Stiles gets seriously silly
A Guy Thing is comic relief for the focused actress and Columbia student.
Julia Stiles is an earnest, focused young actress, but college is giving her a chance to lighten up.
"Columbia has allowed me to just hang out with my peers," says the girl who got her start in downtown experimental theater at the age of 10 and says she feels more at home working on her Shakespeare than going out.
So what's she doing in a grass skirt and coconut-shell bra at Jason Lee's bachelor party in A Guy Thing? Short answer: the hula.
Longer answer: "I embrace my humor more now," she says of the film, which arrives Friday -- another in a January series of light, romantic and boxoffice-friendly comedies.
"A Guy Thing is exactly my sense of humor -- humor that comes out of awkward situations," she adds.
"I love that hula scene because I felt uncomfortable in that skirt. It reminded me of the pressure of being at a premiere and having to wear really high heels and a slinky dress and feeling like a tomboy. So I used that to make fun of women wearing silly costumes at a bachelor party and acting goofy and tripping and falling in my high heels, because I think that's true to life."
Stiles, 21, has gone to plenty of her own premieres: 10 Things I Hate About You, Save the Last Dance, The Bourne Identity, State and Main, Down to You, O, The Business of Strangers and Ethan Hawke's Hamlet. But she has never embraced the Hollywood scene.
"I'm not in the gossip columns," brags the Columbia University sophomore, who at one time dated actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Roseanne") but is now unattached. "I made the dean's list last semester."
Chris Koch, who directed A Guy Thing, says "none of this Hollywood stuff has gone to her head. I think staying in New York is a big part of that. New York teaches you not to believe your own press."
Graduating from teen flicks. Trying to move beyond teen-genre movies keeps things in perspective, too.
"I'm not in high school anymore," she says, "so I wouldn't play that. But a lot of movies appeal to teenagers that aren't about teenagers."
In A Guy Thing, she plays Becky, a woman in her early 20s who's trying to figure out her life. In the process, she winds up in bed with her cousin's fiance and spends the rest of the movie lying about it.
"There's something really refreshing about Becky, even in her klutziness," Stiles says. "Her free-spiritedness and the way she takes risks translates to real life for me. I do aspire to be like her, just in the way she's savoring life."
"Julia started out very earnest yet disciplined about being funny," Koch says. "But after a week and a half on A Guy Thing, she realized there was nothing to be earnest about."
"She was willing to make a fool of herself and throw jokes out there with the best of them. I think she really blossomed in this film."
Stiles said she notices the difference, too.
"For a long time, way before I made this movie, I was very into having a plan," she says. "I was very goal-oriented and myopic. Now I have a plan, but I can also adapt easily. I can go with the flow."
Stiles' plan to be an actress started early, in part because her grandmother took her to a lot of Off-Off-Broadway plays.
Ridge Theater director Bob McGrath provided her first job.
"Julia saw a show we did and wrote us a letter, some of which was in crayon," says McGrath. "She said, 'If you have any, and I mean any, parts for kids, I'll do them.'
"We got in touch with her, and she came over. I thought she had great presence, so I put her in some shows and kept putting her in shows until she was 17."
"I was very upstart," Stiles recalls about herself as a preteen in SoHo and a student at the Professional Children's School, which prepares students for careers in the arts.
"I was a lot like Eloise, the children's-book character [who lives at the Plaza]. I was almost overly confident and probably spoke with much more authority than I had. But I didn't have that voice in my head saying, 'You can't do something.' My mother [Judith, a ceramics artist] was very encouraging.
"I have opinions, and I'm not afraid to express them. But I still am a girl, and girls have this thing where they're eager to please... If you're too opinionated, sometimes people are put off by that, and nobody wants to be off-putting.
"After freshman year, I decided it was a waste of time to second-guess myself and try to please other people. Now it's just a matter of practicing it."
McGrath has admired her outspokenness since the early days.
"Julia was very single-minded and focused," he says. "She had such a great presence, quality and ease about herself and such determination that you forgot she was a kid."
Tim Blake Nelson, who directed O, agrees.
"Julia has intelligence and grace to match her considerable beauty," he says. "I've met a lot of physically attractive young women. They abound right now in the ranks of actresses her age. But she almost singularly exhibited an intelligence which eclipsed her beauty.
"I felt I was dealing with a palpable mind and [that she] was going to take the craft of acting seriously for a very long time, not someone who was looking for immediate results at the expense of her future. What proves that is, like Jodie Foster, Claire Danes and Anna Paquin, Julia chose to go to college when her beauty is in full bloom, where Hollywood is always looking for the next 18-year-old. I respect Julia for what she's done."
Still, Stiles has missed school to work. "I should be graduating this year, but I have two more years to go," she admits.
She skipped the past semester to costar with Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile, which will be released this year. Also coming this year is Carolina, with Shirley MacLaine.
Stiles has her own production company and has already optioned an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan.
"I think Julia could do anything she wants," says McGrath, who wrote a screenplay with her several years ago that got into the Sundance Writers Lab. "I think she could run a studio."
Article by Nancy Mills
Originally published in the January 13, 2003 issue of the New York Daily News