Sydney Morning Herald - February 21, 2004

 Student princess 

Whether she's in the lecture theatre or on a Hollywood set, this starlet has her feet firmly on the ground, writes Phillip McCarthy.

Julia Stiles is one of Hollywood's brainy starlets who juggle making movies -- and not necessarily just erudite ones, either -- and studying for a university degree. For the past four years you could catch her in the lecture theatre studying for an arts degree by day, and at the multiplex by night.

She is, literally, the student from Central Casting, and in her parallel existences "Columbia" is both a Hollywood studio and an ivy-covered campus in New York. Shuttling coast to coast from dream factory to degree factory, as she says herself, doesn't leave time for much else.

Tell that to the paparazzi intent on catching her with some tousle-headed undergraduate. The shutterbugs lurk around the dorms hoping to get Stiles, or fellow Columbia student, Anna Paquin, kicking up her heels with some frat boy. Not much makes the glossies, though, and Stiles, 23 next month, has been smart enough to move off campus after doing the student housing thing. And there is, apparently, a college boy discreetly off to one side of the picture but it's nothing she wants to announce to the world. So why, you might ask, is every west coast movie director and east coast magazine editor obsessed with the idea of marrying Stiles off? Stiles has done two films between the anthropology and literature classes -- the current Mona Lisa Smile and the forthcoming The Prince & Me -- in which her bright, independent character chooses to shelve her degree and career and take off after Prince Charming. In The Prince & Me the college boy, it turns out, is the crown prince of Denmark.

Where celluloid myth-makers go, glossy fable spinners aren't far behind. So now the bible of prospective newlyweds and their mothers, Bride's magazine, has slapped Stiles on its cover in a $US4000 ($5000) wedding outfit. Given that Bride's is upbeat about a girl's "big day", it discreetly buried Stiles's own disavowal of any imminent "I do" in the second-last paragraph.

But there she is, posed as a living fairytale: blonde, glowing, natural, with corsage in hand. And even today, just in jeans and white blouse, Stiles looks pretty stunning.

"It's a bit McLuhan-esque, isn't it?" she says. "How the medium becomes the message. I'm playing a role in these movies which isn't me -- just like all the other roles that I've done aren't me -- and people are pretty good at distinguishing fact from fiction. I've got nothing against brides or marriage. I certainly wasn't presenting myself as the next June bride but, at the same time, I think it would be the right thing to do at the right time."

The "right time" is the operative phrase, particularly as far as the first of the student/wedding movies, Mona Lisa Smile, is concerned. Think Dead Poet's Society at a girls' school with Julia Roberts as a better groomed Robin Williams.

Stiles plays a poised achiever at Hillary Clinton's real-life alma mater, Wellesley College near Boston, in the stitched-up 1950s ("the worst part was the corsets we had to wear"). Free-spirited Roberts, an early-stage feminist, takes Stiles under her wing and encourages her to study law at Yale: one small blow against both the patriarchy and Wellesley's prevailing stand-by-your-man ethos. But Stiles's character chooses early marriage anyway.

"I had to think it through because, on this one, I could be a bit 'methody' and draw on my own experience as a student," she says. "My character is saying that liberation is choice; for her own reasons, and they're not mine, she makes a decision about what she wants."

If she sounds ambivalent, it's not just 50 years of female role models. New York-born Stiles seems to be more adept than her character at juggling all her options to the max. Her university days, she admits, are probably going to spill over into extra time because she takes a term off here and there to do her movies and theatre. She'll get her degree, she jokes, when she's 30.

She is taking three months off shortly to do the David Mamet play, Oleanna, in London's West End. She plays a student, again, in an even more combative modern-day relationship with her teacher. It's not so much career and marriage as sex and harassment.

"It a little weird that I'm having this run of student characters," she says. "Because when I started at Columbia, I decided that I had to separate 'student Julia' from 'actress Julia'. I figured I could only do one of them properly at any given time, which is why I take so much time off. I took off a semester to do Mona Lisa, and The Prince & Me was shot over summer. But here I am doing variations on what I do in the real world anyway."

She's not complaining because prior to that, Stiles's movie roles seemed to bounce between the sophomoric -- A Guy Thing and 10 Things I Hate About You -- to the more weighty -- State and Main and the edgy Othello reworking, O.

There was also her memorable performance as a creepy business executive in The Business of Strangers.

The best evidence that Stiles is no airhead is that she is politically active; she even earned the ire of one of Rupert Murdoch's right-wing talking heads, Bill O'Reilly, when she got involved in a campaign to create anti-George Bush ads for the US election.

So how do the co-eds at Columbia take to having a movie star in their midst? If you take Stiles at her word, they're too sophisticated to care. Which seems unlikely unless those few, ivy-covered blocks of Manhattan have become an island amid a celebrity-obsessed city. Certainly, when Stiles went on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and made a crack about cafeteria food and staff, it made the student rag. A fellow student burst into print in the Columbia Spectator calling her a "sloe-eyed Hollywood wench". Stiles penned a diplomatic apology but pointed out that both "lunch ladies and Hollywood wenches have feelings".

"A huge part of school, for me," she says, "is hanging out with people my own age. I don't get to do that in my work. I also like that it's a completely different world. On a movie set, you have all these people catering to your every need. 'Can I get you this? Can I get you that?' You can become very self-absorbed. In college, you have to be self-sufficient."

Article by Phillip McCarthy
Originally published at - Posted on February 21, 2004