Julia Stiles was born Julia O'Hara Stiles on the 28th of March, 1981, in New York City, and is of Irish, Italian and English heritage. Her mother, Judith, was an artist, working in ceramics, and ran a ceramics store in Greenwich Village. Her father, John, was a Second Grade teacher in Harlem, who helped in selling Judith's work. There would be two more children -- Jane, nine years Julia's junior, and Johnny, born three years after Jane.
Julia was raised in a loft apartment in SoHo, which served as home and studio, so there was a constant stream of artists and aficionados of all races passing through. A curious child, Julia took an interest in everyone, and quickly joined in the political arguments that raged around the kitchen table, her parents being "loud-mouthed" and liberal, true radicals of the Sixties. By the age of six, she was demanding to work in her mum's store, sitting behind the cash register, chatting to the customers and going through the bills. During breaks she would write letters, not to imaginary friends but to political leaders, demanding action. One she sent to Mayor Ed Koch, suggesting that more bins be placed on the streets.
Indeed, Julia spent a lot of her time writing. If she ever had a problem, she'd write to her parents about it. Then, if necessary, she would argue her case. She became very persuasive very quickly. Without taking official lessons, she more or less taught herself to act while watching TV series The Honeymooners, acting out a different role each evening.
She was a keen student of everything. She took modern dance lessons from a very early age and, as her parents would often take her to the theatre, she became infatuated with Shakespeare, actually placing a statue of the Bard in her room. Odd, you might think, for a young girl -- but then this young girl would star in three Shakespeare adaptations before she was 20.
Judith and John recognised Julia's potential and did all they could to feed her hungry little mind. They'd take her to Smokestack's Lightning jazz club every weekend, where she'd cartwheel across the dance-floor, entertaining the punters. And they encouraged her acting, at age 9 sending her to summer classes with the YMCA.
At 11, Julia's precociousness, her New York sass, her penchant for letter-writing and the notion instilled in her that she could do anything came in handy. Having been thrilled by a performance there, she wrote to the director of the experimental off-Broadway La MaMa Theatre, enclosing photos of herself dressed up in different costumes and asking if they had any parts for child-actresses. And, as it happened, they did. She debuted in an odd play spoofing jungle movies from the 1940s, with Julia lip-synching over pre-recorded tapes about cannibalism. She'd also appear at the Kitchen Theatre, in Matthew: School Of Life and The Sandalwood Box.
At 12, she got herself an agent, and the paid work began. She appeared in adverts for Tide and for Apple Jacks (she was the little git teasing someone for eating them). And there was some TV work, with a recurring guest part in Ghostwriter. But it was a tough time. Very, very ambitious, Julia had terrible trouble with rejection. When Kirsten Dunst won the part of Claudia in Interview With The Vampire, Julia was inconsolable. Her mother even considered forbidding her from continuing her career.
But her education continued apace. She spent her early teenage summers at Camp Rowe, a "hippie camp" where all the kids attended workshops and listened to Phish and the Grateful Dead, and the adults worked hard to build the kids' self-esteem. During the year, she attended New York's Professional Children's School, an establishment preparing kids for a career in the Arts. Here she'd study the likes of Latin and constitutional law -- naturally, she was a Straight-A student.
At 15, she made her big screen debut, as Claire Danes' buddy in I Love You, I Love You Not, a movie which, rather unfortunately, compared the problems of a girl in high school to the troubles her grandmother (Jeanne Moreau) faced in Auschwitz. But then came a slightly meatier role in a much bigger film, AND she got to star alongside The Vampire Being Interviewed, Brad Pitt. In The Devil's Own, Pitt played an IRA terrorist who flees to America to arrange a gun-run, and lodges with straight-up Irish copper Harrison Ford. Julia played Ford's daughter, Bridget O'Meara, a young tyke who will NOT get off the phone.
These were reasonable, if uninspiring parts. But Julia did not have to wait long for her breakthrough. In 1997, the same year as The Devil's Own, she made a big splash as Ellen Barkin's daughter in the Oprah Winfrey-produced Before Women Had Wings, concerning child abuse. This she immediately followed up with a controversial part in Wicked. Here she was Ellie Christianson, a 14-year-old girl who takes the place of her mother when she dies mysteriously. A good girl, you might say -- until she starts wearing her mother's clothes and seducing her father. Thankfully, the police suspect something is up. Wicked was a really eye-catching role. Her first lead, it gained her a cult following and won her a Best Actress award at the KVI Festival.
