"I can totally understand the cliché of the dumb blond," says Julia Stiles, with a ladylike sip of tea. Pushing a lock of her own naturally fair hair out of her eyes, she adds -- rather crisply -- "but I also understand why men's heads turn when a beautiful blonde walks by."
The coltish Julia, 24, can also turn a head, but most of the time she consciously chooses not to. Today she looks like the poster girl for artsy student chic, wearing a green chiffon Rebecca Taylor print dress topped with a purple V-neck sweater, hoop earrings and a tangle of necklaces (including a pearl rosary), all brought down to earth with a pair of chunky motorcycle boots. The other patrons of Kitchenette Uptown, a cupcake-y café opposite Columbia University -- seem to sense that this woman with no makeup and a hushed voice is familiar. But maybe that's because they're in the same romantic poetry class.
Which is exactly where Julia will be heading soon, en route to wrapping up her undergraduate degree in English. The New York native enrolled at Columbia five years ago but took a few semesters off to indulge in what became, for a while, a "side career": roles in movies like Mona Lisa Smile and The Bourne Supremacy, as well as a stage production of David Mamet's Oleanna in London last summer. She was determined not to quit college and admits that completing her studies became a matter of "stubborn pride." So, degree in hand, Julia -- who started acting at age 11-- will return to the business full-time armed with a body of knowledge that many more visceral actors could not be bothered with.
"I'm taking a class on apes right now," Julia laughs of her dumb-blonde comment. "Turns out, I'm learning a lot about human behavior. The whole man-wants-blonde thing... come down to our genes." She neatly deposits a copy of Byron in her canvas tote. "It makes sense when you think about it. Initially, I think, everybody is attracted to the body, but I know that I will turn off very quickly if someone has no intellect or wit."
Brains can get a woman a long way, but Julia does concede that she has often been typecast as "the smart girl" in movies. "That's not so bad," she says with a wry smile. "It's one of the reasons, though, that I wear more dresses than pantsuits. Just because you seem smart doesn't mean you're not vulnerable." It also means that Julia is not too buried in her books to look camera-ready. (She manages to work out nearly every day, even while at school.) Yet while we're flipping through a few of her old magazine interviews, she eyes some photos and makes a face. "I look so angry in those pictures!" she laughs. "Jesus! And I'm a very happy person! I guess I do photograph pretty seriously. That's because so many magazines give you only two options: mannequin or bimbo." Of those, she will take the former: lithe, limber and fashionably droll.
Julia has always scored high in the limber stakes. She studied dance growing up and showed some serious moves in her breakthrough hit, 2001's interracial romance Save the Last Dance, in which she fluctuated seamlessly between ballet and hip-hop. She is still regularly asked to dance by complete strangers when she's out at night in New York. "I do love dancing in clubs," she says, "but there's a lot of pressure with people watching you. You have to make a joke out of it."
And it's not like she's going to stay home. "I'm in New York," says Julia, "so I feel like I should see plays and concerts and live life." She was recently observed by gossip columnists, to her embarrassment, checking out the band René Risqué & the Art Lovers at Joe's Pub with her supposed new paramour, artist-about-town Jonathan Cramer, who once dated Sophie Dahl. Dubbed one of New York's "sexiest artists" by the media, Cramer recently created a multimedia project for New York's Hayden Planetarium with his good friend Moby. "It makes me a little nervous if people write about my love life," Julia says. "I honestly laugh about it. I would feel uncomfortable walking around with my head up my ass just thinking people care that much." She pauses. "But when my grandmother read that in the paper, she wanted to know all about it."
Julia is slowly adjusting to being back in the public eye. She has two films out this year: A Little Trip to Heaven, a film noir shot in Iceland, and a Mamet play-turned-film called Edmond. "I was becoming a bit lazy," she says. "I was going to class in my pajamas. But I'm getting older, so I don't do that anymore." With that, the woman who once said, "I can't even talk with lipstick on" reaches into her purse and dabs on some lip gloss.
Julia's fashion choices are getting glossier too. Lately, she has been indulging a passion for Marc Jacobs' bohemian pieces and embellished evening dresses by Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani ("I stay away from black because New York is dark to begin with"). She is also developing a serious heels fetish: "I'm wearing high heels now more than I wear sneakers. I appreciate that heels look better, but I try to choose them wisely. I once lost a toenail because I wore a pair of high, pointy-toed shoes the whole day and night and then walked all the way downtown from the Metropolitan Museum."
Heels aside, you won't see Julia in any self-consciously sexy outfits. "I like to show a little skin but not be too revealing. In the end, sexiness has to do with hormones, chemistry--it's pheromones," she says with a laugh.
Article by Merle Ginsberg
Originally published in the May 2005 issue of Harper's bazaar