She's a gifted Hollywood actress with most of a Columbia degree and a cool line in Shakespeare. Now Julia Stiles is poised to unsettle London audiences with David Mamet's controversial Oleanna. PC or not PC, asks Garth Pearce
Julia Stiles is a shrewd observer of how the delicate balance between sex and power can change a situation. She has seen it at New York's Columbia University, where she is studying English. She has noted it on film sets, where she has an established reputation as one of Hollywood's youngest leading players. And now she will be acting out sexual power games night after night in the West End revival of Oleanna, a play that, more than any other, has split opinion over what could, or could not, be construed as sexual harassment.
Stiles, who turns 23 today, plays Carol, the insecure student who slices to shreds the life of her once powerful college professor when she accuses him of using sexual innuendo in private tutorials. When David Mamet's play premiered in London at the Royal Court in 1993, it fiercely divided audiences. There were even cheers when the hounded professor used a four-letter word for his accuser.
If there were any doubt that the play was still relevant 11 years on, the feminist author Naomi Wolf recently removed it. Last month, she wrote an article accusing the literary lion Professor Harold Bloom of making a sexual advance towards her when she was a 20-year-old student at Yale. Her claims, 21 years after the alleged event, could have come straight from Oleanna. "I lurched away," recalls Wolf. "The floor spun. I turned away from him towards the sink and found myself vomiting. Bloom disappeared. When he returned from a bedroom, with his coat, preparing to go, I was still frozen, my back against the sink." He told her, before his departure: "You are a deeply troubled girl."
Stiles, despite being frequently cast as troubled, is a self-possessed, opinionated young woman. "Sexual tension at college does not shock me at all," she says. "Intellect is really attractive. I have crushes on professors. I also hear about professors sleeping with their students. It is much more complicated than sex alone. There is something that is not even gross about it, or abusive, in my opinion. I can easily see how it happens, particularly when the professor and student are close in age.
"The abuse of power is subtle. When two people -- professor and student -- are having a one-on-one discussion about an academic subject dear to both of them, that can create sexual chemistry. What they do about it is the grey area."
It is not a grey area to her mother, Judith, a former ceramics professor, who started the off-stage debate about Oleanna round the family table in New York. "I was telling her about a conversation with Mamet in which I asked if he thought this was a play more about academia than sexual politics," she says. "My mother said, 'That is ridiculous -- academia is about sexual politics. You cannot separate them.' So I think we're in for some lively views."
Stiles is no regulation Hollywood blonde. She has calm, steady brown eyes and an engaging, mature manner, and she gives views on a whole variety of subjects when we meet for afternoon tea during a half-day free from filming The Bourne Supremacy, the sequel to The Bourne Identity, in Berlin.
Her CV is remarkable for her age. She has made 19 films, including 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew; a contemporary version of Hamlet in 2000, playing Ophelia opposite Ethan Hawke; the romantic Save the Last Dance (2001); The Bourne Identity, a 2002 box-office hit; the edgy The Business of Strangers, opposite Stockard Channing (2001); and last year's lightweight A Guy Thing, with Selma Blair. She is also a member of the powerful line-up in Mona Lisa Smile, currently on release, in which, alongside Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Marcia Gay Harden, she plays a student at a 1953 all-women university who ignores the advice of her lecturer, played by Julia Roberts, and insists she can have it all -- love, education and a career. This summer, as Stiles makes her professional stage debut, the romantic The Prince & Me, which she filmed in Prague, will play the multiplexes.
"I was never pushed into acting," she says. "I joined a theatre company in New York at the age of 12. I was just a kid who liked performing. I found an agent through that company and did auditions for film and TV. I thought it was just a fun after-school activity." That activity led to her film debut, I Love You, I Love You Not, in 1996, with the equally upwardly mobile Claire Danes, now 24. And, like Danes, who also went to university, Stiles was unclear about whether she wanted to make a career out of acting. "I wanted college and a degree," she says. "That is something I am doing for myself."
She first read Oleanna out of curiosity after filming Mamet's State and Main. "It resonated with me because I was just about to start college," she says. "Then, last year, when I was talking to David Mamet about something else, I happened to mention that I had really enjoyed it. This was no hint from me, because I did not think they were ever going to stage it again. It had already been in New York 10 years ago, long before I understood the nuances of the play."
Mamet always personally selects both stars and directors for his plays, and Stiles, perhaps unknowingly, clearly made an impression. "I had seen the film of the play and I told him I found it a disappointment," she says. As the 1994 movie -- with William H Macy as the professor and Debra Eisenstadt as Carol -- was directed by Mamet, others might have avoided the subject. "It just did not do it justice," insists Stiles. "Carol did not end up as powerful as she should. Nor did she start off as weak."
Shortly after that conversation, Mamet decided to relaunch the play. He has not changed a word, but the director, Lindsay Posner, fresh from his success at the Comedy Theatre with Sexual Perversity in Chicago, opted for a slightly younger approach than in the original, which starred Lia Williams, who was then in her late twenties. The 36-year-old American Aaron Eckhart, who is on screen with Cate Blanchett in The Missing, will play the professor. They are already in rehearsal in London.
This, of course, takes Stiles away from her studies (though only two semesters short of finishing, she is on a temporary sabbatical), her close-knit family and her boyfriend of two years, a fellow student. This is an odd one: she is earning a fortune ($2m for The Bourne Supremacy) while he struggles to get by. "It is awkward for him to be my boyfriend," she admits. "I have to hold myself in check every time this subject comes up, because I love talking about him. I could just blabber on and on. Money can be a difficult subject between us, but only if I allow it to be. I do not want to sound obnoxious, but it would be more obnoxious of me to say I am not aware of the difference. The success, financial and otherwise, that I have had is only important if I have someone to share it with -- like him and my family."
Stiles is not one of those family-hating Hollywood stars I seem to meet so often these days. Her parents are very much together, and her father, John, who handles her finances and business matters, had left for New York on the morning we met. One of the family's quirkier traits was to give Stiles her mother's maiden name as a surname (her father's, O'Hara, is her middle name); her 13-year-old sister has it the other way around. "My brother, who is 11, had to be O'Hara too, to carry on the family name," she says.
Stiles, who is now a week into a month of rehearsals before a four-month run, is clearly relishing the prospect of what lies ahead. "Carol is so unashamedly powerful in the end," she says. "She turns the tables on the professor completely. She is at first insecure and confused, and follows his advice. He basically tells her that she cannot compete in the world of academia and assumes she is weak. So I am looking forward to being able to prove him wrong, eight times a week."
And what if some of the audience end up hating her? Or, even worse, as with the original, shouting insults? "Oh, I do hope so," says Stiles. "I will have done my job."
Originally published in the March 28, 2004 issue of Sunday Times Culture