Next came another interesting project in Wide Awake, the movie M. Night Shyamalan delivered before The Sixth Sense. Here Joseph Cross played a schoolboy who, his grandfather dead, explores the major religions in the hope of ensuring that Gramps is OK. In doing this he questions his parents, played by Denis Leary and Dana Delaney, and annoys the hell out of his sister, played by Julia.
And now it really took off. Having played a hippie chick in the rather wretched TV series The Sixties, 1999 saw her first Shakespeare adaptation. This was 10 Things I Hate About You, based on The Taming Of The Shrew, Julia starring as the shrew in question. Here the popular and pretty Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is banned by her parents from dating boys. Well, not exactly banned. She can date if her older sister Kat (Julia) dates. Unfortunately for Larisa, Julia is grouchy, highly unpopular, and actively hates boys. So Larisa's would-be boyfriends bribe up-for-a-laugh new-boy rebel-type Patrick (Heath Ledger) to date Kat. So he does, and they fight and fight and fall in love.
Julia herself would now fall in love for the first time, too. The lucky fellow was co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, star of TV comedy series 3rd Rock From The Sun. Their relationship would last one happy year.
10 Things was a massive success, as was her next effort, the rom-com Down To You. Here she was a New York student who falls for Freddie Prinze Jr. She's studying art, he's a budding chef. She fears commitment and takes off for San Francisco, he starts drinking heavily. Can their love be rekindled?
Next came two more serious projects. Michael Almereyda's Hamlet saw the play updated and set in modern-day New York. Now it was about murder, vengeance and dithering in corporate America, with Ethan Hawke as the ditherer, Sam Shepard as his dead dad and Kyle MacLachlan as the bad guy. Julia, of course, was Ophelia, and drowned quite beautifully.
After this came a complete change with David Mamet's State And Main. Here, having left New Hampshire due to poor organisation and the sexual peccadilloes of star Alec Baldwin, a movie crew arrives in small-town Vermont. Philip Seymour Hoffman was excellent as the troubled scriptwriter beginning a relationship with bookshop owner Rebecca Pidgeon, William H. Macy suffered terribly and hilariously trying to keep the production together. And Julia was great too, as a teenage waitress who seduces the hapless Baldwin.
Julia might have gone straight into another sexy role, as Madonna's production company offered her the lead in Going Down, based on Jennifer Bell's novel. Here she'd have been a New York student who finances her studies by working as a prostitute. But Julia was unhappy with the nudity, and turned it down. Instead, she chose the movie that would be her biggest hit. In Save The Last Dance, she was Sara Johnson, a would-be ballerina whose mother dies, resulting in a move from a small town to her father's apartment in a rough part of Chicago. At school, she falls for black guy Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas) who's also into dancing, but more in a hip-hop style. And so, battling racial prejudices all the way, Sara rediscovers herself and happiness through this new music and movement.
Julia worked hard for the part. Though she was an able dancer from her early youth, and director Thomas Carter had cast her because of her "table dance" in 10 Things, she still needed a crash course in both ballet and bootie-shakin'. Training in Chicago with a choreographer from Joffrey's and the principal dancer, she practised till her toes bled.
It worked. Save The Last Dance opened on Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend, perfect timing for a movie dealing with race. And, taking in over $27 million, it knocked Tom Hanks' Cast Away from top spot, remaining there for two weeks. Something had happened. White teens do not usually go to "black" movies, but they went to see Julia in a "black" movie. Like Renee Zellweger, she's attractive without being too beautiful or thin and she's a fine actress, therefore she makes it real. Kids love Julia Stiles -- though she has never been so, she appears to be one of them. Calvin Klein quickly realised this, putting her in a jeans ad back in 1999. So did Vanity Fair, putting her on their Hollywood cover that same year, in-between Reese Witherspoon and the excellent Sarah Polley.
Another point to be made is that many Americans still do not like to see cross-race relationships. People told Julia that it was a dangerous role to take, but she did it anyway. How could she not, with an upbringing like that? In fact, she did it twice in a row. Back in 1998, she'd filmed another Shakespeare adaptation, O, based on Othello. Once more set in High School, this saw Julia as the popular Desi (ie Desdemona), who's dating O (Mekhi Pfifer), the only black kid in a white prep school and the top basketball star. Josh Hartnett played the sneaky Hugo (Iago), breathing life into O's green-eyed monster. The film had been set for release well before 2001, but was temporarily shelved due to the Columbine High School shootings.
