Of muse and men
When David Mamet asked her to read a new film script, Julia Stiles seized the moment to tell him she loved his controversial play Oleanna. Now she has her 'ideal role' in a new production in London. Zoe Williams talks to her about gender, politics and why she'll never be a Bond girl.
Something a bit weird happened when State And Main came out in 2000. On the one hand, it was appraised as any David Mamet film would be -- is it excellent? Does it approach his previous standards of excellence? Will the admirers of excellence be quoting lines from it in years to come?
Yet, at the same time, I remember having a conversation about it, which I read and heard other versions of, that went: "Yes, that was good, wasn't it?" "Well, I like anything with her in it." It wasn't so much that Mamet had been eclipsed as the defining factor of critical response by one of his own players. It was just that an actor had stepped up who inhabited his character so completely that it felt as if he'd created her as well as the part.
The her in question was Julia Stiles, at that point still a teenager. Liking "anything with her in it" wasn't such a long shot at the time -- she'd made 10 Things I Hate About You, a teen movie reworking of The Taming Of The Shrew that announced her arrival as an actor capable of being rebarbative without losing her humanity. She'd made Hamlet, with Ethan Hawke, which she names as the favourite of her films.
There had been a couple of peripheral roles in the late 1990s, and yet her presence loomed much larger than her CV warranted. She was -- at that point uniquely and now, with Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Gyllenhaal around, not uniquely -- an actor whose purpose was not to stand there looking cute. She can look cute, but employing her for that purpose would be like buying one of those professional espresso machines just because it matched your kitchen.
Stiles's relationship with Mamet may be that she's his long-sought muse, but she won't admit as much, adhering to the firm modesty that feels a bit Hollywood combined with starlet shtick, but on its own is regular modesty.
She's come to London to play Carol in a production of Oleanna, directed by Lindsay Posner. They have these strip-lit community centre rehearsal rooms in south London, which are an odd place to meet a film star of international acclaim. I squired her to a bar across the road, where people looked at us funnily. I tell you, it makes you realise why mafia bosses go out with famous women, even if it does make everything riskier -- it feels so money.
Stiles smokes, and she drinks wine, which is pleasing. She is fabled for her unnaturally wise eyes, and delivers -- she has an unnaturally mature gaze, critical but unjudgmental, intelligent, self-possessed. It's the kind of expression therapists would sell their souls for, and if a baby looked at you like that, you'd get really freaked out.
She also has a very adult voice, husky and commanding, and I don't think that's just the Camel Lights. She turned 23 last weekend, but her mien is much older -- she's the way 23-year-olds were supposed to act when Ingrid Bergman was 23.
And here's how she wound up in Clapham Common: "It had been in my mind a long time. Whenever people asked me about my ideal role, I'd always come back to Carol. But, you know, you think, oh, it's already been staged; they've already made a movie out of it, why would anyone want to put that on again? And then one day David Mamet called me -- sorry, I make it sound like that's a really regular thing to happen, it's not, it's a really big deal. He was talking about another script he wanted me to read, and I just decided not to run away from the conversation and be scared, so I just said, by the way, I really like Oleanna, and I went into this whole thing about why I liked it, and I said, 'I'm only saying that to compliment you, I'm not saying that because I want to be in it.' And I think that, coincidentally, the producers were trying to cast it at the time. I had no idea."
It is quite a coincidence since -- re-reading the play now, it seems so of its time -- it was written in the early 1990s, not necessarily as a response to, but certainly in the atmosphere created by, the Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991. This is an all-time classic American court case, right up there with Roe v Wade. Anita Hill made a case for sexual harassment against Thomas, and opinion bifurcated in the most violent, excessive way, with misogynist paranoia taking this as the shape of things to come -- any upstanding man could be brought down by a conniving, self-interested Iago-ette -- battling this inchoate shout of rage at the male establishment, holding that any woman making an accusation had to be believed, because she was a woman.
In Oleanna, a student, Carol, goes to see her tutor, John, about her poor performance at college and assorted worries. He makes remarks of a nature that could be, and are, taken as inappropriately sexual. She makes a complaint, pressure groups get involved and, by the end, which I won't ruin, the audience famously has no idea whose side to be on.
From this distance, it feels to me like Angels In America (that one about Aids that was televised recently). There's no doubt that it was like that then. But is it still like that now? Has the early unease about sexual harassment -- or, more to the point, legislation about it -- kept its hold? Or has the experience of the past 10 years shown that people don't tend to use these laws cynically, that we really needn't have worried?
