While her twenty-something movie-star peers spent the summer sunning themselves and counting their mentions in Us Weekly and InTouch, Julia Stiles was riding to Westchester every day in a van to rehearse a supporting role in an off-Broadway play. Of course, the company she kept was among the theater's finest: James Lapine, writer and director of the play in question, Fran's Bed, and Mia Farrow and Harris Yulin as the parents of Stiles' character, a hard-driving young entrepreneur. A juicy stew of family drama and right-to-die politics, Fran's Bed -- written before Terri Schiavo made news -- examines what happens when a fractured family comes together at the bedside of the comatose mother. During previews at Playwrights Horizons, Stiles spoke about her busy life juggling movies (Mona Lisa Smile, The Bourne Supremacy), plays (Twelfth Night in Central Park, Mamet's Oleanna in London), and classes at Columbia University, where she recently graduated with a degree in English.
How did this part come your way?
I had coffee with James [Lapine] and he offered it to me. I knew I would learn a lot from him, and I wanted to be part of the process of collaborating on the overall piece. He was very avuncular with me and talked about how much he rewrites during previews. He said, "You're going to have to learn a lot of lines on your feet, but I think it will make you stronger as an actor," and he's totally right. It's a little bit like being part of a rep theater where you are learning lines at the last minute and you have to just bite the bullet and go out there and do it.
The ensemble seemed strong at an early preview. Is the play changing a lot?
Oh yes! James rewrote a whole bunch of scenes and we just got them yesterday, so last night was a very tentative show. We were all wide-eyed, like "I think I say my line now and then you say your line." He took out an entire scene with a patients' rights group and videos of us giving testimonials in court, and added a scene in which we [Stiles and Heather Burns as her homebody sister] are talking to our mother. He's steering it more toward the personal lives of the family, but inevitably it'll be political because the audience's mind will go there. I think it's about how people deal with death and try to control when they are going to die.
Did you come to this play with any particular feelings about the right to die?
No. I guess my opinion is that it is a personal decision that comes down to the individual family members. That's what's expressed in the play.
It's an interesting depiction of a family relationship, especially in a scene at the dinner table where everyone expresses hurt feelings and dissatisfaction.
That's a fun scene to play, because we get to act like children. One of the great things about all the flashbacks in the play is you see how much baggage families have, the grudges that are held, the powder kegs that can be set off. Initially, you don't understand why there's animosity between the two sisters but you realize it goes back to when they were in high school.
Were you looking forward to working with Mia Farrow?
Yeah. Like working with James, I knew I would learn a lot from her. She has so much experience, and she's such a pleasure to work with. She's extremely kind and caring and very laid back.
Have you read her memoir, What Falls Away?
No. She's very open about her personal life, but I don't feel comfortable prying.
Oh, you should read it. It's beautifully written and extremely moving.
Well, she certainly has lived! I'll definitely read it.
Should we be surprised that someone like you, a movie star, would be willing to take on a supporting role in an off-Broadway play that's had very little advance publicity?
Maybe, but I feel like the way I learn best is through practice. So I'm not about to go out and do a starring role in a new play or big show first. I think that would be foolhardy. I read somewhere Jason Robards talking about doing Eugene O'Neill plays, and he described how it's like exercising a muscle. Everything from being comfortable in front of an audience to projecting well to getting deeper and deeper into the layers of a play, all of that comes with practice and not by thinking about it or going to school for it. It's something you just have to get up there and do. I've done stage work before but I've never done a new play or something with contemporary dialogue. I've done Oleanna [in London] but David Mamet's dialogue is very stylized. I thought this was a natural next step for me.
Playing Viola in Twelfth Night in Central Park must have been a big challenge. Wasn't that as intimidating as a new play?
Oh, it was more intimidating. There are a lot of rules that go along with Shakespeare, and a lot of people consider themselves experts on it. And as beautiful as the language is, it's hard to make it accessible. Plus being in the park, which is such a huge space, you're constantly competing with the elements. But doing a new play in a small theater is a challenge in its own way.
Neither of the daughters in Fran's Bed is particularly sympathetic. Do you like your character, a rather hard-edged young woman who has escaped the Midwest to find success in New York?
You know, it sounds like a cliché, but for some reason I like playing characters who are flawed. If there's something I personally disapprove of about my character, I actually like that because I think it's human. That's something I learned doing Oleanna, too. There were a lot of things that character did that I didn't approve of, and the audience doesn't either, so I had to get over that to play the part and not be judgmental. I like that fact that Bertie in Fran's Bed can't really deal with being at the hospital. She's repressed in terms of her emotions and tries to bury them. She's run away from her family and been selfish, but I understand that. A lot of people are that way. And I really like what she has to confront over the course of the play -- the possibility of being alone. She doesn't have a great personal life. She may not have kids, and is she happy about that? Probably not. All the things she worked so hard for and got attention for, like being ambitious and starting a business, end up not quite paying off. I like all that.
