different now. But then, Shakespeare said 'let's hold a mirror up to nature' so if there are kids shooting each other in high schools then maybe we should have movies about them.

Do you think Shakespeare's stories and especially his characters can seem a little contrived to modern audiences, or do they still hold true?

For me it still holds, or I wouldn't be doing a modern adaptation. I think the perfect balance for people who might find Shakespeare a little archaic is to put it in a world that we relate to -- the contemporary world. While I don't think that a basketball player can be related to a soldier in an army, it's easier for teenagers to relate to the pressures a competitive basketball player would have than a war general.

O is the third 're-imagining' of Shakespeare you've starred in, do you think that is the only way to present classic literature to an audience that sees Big Brother as quality entertainment?

I don't think it's pandering in any way. I think people are smart enough to get a classical version of Shakespeare. But what's great about Shakespeare's plays is that when you see how they can be translated to a different period, it makes it that much more profound. He was timeless.

Iago, or Hugo as he's called in O, is one of Shakespeare's most villainous creations: not something you'd immediately associate Josh Hartnett with.

I wasn't' really sure what to expect when we started but pretty soon I realised that he was a very serious actor. I think that the casting of Josh Hartnett was really smart in the sense that the character of Iago is the perfect villain because he gets Rodrigo -- or Roger -- to do all his dirty work for him and everyone stays friends with him and trusts him. In terms of his image as an actor, Josh is a trustworthy leading man so that works.

Despite fact Shakespeare didn't actually write for women, do you find he wrote better roles for women than scriptwriters do today?

That's true. At least with the films that actually end up getting produced in Hollywood, the woman's often the sidekick. Or if they have good roles for women then it's often a chick flick. Except for the history plays, Shakespeare wrote great parts for women.

You also write, is that a purely recreational pursuit or do you want to have more control over the projects you're involved in?

No, I love writing. The screenplay that I wrote was just an exercise for me and I never really wanted it to be made into a movie. I want to continue writing, I'd love to write a play. I could see eventually writing screenplays but it's not because I want to make a vehicle for myself but because I like the process of writing. The problem with screenwriting is that you write something and it becomes something completely different once a director gets hold of it.

Would you ever consider directing then?

No! Right now I could never imagine myself directing. I see directors get completely exhausted by a movie. I imagine that I would get frustrated by the people I was working with, I'd be a bit of a control freak, which is the worst kind of director. I feel that I kind of just want to come in and stand on my mark and say my lines. That sounds pretty awful.

You've done a number of stage productions in the US, do you have any plans to join the growing ranks of Hollywood stars on the London stage?

I would love to do a stage production here. I was thinking of doing This Is Our Youth, but then it closed and I had to go back to school. I would get eaten alive if I did any kind of Shakespeare production here [adopts disapproving luvvie tones] because I'm not classically trained at RADA! So I don't think I'll be doing that. But I would love to do a contemporary play. I would almost do it just so I could live in London for a couple of months. I got a little worried after doing Twelfth Nigh during the summer, thinking that I would only like to do stage for the rest of my life. But that's also because I was spoiled: it was New York City and it was an outdoor Shakespeare festival. There's a lot that's wonderful about movie making and I like to go back and forth.

Originally published at Empire Online - Posted on September 9, 2002