Stiles all smiles
Mona Lisa star says acting brings her "such joy".
Hollywood -- For Julia Stiles, starring in Mona Lisa Smile was hardly a case of art imitating life. Stiles is currently a senior at Columbia University and her character Joan Brandwyn in Mona Lisa Smile is a senior at Wellesley College in 1953.
"We're both students. That's where the similarities end," says Stiles, whose 20 film and TV projects include 10 Things I Hate About You, State and Main, The Business of Strangers and Save the Last Dance.
"Joan has to decide whether to go to university to get a law degree or to get married, stay home and start a family."
"That's a rather strange and unconventional decision for modern audiences to wrap their minds around unless they try to put their heads into the mindset of the 1950s," says Stiles.
"It was right after WWII and the social politics dictated that women cling to domesticity."
Stiles says in the early 1950s family life "was a security blanket, so for Joan I don't think there was anything wrong with her considering giving up a career in favour of marriage.
"I think her struggle is important for women today because it reminds us that being a mother is a noble thing and that running a family is an incredibly important job."
It's just not one Stiles is contemplating any time soon.
"I am having such an incredible time acting now that it really is the focus of my life.
"I think I would panic if I couldn't act any more. Sometimes when I'm in classes, I feel I am already hindering my career, and acting is what gives me such joy.
"When I sit down to write a paper or study for an exam, I know in my heart I'd rather be on a film set or on stage acting."
Her brief sojourn to Columbia hasn't put a major dent in Stiles' career.
Last year, in addition to Mona Lisa Smile, Stiles filmed A Guy Thing, Carolina and Against the Ropes.
She will be reviving her character from The Bourne Identity for its sequel The Bourne Supremacy, and has the lead in Martha Coolidge's modern fairy tale The Prince and Me.
Stiles has also signed to star opposite James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet and Susan Sarandon in John Turturro's planned big-screen musical Romance & Cigarettes, but what has her really excited is an offer from the London stage.
Dream come true
"I've just learned I will definitely be doing a production of (David Mamet's) Oleanna in the West End this spring.
"We start rehearsals in the middle of March. Getting back on stage was a big goal for me so this is a dream come true."
When she was 11 growing up in New York, Stiles wrote to The Ridge Theatre and asked if she could join the theatre company.
"I was a child, so I didn't have that adolescent voice telling me it was a crazy idea or that I could fail miserably.
"Today I'm surprised they invited me into the company and let me work with them for five years. It was my version of playing dress-up, but it gave me such love for live theatre."
Stiles, 22, had several surreal days during the filming of Mona Lisa Smile.
Scenes of star Julia Roberts instructing her art history students at Wellesley were actually filmed at Columbia.
Gave friends a chuckle
"I called up friends and asked them to come and hang out with me on the set," recalls Stiles, who said her friends burst out laughing the first time they saw her in her '50s costumes and makeup.
"They said the period clothes and makeup made me look at least 30 years old. I really hadn't thought of that, but when I started looking at photos from the '50s, young women did look much older than we do, and it was a combination of the makeup and outfits."
Stiles says "applying that deep red lipstick, getting my hair set, slipping into that girdle and putting on the pearls really helped me understand Joan.
"I really didn't see myself in the mirror or feel like myself, so it was much easier to bring her to life."
Article by Louis B. Obson
Originally published in a December 2003 issue of the Ottawa Sun