Julia Stiles - Mona Lisa Smile
When we first met, Julia Stiles was wearing a sapphire blue taffeta evening gown and a blue pillbox hat resting atop a big, blond, Grace Kelly meringue of a hairdo. She was knitting, too. In other words, she looked like a '50s housewife in Greenwich waiting for her husband to come home on the 6:19 local.
Today, she's a regular undergrad in street clothes, worried about her midterms. Stiles is halfway through her junior year at Columbia. Asked if it's been weird being the famous kid in her class, she says, "When I first started it was deceptive. I was like, 'Hey, I'm real popular! This is great!' And now I have to constantly remind myself not to feel self-conscious. I don't think the other students care that much. And I don't think they're focused on me. But sometimes in my classes I am hesitant to speak up."
Stiles, whose pretty face is alabaster white and round as a moon pie, is as dead serious in person as she tends to be in her films, whether those films are set in the world of Shakespeare (Hamlet), hip-hop (Save the Last Dance) or both (O). She's an English major, and she chooses words carefully -- throwing in a lot of big ones while she's at it. This semester her classes include a seminar on the Great Depression, African-American poetry, astronomy ("My science requirement," she groans), and modern drama -- which you'd think she'd ace in her sleep. "Well, it's like Chekhov, and Shaw, and Ibsen. I mean, I can speak the lingo, but I still have to read the plays."
In a way, Stiles is the direct heir to Joan, the similarly bookish valedictorian she plays in Mona Lisa. After all, she's a young woman struggling to balance her career and her life outside of Hollywood. "I'm constantly switching gears," she says. "There's a lot of work that goes into making movies when you're not even on the set, like deciding what movies to do. I sometimes feel like there's a lot of material out there for actresses, but a lot of it is the same. I know it sounds trite, but the 'girlfriend' role that's kind of characterless is really common. And they keep doing it over and over again."
Originally published in the November 14, 2003 issue of Entertainment Weekly