YM Magazine - February 2003

 No one can shut me up 

How I learned to stop worrying and start taking risks.

Article by Julia Stiles

I'm about to phone the editor of YM to tell her I give up. I am suffering from an oppressive bout of writer's block, and I regret to inform her that i will be unable to write my own article for her February issue. We'll have to leave it to a professional journalist because I am just a big, inarticulate loser! I feel like I'm back in my first two years of college, staring at my computer screen at five in the morning with no clue how to fill five pages on Etruscan art.

How is this possible? I finally have the opportunity to express myself directly, to cut out the middleman journalist and say something meaningful while I promote my new movie A guy thing, but I have nothing to say. I guess it's easier for me to play opinionated character in movies, where everything is scripted and I know the audience will root for me. Or maybe, as an actress, I've gotten so dependent on endearing myself to my audience that to actually take risks is scary.

That's why playing Becky in A guy thing was so much fun. Becky's entirely free-spirited and oblivious to any criticism. I chose the role because, in a way, I want to be like Becky: I don't want to be afraid of taking risks. So how is it that I have nothing to say for YM? I used to be quite a devilish little girl. My parents, who own their own business, encouraged my outspoken ways. And in school, I was the one who was told to put her hand down in class, the one who everyone had always heard enough from.

I grew up in New York City, where you get stepped on if you can't demand what you want. Once, in my seventh-grade English class at Friends Seminary, which is a Quaker school that prides itself on promoting individuality, I went on a tirade when the boy I had a crush on dismissed my favorite author. He boisterously declared that John Steinbeck was slow and boring, and he thought all the descriptions of nature in The grapes of wrath were irrelevant. I told him that if he had read the ending, he would understand that every description of an animal in the desert related to human interaction as well. When I was done, he turned to the teacher and said, "Ugh -- she's such a feminist." Imagine a classroom full of twittering adolescents. That shut me up.

It shut me up, that's just it. What I'd said in class had nothing at all to do with women or feminism, I was just unabashedly expressing my opinion. Suddenly I was being mocked and labeled. I can see now that the boy was just embarrassed and defensive. At the time, though, I wanted him to think I was the coolest, sexiest, most gorgeous goddess on earth.

I had a similar experience when I stated college. I chose to go to Columbia University precisely because the student body seemed diverse. Not just diverse in terms of race, but on a deeper level. The classrooms would be filled with people from different economic backgrounds, different countries, with different opinions. I was excited that my classmates would argue rather than agree. Despite wanting this diversity, I was reluctant to stand out. Two years ago, during freshman orientation, when everyone goes around and says their name and where they are from and what their favorite animal is and what they want to be when they grow up, I had no idea how to handle the idea of my profession.

I started acting at a young age. I was fortunate because by the time I was 11, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and devoted all my energy to making that happen. I loved performing and playing pretend. I had grown up without a backyard, so my imagination became my pastime. My after-school activities consisted of play rehearsals with an off-Broadway theater company, or cattle-call auditions for any role I could get my hands on. The time I spent in high school trying to prove to people that I could act had luckily paid off; I was now a college freshman with the rare responsibility of a career in motion.

But I didn't know how to handle that with my peers. Should I ignore it altogether? Should I say I want to be an actress when I grow up, even though I'd been acting for almost 10 years? Or should I make a joke about it and say, "Hi, I'm Julia. I'll be majoring in English. My favorite animal is a Siberian tiger, and perhaps you've seen me is such hit movies as Save the last dance and 10 things I hate about you!" I figured the joke wouldn't go over well. People would think I was seriously self-absorbed, so I refrained form saying anything about acting.

I approached the start of college in utter denial of the fact that I had been in any movies whatsoever. I went to class in my pajamas just like everyone else, and I insisted to my classmates that I was just another student. I make sure I was sweet as pie to everyone, so as never to be called conceited, or a feminist, or disagreeable. The odd thing was, it didn't really matter how much I tried to "yes" everyone. One girl in my dorm admitted to me that she'd planned to ignore me before we had even met. She had assumed I'd be a "glamorous, stuck-up Hollywood girl" (we actually became good friends, which is why she divulged such information).

