San Francisco Chronicle - December 14, 2003

 Julia Stiles paints a complex portrait in Mona Lisa Smile 

Julia Stiles has spent the day hobnobbing with Julia Roberts and the other young stars of Mona Lisa Smile, but the 22-year old actress has other things on her mind besides moviemaking -- that is, final exams. Stiles is midway through her junior year at Columbia University, where she's majoring in English. Tomorrow, she flies back to New York to finish her midterms.

"I feel like college is a safe environment for me to grow up in," Stiles explains. "It's not training me for a certain profession because I already know what I want to do, which is acting. School for me is almost like being part of an expensive book club that keeps me stimulated and inspired."

In the period piece Mona Lisa Smile, Stiles portrays an equally bright but far more docile college student in 1953. As Joan Brandwyn, she's one of several Wellesley College students (Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwin) whose WASP-y worldview is cracked wide open after a free- thinking art teacher (Julia Roberts) arrives from Berkeley (where else?) and tries to radicalize the all-woman Massachusetts campus.

Dressed today in a pink sweater, blue jeans and pink high heels, Stiles takes a swig from a bottle of iced coffee before describing what it was like to climb inside the mindset of a midcentury college kid.

"The thing I think is similar about Joan and me is that she comes across as just sort of an obedient student at the beginning who's being pushed and pulled in so many directions, whether it's the world around her or this professor she admires. There's a little bit of mystery with Joan, I guess is what I'm saying. You don't really know where she's coming from until she finally makes her decision, and I like that, although at first I was a little scared that my character would maybe go unnoticed or something, or that maybe she wasn't being distinctive enough. But there's something I like about her reserve."

To immerse herself in the cultural reserve underpinning the pre-feminist Eisenhower era portrayed in Mona Lisa, Stiles watched "a ton" of movies from the early '50s, modeled her speaking voice after Grace Kelly, tried to get accustomed to wearing a girdle and took etiquette classes where she learned the "correct" way cross her legs, light a cigarette and shake hands. Recounts Stiles, "When I started the rehearsal period, I said to my mother, 'I don't know how they're going to do this because I'm such a tomboy.' But now I know how to sit like a proper young lady."

One of the most challenging body-mind warps for Stiles involved the tango, rhumba and waltz steps she had to master. "Ballroom dancing is so dependent on the guy because he leads," Stiles says. "When we started the lessons, we behaved like very modern girls and tried to push the guys around and lead them. We had to keep remembering that they were supposed to lead us, so we had to be much less aggressive. That turned out to be very applicable to the time period and our characters."

In the film, Roberts' character prodded her charges to think independently about art, sex, marriage and careers. On the set, Stiles says, Roberts downplayed her authority. "Julia Roberts didn't presume to be a mentor to us, but I learned from her just by watching the spontaneity and freshness in her acting. It was also nice that by example, she's given us permission to use the power that we, as actresses, can acquire in Hollywood to tell stories we really want to tell."

Roberts, who also produced the film through her company Red Om Films, had Stiles in mind for Mona Lisa from the beginning. "She's one of my favorite actresses to watch," Roberts says, brightening momentarily from the effects of a seven-day bout with the flu. "Julia was the very first person we cast. She brings such poise to the part of this impressionable, intellectual woman because she herself is such a poised, bright, interesting girl. And she's very professional. In fact, I was actually a little intimidated."

Like Jodie Foster, another actress who found time in her 20s to pursue an Ivy League education, Stiles invests her characters with a crisp, high-IQ sense of articulation. Her filmography encompasses small parts in big pictures (Matt Damon's girlfriend in The Bourne Identity), big parts in small movies (like her scheming corporate exec who torments Stockard Channing in The Business of Strangers or her star turn in the Othello contemporary remake O), and brighter-than-the-material-warrants performances in an assortment of teen romances and comedies, including 10 Things I Hate About You, Save the Last Dance and A Guy Thing.

Regardless of the part, Stiles exudes a degree of confidence rarely found in actresses her age. "I sometimes use my experiences acting, when I'm pretending to be a character, to work out my own questions on film," Stiles says. "So if there's a certitude in my characters, it's because I'm trying to search for a certitude in my own life."

Self-assurance comes easily for Stiles. Raised in New York by her ceramicist mother and businessman father, she began acting at age 11 with Manhattan's Bridge Theater, an avant-garde ensemble that performed at La Mama, the Kitchen and other cutting-edge venues. "They were very experimental, very forward thinking, very daring," says Stiles, who is still on the company's board of directors. "It's funny because I think I was sort of embarrassingly precocious. I pretended like I knew what was going on but I don't think I had any clue what those plays were about. The first play I did I had to carry a silver tray with this human heart up these stairs blindfolded. I remember the director saying to me, 'It's a play about 1930s jungle movies and the psychology behind Freudian theory' and I was like, 'Oh, I can do that.' But I don't even think I knew who Sigmund Freud was."

Mona Lisa's formidable female ensemble is introduced en masse during the film's opening scene, when Julia Roberts' character confronts a classroom full of impeccably prepared students who can rattle off textbook-perfect responses to all her questions. But Stiles says the most compelling moment for her came later on in the story, when Roberts' character, pressured by administrators to tone down her "subversive" rhetoric, counters by presenting a slide show of subservient-housewife imagery gleaned from magazine advertisements.

"That was a really high energy scene for us because I think we're still so much victims of advertising, especially as women," Stiles says. "I don't think that's changed very much. If anything, I think that's where the movie jumps forward into the year 2003. That was really charged, and I remember being very moved by Julia. She's challenging us, 'What are you doing to yourselves?' She's also trying to say women are confined by the society that we live in, but we also, as women, we command the way we're treated. You allow yourself to be a victim of advertising, and these girls were allowing themselves to sort of throw away their education."

Stiles says she has a couple of real-life teachers at Columbia who have helped her break free of conventional modes of thought. Speaking of which, Stiles has planes to catch, tests to take -- she really must be going.

"It's nice," she says, "after making a movie to go to a place that keeps my head on straight, where how I perform in class and what I have to say is more important than what movies I've been in."

Article by Hugh Hart
Originally published in the December 14, 2003 issue of
the San Francisco Chronicle