Houston Chronicle - December 19, 2003

 Stiles finds satisfaction with her characters, career 

Los Angeles -- Like many college students, Julia Stiles is cramming for final exams. Unlike most, she's also preparing to make a movie.

"I just had my final for modern drama," said Stiles, an English major at New York's Columbia University, "but I still have finals left. Then I'm taking next semester off to do The Bourne Supremacy in Europe with Matt Damon."

So many choices, so little time. But at least she has such choices, unlike the characters in Mona Lisa Smile, opening today.

Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal play upper-crust students at Wellesley, an East Coast all-female college where 1950s women are groomed to become homemakers, not career professionals. New art teacher Julia Roberts challenges that order, showing students the value of choice.

Stiles skipped another semester at Columbia to make the movie, which is one reason why, at 22, she's still a junior and unsure when she'll graduate.

"TV stars make movies on hiatus from series," said the native New Yorker, who's been acting since she made an Apple Jacks commercial at 12. "I feel like I go to school on hiatus from making movies."

But she's happy with the trade-off.

"If I'd been a child of the '50s, I don't think I would have had much of a choice," Stiles said. "There would have been a lot of tiptoeing around."

As it is, she's become one of the movies' top young actresses. This month she is sharing the cover of Glamour magazine with superstar Roberts.

Unavoidably, Stiles has made her share of teen fluff, from Down to You and 10 Things I Hate About You to this year's A Guy Thing. Even so, she's often shown a serious side, from the taut drama The Business of Strangers to her modernized spins on Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello (the last called, simply, O). Even 10 Things was an update of the Bard's Taming of the Shrew.

She's also developing The Bell Jar as a film, both as producer and star, and will appear in David Mamet's Oleanna next year in London's West End.

Apart from a key role in the 1999 miniseries The '60s, however, Stiles' profile rarely has been high. Last year she was in the original Bourne Identity, a $121 million action hit, but that was a star vehicle for Damon. Her own biggest triumph was Save the Last Dance, a hip-hop romance that earned $91 million in 2001 and won her a Teen Choice Award as best actress.

A promising film is in the can for March release. The Prince and Me is a romance about a career-driven woman (Stiles) falling for a Danish prince (Luke Mably) who's living incognito in America and working as a waiter.

Stiles just saw the film, directed by Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl), and said she was "choked up" by its love story.

"It reminds me of love stories from the '50s, when you really watched people fall in love," she said. "Love is so wonderful. I consider myself a romantic at heart -- romantic and cynical, if that's possible."

She says her Prince character "never has fantasized about a wedding or a diamond ring or a Cinderella story, but finds herself in one. She's scared to open up to love, but meets a guy who makes her laugh and pulls her out of her shell."

In effect, it's Mona Lisa Smile in reverse. In the latter Stiles plays a woman with the smarts and itch to attend law school. But she's also in love and for her, choosing to be a wife and homemaker is a powerful option.

Stiles, whose parents have a pottery business in SoHo, wants to start her own family, too -- just not now.

"I'm too young," she said. "But I can envision it. Eventually to find somebody I can share a life with would be lovely."

For now, she satisfies such longings with old movies, "especially black-and-white films," Stiles said. "I've become obsessed with them."

Her latest favorite is 1933's Baby Face, in which Barbara Stanwyck claws her way to the top at a New York bank.

"I loved her!" Stiles said. "God, she was strong in that movie. She was loud-mouthed and flippant, but then she'd bat her eyelashes to get what she wanted."

As an admirer of Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn and other golden-era actresses, Stiles isn't so sure women's screen roles today reflect their progress in society.

"It's sort of a Catch-22, because you have to have an audience for films with strong women's roles in order to make them, but people need the chance to see powerful women's characters in order to create that audience."

With today's epidemic of plastic surgery and other enhancements, Hollywood also sets even sterner standards of beauty than in the '50s, when girdles and pearls were a basic uniform. The girdle of today? A strict diet.

Stiles is willing to play the glamour game.

"Hollywood movies are so linked with magazine covers and a public image that you run the risk of having actresses homogenized, where there's only one ideal of beauty," she said. "That's unfortunate, but my new philosophy is that, as an actor, your body and the way you look are your instrument, and you just sort of hone that."

In other words, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

She resists calling Mona Lisa Smile a "chick flick."

"That implies a sacharrine quality, and this, to me, isn't that at all," she said. "I think it has a lot to say. The characters' experiences are very deep. It's certainly not about women hating men. Women held themselves back, too. Change is slow."

Only Stiles adopted the refined accent of a finishing-school girl. "That was up to each of us," she said. "I think the other characters were maybe more iconoclastic."

She also embraced the fashions.

"It was good in the morning to put on the pearls and have my hair set and wear the girdle and the fluffy clothing, because all that affects your body language. It made my job easier."

Coming from such a different world, she needed all the help she could get.

"College today is so different," said Stiles, who's spent much of her life in tomboy attire. "We even have coed dorms. But I liked that school then was more about sheer learning than now, when it's all about getting a high-paying job.

"Still, we've come a long way, and I had a hard time understanding my character. I didn't want her to cop out. But true liberation lies in having a choice. You can choose to have a career or a family -- or try to have both -- and I won't judge that choice. The important thing is that you have one."

Article by Bruce Westbrook
Originally published in the December 19, 2003 issue of the Houston Chronicle