But, though her career was taking off, Julia's ambitions were not being fully fulfilled. Needing to know more, she'd enrolled at Columbia University in 2000, majoring in English (fellow students were Anna Paquin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Also in 2000, she visited Costa Rica with the Habitat For Humanity charity, learning about the region and its problems and helping to construct homes for the people. Beyond this, as something of a feminist (she won't take roles where all she does is fancy a boy), she appeared in The Vagina Monologues. And she became fluent in Spanish, practised veganism and played football, as striker for an Irish women's team in the Bronx, occasionally hugging her blankie throughout. Yes, she may be thoroughly forward, but Julia Stiles still has the blankie she used to hug (and talk to as a friend) when she was a kid.
As well as O, 2001 brought Julia's first truly grown-up role, in The Business Of Strangers. This was a dark thriller with Stockard Channing as a thrusting businesswoman and Julia as her canny young assistant. Stopping over at a hotel, they take every opportunity to tear each other to pieces.
After this came a small role in The Bourne Identity, a Robert Ludlum tale where Matt Damon is washed up on a beach with bullet wounds and total amnesia. One thing he does know is that everyone's trying to kill him, so he takes off with the tremendous Franka Potente. Julia played an operative who spends all her time before monitors and short-wave radios, directing assassins towards Damon. You keep expecting her to enter the action -- it is Julia Stiles, after all -- but, weirdly, she never does. It was unsurprising that Stiles only agreed to appear in 2004's follow-up, The Bourne Supremacy, once her role was beefed up. This time, with unknown persons pushing the States into a war with China, she would be suspected by her CIA superiors of being in cahoots with prime suspect Damon and forced to spy on him.
After The Bourne Identity came A Guy Thing, a raunchy comedy where Jason Lee, set to marry a rich Selma Blair, wakes up next to Julia (Blair's cousin!) after his stag do and, believing he must have been unfaithful to his fiancee, tries to cover up his crime, as well as avoid Stiles' ex-boyfriend, a psychotic cop. Naturally, after a series of crazy twists and turns, he comes to wonder whether Julia wouldn't be a better bet after all. And then there was Carolina, where she works on TV show The Perfect Date but cannot find love herself, though she's very matey with the ludicrously good-looking Alessandro Nivola. She also struggles to escape or accept Shirley Maclaine, the fesity grandmother who raised her.
Carolina was a deeply troubled production. To begin with, Kathy Bates sued the producers, claiming they'd offered her a role and had to pay her fee, even though they'd eventually given the part to Maclaine (it was settled out of court). Filming was plagued by money problems, the set being shut down several times, and only Stiles' refusal to give up kept it all together. Even so, makers Miramax had no confidence in the movie and released it straight to DVD.
In the meantime, she made Mona Lisa Smile, joining Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal in an exceptional female cast. Roberts would play a Californian feminist and free-thinker in the '50s who comes to strict Wellesley College on the East Coast. The young ladies are being groomed for a life looking after their businessmen husbands, which naturally strikes against Roberts' conscience. Julia would play Joan Brandwyn, smart enough to win a place at Yale but brainwashed into rejecting that future for a trophy wife's lot.
After this would come The Prince And Me, with a screenplay by Katherine Fugate (who'd earlier penned the ill-fated Carolina). This was another teen romance where the future king of Denmark enrols incognito at Wisconsin University and falls for farm-girl biochemist Julia. She discovers who he really is, dumps him for his deception, then follows him when he returns home to his father's sick-bed. But does she really want to be a queen? The movie was well-timed to arrive just as Frederik, the real Crown Prince of Denmark, was marrying Australian Mary Donaldson. It also gave Julia the chance to work beside thespian heavyweights Miranda Richardson and Edward Fox.
The reason Stiles had fought so hard for Carolina was because it was an adult role -- she was determined to grow up and branch out. To help in this, she had begun a serious stage career, in 2002 playing Viola in Twelfth Night in New York's Central Park. Then, in 2004, she went one step further by starring with Aaron Eckhart in David Mamet's hard-hitting Oleanna at the Garrick Theatre in London. This saw her as a student who accuses Eckhart's unconventional tutor of sexual harassment -- a truly controversial piece. Politically, she'd also involve herself in the Rock The Vote movement, in full flow in the build-up to 2004's presidential elections.
Now very much in demand, Julia would let college take a back seat, squeezing in a semester whenever her work schedule allowed. Her drive into more adult movies was working. Now she would return to David Mamet and William H. Macy in Edmund, another shocking feature where a man gradually loses control, revealing his hidden racism to a waitress, who in turn shows him her secret homophobia. Their truth-sharing, though, turns to disaster when she refuses to admit she's a waitress, rather than an aspiring actress. On top of this she would finally agree to make Going Down, to be directed by Mike Figgis.
Taken from an article by Dominic Wills
Originally published at Tiscalli Entertainment