Head of the class
Julia Stiles is a sexy movie star and a Columbia student (not necessarily in that order)
Julia Stiles has a red-hot movie career. She starred in Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. She's making this summer's The Bourne Supremacy.
Tomorrow, she opens in The Prince & Me as a University of Wisconsin pre-med student dating a young Danish royal (Luke Mably) who wants to make her his queen.
But at Columbia University, where her major is English literature, her professors couldn't care less how big a star she is.
"Being an actor is looked at like a prolonged game of dress-up," says the 23-year-old about her other life as a Columbia College undergrad.
"America puts movie stars on pedestals. In college, it's the flip side -- I sometimes have to justify my job to my professors, because they're focused on intellect and ideas.
"I tried to get credit for acting in Twelfth Night in 2002. My teachers said, 'There's a difference between an English scholar and performing [at] Shakespeare in the Park.'"
Actually, she has done a lot of Shakespeare in the movies, too.
In 1999, she was in 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming of the Shrew. She played Ophelia to Ethan Hawke's Prince of Denmark in a modern-day Hamlet in 2000 and starred in O, a high-school-set version of Othello, in 2001.
Still, she got no credit. On the other hand, she says, her ability to critique a classic won't get her a part in the movie version.
"A college student doesn't really have any cachet in Hollywood," says Stiles. "I think if I were dancing on tables at a club, that might be more interesting to a producer than being in college!"
With two semesters left at Columbia, Stiles splits her time worrying about exams as much as scripts.
She often takes a semester off to work, as she's doing this spring to act in a play in London's West End.
"I do feel like it's a lot at times, but there's something comforting about attending college," says Stiles. "Between jobs, actors go kind of crazy not knowing what they're doing next.
"So it's good to have something to focus on... And if young actors don't have something to give them perspective, I think it's easy for them to get lost."
One thing Stiles has found while at Columbia has been a steady boyfriend. For two years, she's been seeing a fellow student -- a music and English major -- but she's careful to keep it under wraps.
"It's awkward to talk about, because it's uncomfortable for him to read about himself, even in an oblique way," she says.
"And people around him know it's him when I speak about it.
"Like dating in Hollywood, college is very insular; even more so when I was living on campus. It's sort of funny for him and my friends to see me having this dress-up life. It's not how they know me. If we're on the street and get stopped by somebody who's seen my movies, it's sort of jarring -- it's not the way I usually interact with them."
Currently living on the Upper West Side, Stiles was born and raised in SoHo, where her parents are ceramic artists (her mom makes it, her dad sells it).
At 11, she wrote a letter to the director of the Ridge Theater -- which had done a production she enjoyed at LaMaMa in the East Village -- asking for an audition and a part in a play. She got both, and at 16 was accepted into the Professional Children's School.
These days, her favorite films are those with old-fashioned appeal. In her new movie, her character doesn't know she's dating a prince, who is attending Wisconsin on a year off from royal duties.
"Classic stories are always in my head because of school," Stiles says. "Even The Prince & Me is like a love story from the 1950s, like Roman Holiday or The Prince & the Showgirl. But I like to add a modern-girl twist to it."
Article by Joe Neumaier
Originally published in the April 1, 2004 issue of the New York Daily News