Julia Stiles out and about in the city
With a string of Hollywood movies behind her at just 23, Julia Stiles is wowing London theatre audiences in the David Mamet's play Oleanna. And with the sequel to The bourne identity coming up, the future looks bright indeed for the actress the critics have dubbed "the new Meryl Streep".
Ten minutes after Aaron Eckhart smacked her head against a desk, Julia Stiles is composed and fashionable in a striped jumper and sequinned slippers, ready to fo for coffee. After a four-month run in Oleanna, David Mamet's play about the power struggle between student Carol (Stiles) and het college professor (Eckhart), she's used to it. "I've got my routine down," Stiles shrugs. But the play still has the ability to shock well after its 1994 début, as the gasping matinée audience at the Garrick Theatre just showed. It's proof of her acting ability that I feel more beaten up than she does.
"It's been phenomenal" Stiles enthuses of her stint as the manipulative, disturbed Carol. "It's a dark play, but the challenge is enjoyable. And how great to spend the summer working in London? I'm enchanted by this city."
The lead in a Mamet play is a summer job few 23-year-old students could take, it's true, but Stiles is unique. She started acting at 11 and has been a bitch in Ten things I hate about you, a bereaved ballerina in Save the last dance, a proto-feminist in Mona Lisa smile and a love-struck student in this month's The prince and me, all huge teen hits. But she balanced the box-office hits with sophisticated roles in Hamlet, State and Main and The business of strangers and has drawn comparisons with Maryl Streep and Jodie Foster from critics. She's an expert at the comercial and the credible.
It's a balance that mirrored outside work too. Stiles has modelled for Calvin Klein and made MTV diaries of her football matches (she plays every Saturday back in the States), but she's also written articles about Amnesty International and she's back in New York this September to support V-Day -- an initiative to get young women to vote in the upcoming elections. Her official website features news about her films and information about the housing charity habitat for Humanity International and political organisation MoveOn.
"I have personal feelings about the state of this world and my country", she explains, choosing her words carefully."And I feel the responsibility that comes with being recognisable. But it's tricky. Being an actor has nothing to do with politics, and I'm not an expert on anything, so what I say is kind of irrelevant. But I would much rather promote Habitat for Humanity than a pair of sneakers."
Stiles is two terms shy of an English degree form New York's Columbia University. The chance to play Carol (an ambition she's had since reading Oleanna four years ago) lured her away from her studies. "I get impatient, and I think I have to graduate now. But I can defer for as long as I want and still get my degree. I'm going to school for myself, to learn, so why rush it? I like stepping back from work and havind the time to read and listen to what lecturers have to say."
Stiles is clearly very smart. She's forceful and measured when she talks, but undercuts her seriousnes with dry, self-deprecating humour. Discussing her next role in director Mike Figgis's adaption of Going Down, a novel about a student who becomes a protitute to pay for college, she enthuses about author Jennifer Belle's "unique voice", then stops. "As I say that, I remember it's written on the back cover, so, um, actually, some reviewers said that..." She laughs at herself before succinctly explaining me why it will be a good movie: "You get to know this normal girl before she becomes a protitute, so she's not a hooker with a heart of gold or a bad girl. She's just a flawed character."
You can see Stiles this summer in The Bourne supremacy, alongside Matt Damon. You might just remember her character Nicky from The Bourne identity", the CIA operatice who spent he handful of her scenes looking confused. Stiles grins at the memory: it was a peculiarly small role for her. "I wanted to work with director Doug Leman and Matt Damon, and I knew there was potential for my character to be developed if there was a sequel. I like the idea that Nicky doesn't know what she's doing; it makes the CIA more human. In The Bourne supremacy, we play with the idea that I was in over my head and now I'm stuck in a situation I don't want to be in. She isn't too involved in the action though: she doens't get to shoot anyone. But I get interrogated by Joan Allen a lot, and Matt Damon holds me at gunpoint."
With a degree to get, voters to motivate and some juicy new roles, Stiles had a packed diary ones he London summer is over, and she's looking forward to it. "I always ask myself that question: 'What would I do if I weren't an actor?' but I've never come up with an answer -- I just don't know: I really love my job." It's a good thing: she's due back on stage in an hour to have her head thumped against that desk again.
Originally published in the July 21, 2004 issue of Time Out London