Freshman year we had a required essay-writing course to improve our skills as grammarians and logicians. In every class we were handed back our papers, entirely covered in red ink, and a new topic was assigned. We'd go back to our rooms, write two to four pages on the new topic, and wonder why we were such bad writers. Then we'd all return to class to correct our papers out loud. Initially, I never got above a C in that class because, to be honest, my papers were really obvious and boring. I never dared to say anything new, I just wrote what I though was expected of me. For example, when asked to ponder censorship, I wrote that it was bad but in certain cases okay, blah, blah, blah. I actually completely opposed censorship, but I threw an escape clause into my papers so as not to have to defend my position in class.

My professor saw through this immediately. For the next topic he asked us to argue a political opinion we didn't agree with or believe in. I was stuck. I couldn't write anything just for the sake of argument because I was afraid my paper would be read aloud and my classmates would think poorly of me. My professor took me aside and said, "Write about what you know." He looked at my censorship paper and said, "I still don't know where you stand on the issue. You haven't taken a stance." And he knew I had one. When I confided that I was having a hard time arguing a definitive position because my own experiences in moviemaking force me to be biased, he exclaimed, "Good! Include your biases. Tell us about them!"

I remember laboring over that paper for hours. I would type an idea, imagine my classmates criticizing it, and then delete entire paragraphs before they were finished. Finally, I threw my hands up and decided to screw being popular. Every time I put a sentence down I didn't wonder if people were going to agree with or like it. I just asked myself, is this true for me? It was the most liberating, enjoyable paper I had ever written. I got an A, and the approval I had been looking for.

Learning to assert myself hasn't been limited to college. I've found myself faking in Hollywood as well. There have been numerous times where I've read an interview I did and gone, Did I really say that? I don't believe that, so why would I say it!!??? Or found myself at a premiere in some cockamamie dress I couldn't move in and heels that made me feel like I was going to tip over. I felt so out of place, all because I thought I had to play the role of "glamorous Hollywood girl."

The first time I went on "Late night with Conan O'Brian" was to promote Save the last dance. I knew people involved in the show were afraid I wasn't going to be funny, and I wanted desperately to get a laugh. I made some wisecrack about the school cafeteria without even thinking about what it meant, or that anyone would be hurt by my comments. When I went back to school for my second semester, the people who'd been working very hard to feed all the students, and clean up our messes, and smile at us before exams, were really hurt by what I had said. And the worst part was that I hadn't meant it.

So what do I have to say when I don't imagine any critics? When my words aren't filtered through a journalist or skewed for the sake of entertainment, what do I really believe in? Here goes:

All I really need to know I learned on a movie set

1. Every job is important, from the grips who lay the equipment to the makeup artist who paints my face. That goes for pretty much the rest of the world as well (especially hungry college students and school cafeterias).

2. A girl with a good head on her shoulders can get what she wants. I've worked with a number of actresses who are focused and articulate. Even when they want a whole scene changed, they can ask for it, and get it. Their brilliance is that they can do it in a non-diva-ish way.

3. You can't please everyone all the time. It's a cliche because it's true. My middle-school crush may have been embarrassed that I openly contradicted him, but all the worthwhile guys I know (and there are plenty of them) find a girl with an opinion enticing. If she's got a mind of her own and isn't afraid to use it, those fellas want to know more.

4. I have been fortunate to have something that I love doing, where I can focus all my creative energy and experiment and take risks and feel a sense of accomplishment. Acting has given me a way to express myself, to play pretend, to ask questions and to propose answers. I find that most of the people I know are happiest when they have something that consumes them. So find something you like to do, whether it's writing, painting, throwing a football, or performing in the circus, and do it with all you might. (P.S. Dieting or worrying about the size of your boobs does not count as a hobby, and it will probably take up more time.)

5. There's life after high school. The process of making a movie, because it means so much to me, can make me forget about the rest of the world. Similarly, it takes an intense amount of organization for a film crew to complete the scheduled scenes every day, and any obstacle to "making a day" wreaks havoc -- whether an airplane makes too much noise in the middle of a scene or someone gets the flu, but more often than not, the movie gets made and we're on to the next job. It's the same with high school. Whatever seems like a big deal is soon to be forgotten.

The process of writing this for YM is kind of what I had to go through to prepare for A guy thing. Becky's trying her hand at different jobs because she's curious, and she leaves them when they get too boring or comfortable. All she really cares about is experiencing life. I loved how honest and straightforward she was; Becky never censors her opinions. I aspire to be like Becky in many ways, and I hope her freedom inspires you as well.

Originally published in the February 2003 issue of YM Magazine