It's interesting that you've done three works by David Mamet [the movies State and Main and the upcoming Edmond, plus Oleanna, Mamet's controversial play about sexual harassment on a college campus]. You must have a nice relationship with him.
I do, maybe because I'm a big fan. I don't really find him intimidating. He's an old-school guy and a man of few words, which can be intimidating to some people. I've read so much of his work -- short stories and essays -- that I feel like I know him just from his writing.
You don't think he's hard on women?
Well, Oleanna is a perfect example. By the end of the run, I felt infuriated. Every time the audience would respond in favor of the professor, I got so frustrated and I somewhat blamed David Mamet. But I realized that was sort of the point of the play and I embraced it. As masochistic as it sounds, I love that play.
Do you find stage acting more challenging than film acting?
They're challenging in different ways. It's hard to maintain focus and momentum when you're acting in film because of all the starting and stopping. You kind of micromanage your performance and try to get it right from moment to moment. Stage acting takes a lot more discipline. You're doing the same show every day and you have to figure out how to invest your energy in new ways and keep it fresh and interesting.
Did acting come naturally to you as a teenager? Playing the lead in 10 Things I Hate About You [a teen movie version of The Taming of the Shrew] must have been demanding, for example. Did you realize that you were carrying a movie?
Oh god no, if I'd thought that I probably would have been paralyzed with fear. I guess I was just being foolish or naïve, but I honestly I thought of it as a great opportunity, and I was looking forward to having fun the summer before my senior year of high school [at the Professional Children's School]. I was attached to the character of Katherine from Taming of the Shrew, so on an intellectual level I understood what a big role it was, but I embraced it.
Getting an Ivy League degree while building a movie career can't have been easy. I bet your parents were very proud of you for actually graduating from Columbia.
They were. They were there on graduation day with their cameras, and we had a big party. I still kind of can't believe it. I feel that back-to-school itch where I think I'm behind on homework. I haven't quite gotten over that anxiety yet. But then I realize, "Oh, I'm an adult now! I don't have to go to school."
How do you balance big movies like the Bourne films and smaller ones? Do you think you'll feel more career pressure now that you're out of college?
I try not to think of it that way. I feel that the future is unknown, and I'm just going to go where the wind takes me, so to speak. When I choose to do a project, it's more about thinking of ways I need to be stretched as an actor. I wouldn't want to keep doing the same thing over and over again, which is one reason I wanted to do this play. I wanted go back onstage in a way that's different from anything I've ever experienced before. That's the way I look at movies, too. I think you can get into a comfort zone as an actor and I try to break out of that. Whether that will give me a long-term career or not, I have no idea.
Even your Mona Lisa Smile co-star Julia Roberts wants to do theater now.
I think if you really enjoy performing and not just being in front of a camera, then stage is the way to go.
You've been able to avoid the paparazzi, haven't you?
Yeah. Maybe that means people aren't really interested in me. [Laughs] I sort of know what neighborhoods to avoid.
And you don't tend to date actors.
Oh, dating an actor is your best bet for getting into the gossip columns if that's what you want!
Which of your movies do you feel proudest of?
Overall, I'm really proud to have been a part of Hamlet [a modern-day adaptation starring Ethan Hawke; Stiles played Ophelia], just because the reinvention of Shakespeare is something I appreciate when it's done well.
Were you happy with O, the teen movie reinvention of Othello [Stiles played Desi, based on Desdemona]?
Yeah, I think Tim Nelson did a really good job of directing it. And he has an acting background, so I certainly learned a lot from him. We rehearsed with the play before we rehearsed with the movie script.
There are several rather elaborate fan sites devoted to you on the Internet. Do you look at them?
I try not to. On the one hand, it's nice to know that people appreciate the work I'm doing, but for every fan site there are probably other people ranting about my work. I try not to pay attention to any of that.
Your also have your own website, which doesn't seem like it's aimed at furthering your career. Right now, it features beautiful pictures of Iceland you took while filming a movie.
Yeah, the movie is called A Little Trip to Heaven and it's going to the Toronto Film Festival. Forest Whitaker is in it. We shot it in Iceland and I shot a bunch of pictures. I felt like putting that on the website instead of some magazine cover.
What's next for you?
After this play, I'm going to do a remake of The Omen with Liev Schreiber.
That's one of the scariest movies ever.
It's really psychologically terrorizing. I'm excited to work with Liev again [Schreiber played Laertes in the film of Hamlet]. And Mia Farrow is going to be the nanny in it. Talk about a coincidence!
Are you a Rosemary's Baby fan?
Absolutely. It's a great, very scary movie. So I guess she's passing the torch.
Article by Kathy Henderson
Originally published at Broadway.com - Posted on September 12, 2005