"My life is so hard!" Julia Stiles cries in an exasperated, spoiled-starlet tone of voice, slumping into a patio chair at an outdoor café one muggy evening in New York City. She is, of course, exaggerating for effect -- what do you expect? She's an actress, after all. In truth, the 21-year-old couldn't be happier at the moment: She's in love (one year and counting), and she's playing the dream role of Viola in Twelfth Night this summer in Manhattan's prestigious Shakespeare in the Park series. Plus, having wrapped her second year at Columbia University on a high note -- her first time on the deans list -- she's just moved into her very own apartment.
Clearly, tonight's body posture aside, Julia is no slouch. The English lit major and actress, who hit it big with last year's Save the Last Dance, has a reputation for being intensely driven -- and she lives up to it. She's agreed to meet with seventeen after a grueling nine-and-a-half-hour rehearsal day of Twelfth Night. As if that weren't enough, Julia spent her lunch break learning Japanese for a weekend reshoot for this month's A Guy Thing in Vancouver, for a joke in the movie -- but that's beside the point.
After watching her play more serious roles in movies like O and 10 Things I hate About You, we're psyched to see this girl loosening up on-screen. "I read the script and I was laughing out loud," Julia says of her new film. "My character is kind of what I wish I were like in real life. She reminds me of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, only quirkier." Playing the part also helped Julia learn not to take herself too seriously off screen, too. "Doing comedy you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself," she says. "It released a lot of tension for me, which is a wonderful thing. I can just laugh at myself."
Once she was able to feel more comfortable in her own skin, Julia could find her way on campus as a regular student -- not as a movie star. "Before sophomore year, I has gotten to a point where I was really self-conscious. I though people were going to criticize me. I guess I was just more aware of how I was presenting myself. It was frustrating to me, and it really distracted me from what I was there to do, which was to learn." While living in the dorms, Julia settled in with a group of friends who got to know and appreciate her as a person -- not as a Hollywood celebrity.
She's not the only actor at Columbia. Anna Paquin is a junior there, as is Stiles' ex-boyfriend Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd rock from the sun), with whom she's still friendly. She actually met her current boyfriend on her dorm floor during her first year. The two were friends to begin with, and the relationship grew from there. She won't say much about the lucky guy (out of respect of his privacy), but she will say, "I was looking for someone I could laugh with, someone laid-back who I could just have fun with." And the clincher: "Of course, chemistry -- I love when there's that spark." She calls him romantic -- "but not in a cheesy way." They go out to movies or make dinners at home. He's a good cook. As for her? Well she's learning.
In class, Julia says she had to prove to her professors "that I'm not just some silly movie star, that I deserve to be here." She could have skipped the lecture halls altogether and headed straight for the red carpets of Hollywood, but she says, "there are a lot of things I want to learn that acting can't teach me. Just being an actress in films, you get lazy. People will give you things and you can stop working as hard. You can start to think that you're the center of the universe. You can get praised in Hollywood for a film that opens big at the box office, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing good work."
Julia's self-assurance didn't come without growing pains. When she poked fun at the campus frat contingent and referred to the Columbia cafeteria workers as "mole people" on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, a campus-wide stir erupted. A harsh editorial in the school paper painted her as a "sloe-eyed Hollywood wench." She fired off a terse letter to the paper, partially apologizing for what she called a thoughtless joke and weathered the storm. It made her much stronger. "If I say something people don't agree with, then that's too bad for them," she says. " And if I say something in the press that they don't agree with, then that's too bad for them, too."
New York City girl
Julia is also working a new style, though you'd never guess it in a million years from the way she shows up at our interview -- she's make-up free and wearing a pair of low-rise jeans with a cute Paul Frank T-shirt that has a picture of a horned bull eating a bowl of cereal. She says she's given up the tomboy look she was into as a teen. Having grown up in New York City's SoHo neighborhood, where her parents own and run a pottery business, Julia chose clothes that would act as armor rather than attract attention on city streets. "That's is the weird thing about growing up in New York City -- at a very young age you have to learn how to protect yourself walking down the street," she says. "I used to make me feel uncomfortable to have guys commenting on me, so I tried to avoid that by looking like a tomboy. But now I'm not scared of it. I've come into my own." What gives with tonight's attire then? She's just in character for Twelfth Night. "I am dying to some skirts! But Viola, the character I play, is this girl who dresses up like a boy, so I come to work everyday in very androgynous clothing," Julia says.
A longtime thrift-store junkie, she's kicked that habit. "It got harder to find deals," Julia says. Right now she's obsessed with the flirty, bohemian looks of Anthropologie ("I'm in a girlie phase," she says), where she can find cool clothes as well as stuff for her apartment, like the antique style plates adorn her light switches. Don't expect to see her at high-end boutiques, though she admits she'll wear designer clothes if they're given to her. "I'm rather splurge on things like my education or CDs," she says. But she confesses to being cheap on the music front, too. She burns CDs more often than she buys them (though she does shop for Belle & Sebastian discs at Tower Records as well as Other Music, Inc. which is her favorite spot for record shopping in lower Manhattan). "My parents are always lecturing me about not being so miserly," Julia says. After all she did make a reportedly four million dollars for A Guy Thing!
All she needs are tunes and a subway token
Her paychecks and profile may be shooting sky-high, but she remains totally down-to-earth. An evening on the own is more about dancing at '80s nights with pals, not about [she affects a snooty tone] "I'm on the list!" And when a car service was offered to and from Twelfth Night rehearsals, Julia said, "No way, are you kidding me? That walk to work or subway commute is my 'me time,' where I can put on my headphones and just zone out."
This wasn't how she intended to spend her summer break. Before she got the Twelfth Night gig, Julia was set to build houses in South Africa with Habitat for humanity -- she's already done two stints with the organization in Costa Rica during the year she took off between graduating from Manhattan's Professional Children's School and starting at Columbia. "Literally the first day the guy in charge handed me a shovel and was like,' Dig a foundation, apprentice.,'" she recalls. She went to Costa Rica with the idea of doing something productive and improving her Spanish-speaking skills. Living with a local family who had no idea who the heck she was back home, Julia got more than she bargained for: "It just blew my mind!" she says. "It was good to force myself not to rely on being famous, to know that I can get things on my own merit."
Home sweet home
Instead of doing hard labor in South Africa, Julia is working on her new home. Just days before we meet, she's moved into a small one-bedroom apartment , which feels pretty spacious thanks to her furniture (or lack or it) -- she has only a bed, a TV and a Pilates machine that her dad helped her lug in. She says her new place feels like "a giant dollhouse," and she's looking forward to decorating it with a few framed photographs and 1920s cottage furniture. The vibe is cool, sophisticated and unfussy, just like the apartment's inhabitant. Julia may not have had to dig her own foundation here, but she's already on solid ground.
Originally published in the September 2002 issue of Seventeen Magazine