New York News - March 28, 2004

 Julia Stiles - The Prince and Me 

There's a pretty good inside joke at the beginning of The Prince and Me. The new romantic comedy stars Julia Stiles as a go-getter pre-med major at a Wisconsin college who falls in love -- as ambitious young Midwestern women nearly always do -- with the heir apparent to the Danish throne, a playboy masquerading as an exchange student.

Here's the joke: Stiles, who plays a chemistry wiz, cringes when she learns that she has to take Shakespeare. But anyone who has tracked her career knows the native New Yorker has made a reputation as a frequent belle of the Bard, appearing in adaptations as wildly diverse as Michael Almereyda's avant-garde Hamlet and the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (an MTV-friendly Taming of the Shrew).

"The fluffy poetic romance of Shakespeare's plays -- my character felt really threatened by that," says Stiles, who -- and here's what's so "inside" about the scene -- spends much of her off-screen time at Columbia University, where she studies English literature. But just as all that lyrical fluff prompts an emotional awakening for her uptight character, the movie gives Stiles an occasion to loosen up. "I feel like I exorcised a lot of my being guarded," she says, "and being a control freak and being afraid to open up to people."

If Stiles, who turns 23 Sunday, is a control freak, she's a control freak with good taste. Instead of the usual celebrity-chat haunts -- the midtown hotel suite, the fancy bistro -- she's sitting upstairs at Housing Works, a nonprofit bookstore in SoHo that's become a popular spot for Manhattan's young literati.

Maybe the densely packed bookshelves make Stiles the scholar feel more at home, even though she grew up just a few blocks away. But the book she's thumbing through -- a dog-eared guide to bodybuilding stuffed with beefcake shots of a pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger -- is a different kind of classic. "I have to buy this," she says, eyes alight as she traces a finger over a somewhat homoerotic image of a much younger Terminator-to-be. "Because if I don't, he will, and no one will get to see it again. Look at the expression on his face. And that -- right there!"

There, in a nutshell, is Stiles' appeal. She seems a bit reserved, mulling over questions and answering in a thoughtful, deliberate manner. Then, she's cracking up over Ahhnuld's girly-man poses. It's nicely disarming.

"She's willing to live in front of the camera," says Prince and Me director Martha Coolidge, who cast Stiles in hopes that the actress, who's become one of Hollywood's go-to ingenues, could bring something more vivid to a familiar role. "She really stepped up to the plate. She wanted to make the most out of the part and not just do the young girl thing that she's done before."

The $4 million question

Stiles comes across as a good deal more grounded than many of her peers, reportedly clocking $4 million a movie ("That salary is somewhat of a lie," she says, correcting a figure listed on a Web site). Her name rarely appears in gossipy boldface ("I send Liz Smith an extra $10 every week," she jokes), and her choice of nightspots tends to favor small downtown joints where friends' not-exactly-famous bands are gigging. She digs Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington and raves about a jazz class taught by critic Stanley Crouch. She was a little kid who enjoyed playing dress-up, got dragged off to Chekhov plays when she was 9 and began acting at 11. Her artist mother sent her to Quaker schools, though her family is not Quaker. "Quaker values, I don't see how people could object to that," Stiles says, recalling how once she rather innocently ran astray of their pacifist ideals. "We had a cheer that went, 'Fight, Quakers, fight! Kill, Quakers, kill!' We had to change it to, 'Win, Quakers, win!'"

Her studies, she says, tend to deflate any starry ego trips. "If I had to keep talking about myself all day, my head would explode," she says. "So many actresses go, 'I'm so exhausted, I'm overworked,' complaining, complaining, complaining. School makes you realize what the point of this whole job is: It's telling a story, as opposed to promoting it."

David Mamet is next up

Academe is the backdrop for her next project, playing opposite Aaron Eckhart in a London stage production of David Mamet's Oleanna. The drama reunites Stiles with the often caustic playwright and director, with whom she first worked in the comedy State and Main. The play spins around sharply divisive issues of sexual harassment and political correctness in a campus scenario.

It's a nice diversion for Stiles, whose last stage role was a Central Park production of Twelfth Night in 2002 (there's Shakespeare again). She's eager to jump back into it. "You do it for two hours, and you really get momentum going," she says. "A lot of moviemaking is just waiting for other people to do their job. You can micromanage your performance. But on stage, it's a test of your ability to keep going forward and not dwell on what you just did. You act with your whole body and not just your face."

As is common with Mamet's profane and staccato dialogue, it's not exactly brimming with Quaker values. But then, Stiles turns out to be rather refreshingly un-PC. The actress says she loves the fact that the play includes a loaded expletive she got friendly with when doing her turn in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. "It's a fun word to say," she says. "In my playwriting class, someone put it in their play, and a girl got up and left because she thought it was the most offensive thing she ever heard. And I, like... I think it's a brilliant word." Stiles is practically beaming. Mamet may offer an intimidating task, but it's not likely to throw her. She's smarter than your average ingenue.

Originally published NY - Posted on March 28, 2004