USA Today - December 18, 2003

 Stars of Mona Lisa smile on their good fortune 

Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Julia Stiles play brainy young women struggling to find themselves at 1950s-era Wellesley College in Mona Lisa Smile, opening Friday.

In the movie, a free-thinking art history professor played by Julia Roberts inspires them to look beyond what society expects of them.

In real life, these young women have found themselves quite nicely, thank you, in the competitive world of Hollywood.

Though each has taken a different path, this savvy trio has learned some lessons about how to succeed in the business.

Lesson No. 1: Study something other than acting

Stiles, 22, is a senior at Columbia University, majoring in English literature. She took her final in modern drama shortly before this interview.

Gyllenhaal, 26, a '99 Columbia grad, had advice for Stiles on profs and classes.

Dunst, 21, who started in commercials at age 3, didn't attend college, but she's interested in art history, photography and philosophy. "Being around Julia and Maggie and talking about college professors does make me think about wanting to take classes," says Dunst. "It's important to always be interested in finding out the origins of why we do what we do."

Surprisingly, Stiles is not a regular in the theater department. "I feel if I'm (at college) I should spend time reading good books rather than performing."

Lesson No. 2: Perceptions about actresses die hard

Reporters ask pretty retro questions of these thoroughly modern women.

"There were all these people coming up to us today asking, 'So, were there a lot of catfights on the set?' " says Gyllenhaal.

Director Mike Newell reportedly tossed a chair at producer (and Roberts' business partner) Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. The women won't comment, but dismiss the vision of rampant cattiness or that the set was a big slumber party.

"It was way less dramatic than everybody wants to make it," Gyllenhaal says. "It was just people who were clear and focused, and good at what they do, working together on a movie," she says. "It wasn't like we got together and giggled and traded bras."

Adds Stiles: "We were all very supportive of each other, but that's Acting 101. You want to be good to the people that are in a scene with you, and vice versa."

Gyllenhaal says many directors can't accept that young actresses have worthwhile opinions. But "the generation of actors that we come from already feels more entitled."

Dunst says, "A lot of people still try to put you in a box. They see one movie of yours and they don't think you can play this type of role or that type of role."

"Lots of Starbucks and the New York Times crossword puzzle," says Dunst.

As for role models, the trio remains unconventional.

"I love Samantha Morton," says Dunst.

For Gyllenhaal, it's Gena Rowlands.

For Stiles, it's "Mary Louise Parker, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett. I look to actors that I don't really know anything about personally. When I know too much about an actor's personal life and then watch them on screen, it's hard to watch them transform. I'm watching their celebrity."

Lesson No. 3: Big-studio movies are not the enemy

Gyllenhaal is known as an art-house kind of gal, having made her name with last year's acclaimed Secretary, while Dunst is more of a studio favorite, thanks to hits such as Spider-Man and Interview With a Vampire. Stiles goes back and forth, earning good reviews for her work in small films such as The Business of Strangers and studio teen comedies such as A Guy Thing.

"It's rare that big studios make movies that I'm interested in," says Gyllenhaal. "But I think they could, and if they did, it would be great, since movies have the power to reach so many people."

Dunst says that Spider-Man -- she's in next summer's Spider-Man 2 as well -- helped her land all kinds of roles, including last year's small film, Levity.

"I did a movie where they wanted Sarah Polley (My Life Without Me) for the role, but commerce kind of gave me the role," she says. "I'm not the best actress. I know I have a lot to learn. If I'm hired out of commerce, that's part of the industry that we're in. As long as I do something that I can be challenged by, so I can become better and better."

The women have a healthy respect for their superstar co-star Julia Roberts.

Gyllenhaal admires her move to smaller, more provocative movies.

"She's made a lot of really good choices and has used the power that she's acquired in Hollywood really well: She's telling stories that are meaningful to her," says Stiles.

Lesson No. 4: Seek out good people in the business

"The biggest battle that I have is finding people to work with who will support me -- agents that have the same goals that I do and can be good representatives for me," says Stiles, adding that she has just changed agents.

Dunst, who grew up in the movies, says she has an added challenge.

"I was with somebody since I was very young, and it's hard for them to see you as making your own decisions," says Dunst. "I needed somebody to see me in a different light, and also who knew the ropes of everything and who I really respect."

Gyllenhaal says she considers herself fortunate to have found the right associates early on.

"I've had the same agents and managers since nobody cared what I did," Gyllenhaal says. "I don't think they're trying to get rich off me or something, since they stuck by me for so long when nobody cared."

Lesson No. 5: Don't worry about your career -- go with your gut

"Playing it smart is just following your intuition," says Dunst. "I've done movies that I haven't followed my gut on, and it turned out I didn't enjoy the movie in the end or something wasn't right."

She won't name names, of course, being a savvy Hollywood player.

Gyllenhaal also places the most trust in her instincts. "Try not to get something for yourself as a celebrity. I think the only thing that will work is if you're actively interested for emotional or intellectual reasons, or hopefully a mixture of both."

That brings Stiles back to Mona Lisa Smile.

"This is exactly what Katherine (Roberts' character) tries to teach these girls and learns from them, too," she says. "What we're saying applies to acting, it applies to what these women were going through, and to so many other professions."

Directing their attention to the Coens, Almodovar

Which directors do the young women of Mona Lisa Smile pine to work with?

The Coen brothers, says Julia Stiles. "They make really funny and intelligent movies that say something."

Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, Clear and Present Danger), she adds, "is also really interesting."

Pedro Almodovar, say Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunst. But Dunst cautions, "You've got to learn to speak Spanish. He's amazing. Great, poetic. He can make you sympathetic toward somebody that may seem bad, like in Talk to Her."

Stiles says she had to study his films in Spanish classes -- with no subtitles to help. "I don't think that I necessarily understood them as well as I should have," she says. "Then I saw All About My Mother in France. It was in Spanish, with French subtitles."

Article by Claudia Puig
Originally published at USA - Posted on December 18, 2003