Julia Stiles finally blows her cover
Julia Stiles breaks away from the sprinkling of fans who have staked her out in front of the London theater where she has just completed her Wednesday matinee performance in the David Mamet play Oleanna.
"This way," she says urgently. "Follow me." We duck around the corner and cross the street. "In here." She points to a narrow alleyway between buildings and we scurry through it until we come to a small, secluded courtyard. We stop in front of a wooden door, and Julia presses an intercom button. No answer. She hits the button below the first.
"Yes?" an eerie voice answers.
"Can we come in for some tea?" Julia asks.
Apparently, that's the secret code, because we are immediately buzzed in. I follow Julia up some dark steps and into a quaint wood-paneled red room that looks like a library. No one will find us here in the "members only" club called Two Bridges Place. It's a safe spot for me to interrogate the notoriously secretive Julia about her upcoming spy movie, The Bourne Supremacy, the sequel to 2002's The Bourne Identity. I'm going to find out just how good a spy Ms. Stiles would be in real life. And judging by her maneuvers so far, if it weren't so cheesy and predictable, I might just say that she's well on her way to becoming Julia Bond -- but ugh. Why aren't there any famous female spies? Valerie Plame doesn't count.
As we plunk down next to a window, I'm already getting a strong Jane vibe from Julia. She is pretty but not a bombshell, relaxed but well-spoken, mature for a 23-year-old but not at all jaded for a celeb. She plays soccer instead of doing Pilates. And lucky for me, she's got a sense of humor. When I tell her I'm going to ask some questions as if she were applying for a job with the CIA, she smiles and says, "Should I answer as Julia or as a spy?"
If you were an agent, what would be your cover to throw people off?
"I think my cover in The Bourne Supremacy is good, in the sense that she's an American student in Paris. It would be very difficult to suspect a young girl, seemingly naive or innocent, of having lots of information about the CIA and about medications. Or else a backpacker -- that would be perfect -- like a kid who's staying at a youth hoslel and traveling abroad. Nobody really pays attention to them."
Do you use your real name when you check in to hotels?
"No. I make up a name that I think is fun, but then somehow whoever's making the reservation for me always changes it to the same old boring name that I've had for a long time. I resent that. Barbara O'Riley is my favorite name I used to use. I was thinking of Baba O'Riley, the Who song."
Warning: Agent Stiles may have an unusual fascination
with Charles Manson.
Julia O'Hara Stiles grew up in the artsy SoHo neighborhood of New York City with her parents, Judith Stiles and John O'Hara, and her two younger siblings. Note that she has Mom's last name. "It was just a women's lib thing," Julia explains, "My parents gave me her name, and it was supposed to alternate with us kids, so when my sister was born she got my dad's, and Stiles as a middle name. But when my brother was born, he had to have my dad's name to keep the line going."
Her parents are bohemians who make and sell pottery and encourage their kids to be free thinkers. "I had such a weird childhood. I'm so embarrassed by it," Julia says. When she was in grade school, they took her to see a musical about the Manson family, which was put on by the avant-garde Ridge Theater. It made such an impact on Julia, who liked to play dress-up, that she wrote the director a letter asking to be part of the troupe. "Do not ask me why I was allowed to view a show about Charles Manson at 11 years old. It was scary," she says with a smirk. "There were girls singing with crosses on their foreheads like they were in a cult. But visually they had a stunning show -- they did a lot of film projection on a screen while the actors were onstage, it was nothing I'd ever seen before, and they all looked like they were one big, happy family. I thought it would be more entertaining to hang out with them after school than do my math homework." The director was so impressed with the sincere, scrawled letter that he gave her a three-line part in the next production and ended up working with the budding actress for the next seven years.
Have you ever taken a drug test?
"Yeah, I think I've had to take a drug test," she answers hesitantly. "That's when the doctor makes you pee in a cup? I've had to do that."
"Um, I think in the regular doctor's office when they do that, they're not usually testing for drugs," I say. "More like mineral levels or something."
"But if drugs showed up...?" she says, trailing off.
"I'm pretty sure they tell you when they're testing for drugs," I coach.
"Oh, okay, then I never have."
If you're in a room with people doing drugs, do you leave?
"Hmmm, it depends on the drugs."
Have you ever inhaled?
"No! My mother's going to read this."
Warning: Stiles may be tempted by lustful characters.
Julia is probably best known for that vapid MTV-produced movie Save the Last Dance. It shocked the mall crowd because she played a former ballerina who moves lo the inner city and falls in love with a "slammin'" black guy who teaches her how to hip-hop dance like Wade Robson. She also played an aspiring lawyer in Mona Lisa Smile (not that you saw it) and the boy-bashing older sister in 10 Things I Hate About You. In The Bourne identity, she tracked Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) around the world by lurking in dark corners and saying things like, "We'll have the satellite download in 30 minutes." In short, she's the brainiac who usually ends up seeming a little sexier than you first thought.
When I ask which of her peers she most admires, her response is surprising. After the expected stuff is out of the way -- "There are a lot of really good young actresses out there right now, a lot of competition. I think that Kirsten [Dunst] is a really good actress. And with the power that she's acquired from Spider-Man, she's been able to make more good choices, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And obviously Scarlet! Johansson is a very talented actress" -- she suddenly swerves. "There's a movie called Swimming Pool that this French actress is in, her name is Ludivine [Sagnier], and I don't know any of her other work. There's something about her performance that I really like."