Stiles gives me some rounded, multi-subclaused reasons why the play hasn't dated. The issue, to start with, is very current. "You have the Naomi Wolf/ Harold Bloom thing. You have the Leicester City players. And, besides that, this isn't just about legislation; so much of the play has to do with the potency of words and what they mean. And it's not just about men and women, it's about a man and a woman. It's ambiguous, because it's a power struggle, but it's also about how these two characters are corrupted by that power." Her arguments curl round you like a vine. I can tell I'm going to go home tired.
A lot of these questions have come up in Stiles's career once before, when she made The Business Of Strangers, a two-hander with Stockard Channing -- well, a three-hander, if you count the almost wholly unconscious man whose shirt they take off before they draw on him with lipstick. That film was pretty much panned critically, though both Stiles and Channing were widely praised for their performances.
Stiles plays Paula, a young temp to Channing's career woman, who accuses the man of having raped her in the past. "I got worried about portraying a girl who possibly could have been crying wolf, because I feel like the minute anyone can reasonably come out and say, 'This woman is crying wolf', then all women can be accused of exaggerating. And a little bit with Carol in Oleanna, right at the end, she accuses him of rape, and I said to Lindsay, I'd never use that word unless it meant physically what I know it means. It's irresponsible. But, of course, it's Carol. It isn't me."
Keeping this distinction between herself and her character must be difficult, when she takes on so much responsibility for portraying the whistleblowing character in a way people can accommodate. "I'm always afraid of showing the girl's anger. Because I just anticipate people saying, 'Oh, she's a bitch', and not being able to sympathise with her at all. I felt, you know, I really like this girl, but I don't want the audience to not like her, so I'd better not be too direct with my argument."
At the back of her mind is the uncomfortable truth of female characters, certainly in mainstream Hollywood, that they can't show anything muscular, or "unfeminine" without being written off as garden variety bad guys. "This is why I respond to the way Mamet writes women, or rather, the way he writes people. He writes people's honesty, even when people are being hypocritical or lying, you can still see through that. People often write women -- well, they dumb them down, so they can't lie and they can't have flaws. And so often people write casually; he writes very, very carefully, so it comes across in this very relaxed way, but every word is loaded. It sounds casual, but it's so intentional. I'd never ask, why is this line here? I'd always discover the clues of it myself. If the line is there, there's a reason why it's there. Whereas, with films, a lot of screenwriters write so casually that you do have to question, you have to be on your guard, you do have to make sure that it has purpose."
This is an incredibly scathing thing to say, once you get past the measured tones in which it is said -- that a whole, massively influential, internationally accessible cultural machine can't get its head round women as three-dimensional characters. I mean, it's clear and it's true, but it's so damning, you'd expect it to be said with more vitriol. Stiles doesn't really do vitriol. She's extremely diplomatic; she wouldn't even criticise Mona Lisa Smile, and I spent ages trying to make her.
On current release, this film is the female ensemble piece of the year, no question, and as such attracted what I don't think it is excessive to call the heavyweights of its generation -- Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Gyllenhaal. Juliet Stevenson and Marian Seldes take on opposite-number elder stateswomen roles, and both shine. And Julia Roberts is the focal point, the 30-year-old teacher with bohemian attitudes who arrives at a girls' college in the 1950s and tries to persuade them to look at art and get jobs instead of baking cakes and popping out sprogs.
All the actors manage to invest their lines with a texture they don't fully deserve, so it's not till you get half an hour's distance that you realise what hokey old schmaltz it is, tugging on your heartstrings with one hand, sketching out some fairly retrogressive, almost dodgy ideas with the other.
(Stiles's character, at one point, has to explain to Roberts's why she decided to get married rather than go to law school. I paraphrase here, but the line was that keeping house and raising children was important, creative work, and you shouldn't necessarily think of it as worthless. It was presented as a new line, worthy of our revision to this day. And sure, it's important and, yes, at times creative, but at the same time phenomenally boring, and surely the point of the feminist revolution was not to denigrate the work of the homestead, but merely to divide the tedium more equally so that no one had to go insane from it? It feels weird, this century, to hear these arguments rehearsed again.)
Anyway, it was a surprise that any of them took on the roles, since they're all too cred to be doing this (even Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays the statutory fat girl without being all that fat), and yet here they all are. I point this out, and Stiles replies, "Well, there were so many great parts for women in it."
"Yes. But it was quite schmaltzy, too, wasn't it?"
