Julia Stiles: "That'll sound slutty"
Cowardly studios; Spider-Man; September 11 -- rising star Julia Stiles has an opinion about almost everything. But, as Charlotte O'Sullivan discovers, she's more than a big mouth.
Julia Stiles looks like Tweety Pie, all big blonde head and cute, pursed mouth. But personality-wise, the 21-year-old New Yorker seems closer to Sylvester, Tweety's arch foe. Which is to say, more the type to chew 'n' spit out innocence than twitter sweetly in a cage.
Maybe it's that combination of light and dark that keeps you glued to her face. Last year, she scored a massive hit in the States with the inter-racial love story Save The Last Dance; and received good reviews in art-house fare like Hamlet and State and Main. But it's the fine teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, and vicious revenge drama, The Business of Strangers, which show off her peculiar charm best. And now there's O (released today), a meaty updating of Othello set in a Southern, sports-obsessed high school, in which she plays Desi (Desdemona) to Mekhi Phifer's basketball champ, Odin (Othello). The film's got most attention for its bloody finale, which -- in light of the Columbine massacre, and a series of shootings that followed -- got it put on the shelf for two years. Yet it's Stiles's scenes with Phifer (the intimate love-making that turns into a rape; Desi's grief in the face of Odin's growing paranoia) that make your head spin.
Stiles begins the interview by taking out her gum and pressing it into a wad of hotel paper, ("Sorry, right, I'm listening now"). She thinks it's crazy the film almost didn't get a release -- "the more you keep those kids in the dark, the more they're going to want to shoot each other." She certainly doesn't think that the violence at the end is over the top and feels the distribution company made things worse: "They were so afraid that the media were going to say we were exploiting current events, that they delayed the release, so then the media played up the controversy even more."
She says that for a while, Miramax and the distribution company "kept thinking that they were going to have the ending changed. Luckily, this was basically an indie movie that just sort of grew big. If it had been a studio film they'd have reshot the ending," she pulls a face, "so that they all lived happily ever after."
Stiles thinks much about the movie business is dumb. "They do so much studio testing, I think that just screws with any artistic purpose." She tosses back her hair (newly bobbed). "Did you see Down To You?" (a teen romance she made in 2000 with Freddie Prinze Jr). She sticks her finger down her throat in a pantomime vomit. "They added a different ending, and added stuff where we talk into camera. It was ridiculous."
The thing about Stiles is that she has a Plan B. She has always written (at 16, she was invited into the Sundance Writer's Lab). She's also studying literature full-time at Columbia University -- she's got another two years to go -- and has been getting zippy grades all the way. She likes being "rewarded" for expressing her ideas well. She says that in the back of her head, "I constantly feel like I need to be doing something". Her mother (half English, half Italian) makes ceramic pots, her dad (Irish) sells them -- and Stiles admits that the basic ethos is, "it's bad to be lazy! If I decided not to go to college [my parents] would not be that happy."
She mentions her granny at one point (who was miffed that Desdemona gets strangled in the film, rather than suffocated, as in the play) and when I say that I've noticed she often mentions her granny in interviews, Stiles throws her head down and blushes. "I talk about her all the time, I don't know why. Maybe it's because she took me to see Three Sisters when I was nine." Aged 50, her granny (her mother's mother) stopped being a housewife and started a career in journalism, working for The Nation and NBC. What inspired this radical life-style change? "Her divorce."
Stiles, as you'd expect, is withering about her snowballing fame, and the fact that she now has to wear a baseball cap when she's in New York, "or people will stare at me". And yet, I say, she auditioned for the part of Mary Jane in Spider-Man. If fame's the aspect of acting she likes least... Stiles finishes the sentence for me. "It doesn't make sense, does it?" Another pensive frowning session. "I mean, I like Sam..." She pauses, "is it Raimi?" I nod, trying to suppress a smile. "Yeah, I like his work." Another pause. "But I went into that audition a little half-assed. I mean, there's no love lost there. I mean the money... it would be cash up the wazoo. And that was definitely the temptation. To be honest, it was my agent saying you should go in -- with all due respect to the people who worked on that movie -- my agent said you can make a lot of money and they tried to convince me. I was like, 'Oh, alright, I'll go meet them'. And then, shrug, "it turned into this stupid thing."
As in her performances, it's Stiles's brittleness that's endearing. There's the same mixture of defiance and diffidence when I ask why we couldn't take photos of her for this interview. "They said that?" As if flicking through revision notes, she murmurs, "Why? Why would they do that?" The answer comes to her, "Well, they can control it better. God forbid that I'd have a bad picture of me printed in a magazine, I might never work again. It's true!" she giggles, "that's what it is. That's what they'd say. It protects me, but I hate..." She restarts the sentence, "It's not my fault. I wish people were a little less critical of the way actresses look."
Today, she's dressed in a short skirt and wearing long, high-heeled, red suede boots. She's got a crucifix round her neck and when she sees me looking at it she brightens. "It's plastic. It's an ode to Madonna and actually, my dog chewed it. It's really bad, I let my dog chew on Jesus Christ's feet!"
She boasts, "I'm like of a generation of kids that don't know what to believe in, so we don't believe anything at all." She's on a roll. She says she's proud to be a New Yorker, "but not overly proud". America's reaction to the September 11 attacks struck her as "so ironic". She takes a sip from her diet Pepsi. "It's like we're saying, Oh a jihad... Actually, we don't know even know what the word 'jihad' means, but people say, 'Oh right, they're fighting a jihad. Wait, I've got to go to church and worship Jesus Christ'."
Her honesty is impressive, (and I'm sure has caused her problems back home). But just as you're thinking she's really and truly as tough as she sounds, something else pops out. She notes that in America, "it matters so much if a girl is pure or slutty. That was something I was really worried about in relation to Desi. I didn't want the audience to think she was slutty. I felt so uncomfortable about that line where she tells Odin: I'll do anything for you. I kept saying to the director 'That's going to sound slutty. Couldn't I say: I love you?'"
It makes a strange kind of sense when she says one of her favourite ever scenes involves Natalie Wood in Splendor In The Grass, Elia Kazan's brilliant study of teen mores (Wood's character, initially the ideal high-school girl, ends up having a breakdown). "It's that scene in the bathtub," says Stiles, "where she's screaming, 'I'm not spoiled! I'm not spoiled!' cos her mother is so preoccupied with whether or not she is virginal or slutty. I was floored by that."
Stiles comes from a long line of thoroughly modern millies, yet something about her desire for approval, her need to meet the highest of standards (whether her own, or her family's) feels old-fashioned. There's something about Natalie Wood that's so frail, I say. Stiles plucks at one of her red boots, and says, "It's funny, I guess it's her frailty that I like."
Originally published at Independent.co.uk - Posted on September 13, 2002