Let me interject here for those of you who haven't seen Swimming Pool. Ludivine plays an 18-year-old girl who is so naturally, unapoiogetically, starkly sexual, it's as if she were born naked. Wait, no, let's just say that she's having sex all the time, breasts everywhere, and the naughtiest bits had to be edited out for U.S. audiences. "I don't know if she's like that in real life, or if that was different from her," Julia continues, "but I think if I were to play that part, that would be a really big stretch for me, and it makes me want to do something like that. Because I think that she's so sexual in that movie and -- l mean, I'm like that with my boyfriend or if there's a guy that I want to be sexy around -- but in terms of performing, I don't think I have that exhibitionist part of rne naturally. So I would have to work on it."
Have you ever stolen anything?
"Yes, when I was 12 years old, I stole a compact mirror from Pathmark. I got caught and was terrified out of ever shoplifting again. I did it because I was with my friends and fancied myself a badass, but I really wasn't."
Are you a paranoid person?
"Only when I'm doing interviews for magazines...."
Warning: Stiles may break down under pigeon torture.
Julia seems like one of those people who is very comfortable with herself, very unfazed, Julia Roberts described her as "slightly intimidating" when they shot Mona Lisa Smile. I ask her what situations stress her out the most. "Cocktail parties," she answers. "I get overwhelmed when I'm having a conversation with someone and am distracted by what's going on around me, because I don't want to be rude and do that horrible thing of talking to someone and looking over their shoulder. I get overwhelmed by too much stimulus."
I soak this up for a second, picturing her at a Hollywood party trying not to disrespect Matt Damon by looking over his shoulder at Jude Law. She interrupts. "But as for times when I physically get stressed out? I've developed a neurotic fear of the pigeons here, which is weird because we have a lot of them in New York. But the pigeons here are quite aggressive, and they fly really close to you. It's really neurotic, I will cower on the street when one comes near me. That would be a good way to torture information out of me."
She's not kidding. Later, when I ask whether she has any recurring dreams, she answers, "In London, I keep having dreams about rats and pigeons... have you ever seen El Norte? It's a movie about a South American brother and sister who sneak into the United States. But when they're in a tunnel, they get attacked by a herd of rats. In my dreams it's usually that image. But I also have dreams that I'm standing on a bed, completely naked, and there are people outside the window peering in and stuff," she says, laughing. "Why don't I have happier dreams? I'm a happy person, I swear."
Have you ever been involved in any protests?
"Yes, a lot of them. I was going to go to the march in Washington, but I was here. The thing that pops into my head was in junior high, because I was in a protesting spirit. We picketed this Chinese restaurant because they had cockroaches. A more serious protest -- at Columbia, they're building some new buildings, and it's causing a bunch of disruptions in Harlem. What I don't like about protesting is that a lot of times they get corrupted by other groups, so you go thinking it's an antiwar protest and it becomes about other issues that you don't agree with."
Do you ever travel incognito?
"I don't really. I would feel silly, and I've never found myself intruded upon enough to want to wear a costume... oh, my God, I did, though! My friend and I went to a mall in Long Island, and just as a joke I wore a wig because we were going to see if I would get recognized. And of course I did, and it was just really embarrassing that I had a wig on. I don't think I'll do that again. It was a short black wig that I got from Saturday Night Live. They gave it to me."
Warning: Stiles may resist the "fake breasts" disguise.
When she's not flying around the world acting, Julia is an English major at New York's Columbia University. She has two semesters left. It's been reported that she's been dating a music major there for the past two years. But when I ask her if it's difficult to be apart from him while she's in London, she looks shy and says, "That's tricky, because we're not really technically going out anymore. But we're still really good friends."
I ask who hits on her more: American men or Brits. "If a guy were hitting on me, I don't think that I would ever think -- l would think it were more innocent than that," she answers. "I'm not good at picking up on those kinds of cues."
She says her fellow students at Columbia weren't very starstruck by her presence. "What I like about the world of academia for the most part is that they look down on Hollywood. It just doesn't have the status -- being an actor vs. having a Ph.D. in something," she says. "It's a good reminder that Hollywood is not the center of the universe."
I ask her if she's sort of the "anti-bimbo" in Hollywood, because she doesn't seem to play ditzy roles or obsess over her appearance. "Well, I don't like looking bad in films. Unless my character is supposed to be looking bad," she says, laughing. "I'm as vain as the next person. But my mon definitely instilled in me an appreciation for different types of beauty -- that the cookie-cutter image of what is beautiful is not beautiful, but quirks are beautiful. It's hard when you see a photograph of yourself to think that way, but I think some of the most beautiful people are unconventional-looking. Georgia O'Keeffe, she had a lot of wrinkles, but it's like a map of all the experiences she had."
"Have you felt much pressure by movie people to look a certain way?" I ask.
She nods. "Oh, yeah, I've walked into my dressing room and had a desk full of fake boobs that the producers have put there, because they wanted me to have bigger breasts. I mean, that's pretty blatant. I'm not stupid, I know what that means." She laughs.
"Did you use them?"
"Nope, I did not. And then I probably saw the movie and thought, 'Why am I so flat-chested?' But whatever."
She is officially hired.
Article by Esther Haynes
Originally published in the August 2004 issue of Jane Magazine