She shrugs. "I mean, what can you do? What do you mean, schmaltzy?"
"Sentimental. A bit formulaic. All good guys and bad guys, like an action movie except with outfits instead of explosions." (The 1950s outfits were, incidentally, very cool.)
"There was an element of formula, but then it was also very different, in the issues that it dealt with. And I know that the studio struggled a lot with meshing what the audience needed to get out of the experience, with what had to happen for the film... I thought it was very interesting, though."
"Yes, but the performances were more sophisticated than the material."
She says drily, "Why, thank you... I guess."
It's funny, I always thought the difficulty with being a Stiles in Tinseltown -- with being that beautiful and that thoughtful at the same time -- would be that you'd get sucked into sex-kitten-only roles, which didn't show you to anything like your full advantage. But, naturally, nobody has to take those on if they don't want to, and Stiles doesn't.
"I'll only accept a part if I think there's something I can contribute to the character. I could never be a Bond girl, because I don't look like a Bond girl, I just wouldn't fit in. I ultimately look at whether I can relate to a character at all, so it's probably not that I think anything's fluff, I just reject things I don't think I can contribute anything to."
I think much harder is having to be so diplomatic the whole time -- there are a couple of actors in the world (Anthony Hopkins and, I don't know, another one like him) who are allowed to say anything they like, about any film they've been in, and it will just make them more popular. Everyone else has a variety of party lines to toe, which is hard on a person who's in the middle of an English degree at Columbia and is evidently, in her regular life, used to being allowed, well, encouraged, to voice opinions and voice them trenchantly. Stiles has had to take one term off to do this play, but hopes to complete within a year of going back to college. "But, you know, it's going to be difficult for me to go back to school, because David Mamet lambasts university in this play. And I see what he's talking about."
So there are certain things Stiles will talk about. She'll talk about the sudden swing to conservatism in American culture and politics: "I mean, I grew up with Madonna, making it seductive and sexy to be empowered about your sexuality. So it's strange to me to be working in this era, where the agenda is so different."
She'll talk about the odd chastity of today's screen heroines, which echoes the message of abstinence pursued in wider US society: "It's so arbitrary. I cannot think of an example of a female romantic lead that is not just discovering sex." But she's quite frustrating to talk to, since she obviously has a very idiosyncratic, original take on culture and gender and politics, but it's just not worth the rain of opprobrium to parade it about.
She also has persuasiveness and authority, sorry to labour it but it's true, beyond her years. She says at one point, "Nobody wants to be Naomi Wolf when she's writing about her experience in the Guardian, but everybody wants to be Naomi Wolf when she's being hit on by Harold Bloom." As soon as I read that back, I couldn't work out what on earth it meant. Does it mean women literally want to be hit on by Bloom? Or that they want to be thought pretty enough to be worth hitting on? Or that nobody wants to be a harpy who complains years after the event? I really don't know. I trust Stiles to mean something feminist, or at least female-friendly, because she is a feminist, but I can't figure it out. At the time, of course, I was thinking, "So true!" This borderline hypnotic persuasiveness, I suppose, is one of the characteristics that makes someone, if not an actor, then certainly a performer of some sort, or, maybe in another life, the inspirer of religious rallies.
Stiles said about five years ago that she'd dumped her first boyfriend for not liking John Steinbeck. I wondered in passing who she'd dump a man for not liking now, and she insists she never said that.
"You totally did say it."
"Well, that can't have been the only thing. There must have been other stuff he was doing. Er, I'm trying to think of what I've just read, and it's Cannery Row. I'd dump him for not liking John Steinbeck again! No, that makes me sound like an obsessive... Roald Dahl, I think a person ought to like Roald Dahl."
So, a Steinbeck obsessive who at the same time has the dislike of bleeding Dahl on her dumpable-offence list. She's a strange mix -- 23 but not 23; independent but not as radical as you'd think she's going to be, or certainly not outdoors; very articulate and clear, but at the same time unreadable; with bona fide screen idol looks, but the bolshie yet self-effacing manner of a girl who's only ever been appreciated for her quick darning and Latin declension.
I think she'll end up the Ingrid Bergman of the decade, the person who just happens to star in all the films that are good enough still to be watched 40 years hence. But if she shunned the whole business and launched a campaign of some sort, maybe an activists' bus travelling about spreading gender peace, I wouldn't be at all surprised
Article by Zoe Williams
Originally published in the April 3, 2004 issue of the Guardian