July 2003 By Philip Berk
For someone as brainy and beautiful as she is, Julia Stiles has starred in more movies that were never released than anyone I can think of.
And a few which lasted one week in theatres.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll list them: Wicked, Carolina, Screenland, O, Business of Strangers.
But somewhere along the way she’s had two respectable hits (10 Things I Hate About You and Save the Last Dance)
And now in Julia Roberts’ Mona Lisa Smile, she comes into her own.
Off screen she’s no beauty but in Mona Lisa Smile she looks stunning.
At her press conference in Los Angeles, I ask her about chameleon-like qualities, and she’s not insulted.
“I do look different in every role, but that’s my goal as an actor.”
Did she model her look on any of the icons of the 50’s?
“Actually I did. I watched a lot of Grace Kelly movies, not just for the physical reasons but because she had the same upbringing as my character had.”
In Mona Lisa Smile she plays the perfect young lady who would rather marry than pursue a career.
Just the opposite of what Julia has done for herself.
She made up her mind at eleven that she wanted to be an actress.
What sparked that interest?
“My grandmother took me to see a play in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and I wrote them a letter asking if I could audition to be a part of their theatre company and luckily they said Yes. I had three lines in the first play, and then became a member of the company. I worked with them until I was seventeen, and through that I found an agent.”
What was her first professional job?
“I did a movie called Wicked,” (for which she won a Best Actress Award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, something she neglects to mention.) “but the first movie people actually saw was Ten things I Hate About You.”
Were her parents in show business?
“Not at all. My mom makes ceramics. She’s had a business selling ceramics for twenty years. My dad runs the business. He took a brief sojourn to become a public school teacher, but now he’s working with her again.”
Does she have any siblings?
“I have a younger brother and sister. My sister’s twelve and my brother’s ten.”
She, by the way, is twenty-two.
Her parents sound quite liberal. Are they?
“They used to be hippies. I grew up in a very creative environment. I’m so thankful that my parents encouraged me to throw caution to the wind and try anything. I definitely feel I am where I am today because they never discouraged me.”
Does she still live with them?
“I’ve lived in a dormitory ever since I started college.”
She’s enrolled as a Liberal Arts-English major at Columbia University in New York.
Was she brought up Catholic like her father?
“Religion was always something that they’ve let me find for myself. My mom is very progressive, but I have to say my dad is very traditional Catholic. He’s always been very protective of me. I remember on my first date, when I was fourteen, he parked outside my boyfriend’s house and waited the whole night. It was very embarrassing and he still does things like that.”
Two years ago she told me she had a boyfriend who was not an actor.
Was her father happy with that choice? I asked her.
“Funnily enough he freaked out when I told my mom he was from Alabama. Her suggestion that we invite him for Thanksgiving was greeted by, ‘I don’t want that kid coming for Thanksgiving. Who is this kid? I’ve got to to meet him first.’ So you can see he is seriously traditional Catholic and very protective.”
Sadly that relationship is over.
Her next movie, opening in March, is The Prince and Me, in which she falls in love with a prince.
So what is she looking for in her Prince Charming?
“A kind man with a sense of humor, who would be a good father to my children,”
Sounds like the same thing Uma Thurman was looking for, and look what came of that marriage
Even though many of her films have bombed at the box office, she has turned down a lot of things.
What are her criteria?
“I turn down anything that doesn’t intrigue me. If it doesn’t make me feel like I would be challenging myself, I won’t do it. My goal has always been to be a sort of chameleon, as you implied, and change the kinds of roles I play. For me the fun of being an actress is like playing dress up.”
Why English as a major? Why not drama?
“When I started college, I had no idea what I was going to major in, and on the spur of the moment I decided to take a Shakespeare class, and it completely made me want to major in English. I remember reading Titus Andronicus and starting to cry, and thinking, ‘He’s amazing.’ And then my professor too was amazing; so I guess the major chose me.”
Ironically she’s done three modern adaptions of Shakespearian plays: the films Hamlet (with Ethan Hawke,) O (based on Othello,) and Ten Things I Hate About You (loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew.)
How difficult is going to college and pursuing a career at the same time? And how much fun was it shooting Mona Lisa Smile on her college campus?
“You’re right, the scenes in the lecture hall were shot in Havermeyer Hall at Columbia. I wasn’t in school at the time — I took off the semester while we were shooting — but I called all my friends who were taking classes nearby to come on the set. But yes, it is difficult to balance the two. When you’re on a set it sort of distracts you if I’m in school. I had hoped I could just work in the summertime and then go to school during the rest of the year, but it doesn’t work that way. However I do feel the two worlds complement each other. Being in school keeps me sane — there’s a lot I’m curious about that I can’t learn on a movie set. The only time I get frustrated is when I’m sitting at the computer and I have a term paper to write and I think, ‘I really love acting. Why am I doing this?’ I took an exam right before I got on the plane to come to this junket.”
Mona Lisa Smile portrays a different time for women.
Are women better off today than they were in the 1950s?
“Women didn’t really have a choice in the 50’s. Even if they went to college and got an education, that was where they were supposed to meet their husbands and then raise a family. It was unheard of doing anything different. What’s great about now is we women have a choice. I have to say the feminist in me was a little disappointed when my character turned down the opportunity to go to law school. But what I like is she reminds us that being a mother is an equally important role. The problem with the fifties was that women were expected to be caretakers, which at the time nobody appreciated. But there are still a lot of women today who get married at an early age as a security blanket because of the times we live in, which is something we all worry about.”
What would she choose?
“My career is really important to me because I love acting so much, but I also like the idea of finding somebody that I could raise a family with and be a good father to my children. That is thrilling to me and really important; so I’m glad the year is 2003 and women can do both.”
She had a small role as Matt Damon’s girl friend in The Bourne Identity and will also be seen in its sequel The Bourne Supremacy, which deals with terrorist threats.
What are her views on that?
“I don’t know if you know, but I was born in New York and grew up where my parents now live, which is very close to the World Trade Centre. What happened was just shocking, and it changed me and my family and my friends so much because every time I used to look out the window or walk outside my house, I would see The Twin Towers, and it’s not there anymore. Luckily none of my family was hurt, but it’s something that’s immediate as opposed to something you read about or see on television. So the great thing I’ve taken away from all that is to live every day to the fullest and appreciate all the privileges we have as Americans.”
What does she think is her best quality as an actress?
“I guess listening. I act my best when I’m responding to what other people in the scene are doing. In that regard I learned a lot from Julia Roberts. There’s a scene in the movie where she has a really, really long speech. As an actor that’s such a nightmare, but every time she did it, each take was really fresh and exciting and new, and of course honest and truthful.”
Is she into fashion and who are her favorite designers?
“Calvin Klein is great. Catherine Malandrino, Armani. It depends on whether I want to look glamorous or just young and contemporary.”
How has she stayed away from drugs and alcohol?
“I guess it comes from my parents, the way they brought me up. Alcohol was never really a big thing in our home. And I never felt the need to go out and go crazy as a rebellion against my parents which I see in other of my peers.”
And for fun, what does she like doing?
“I like being with my friends. going to the movies, watching TV, going to baseball games. Baseball games are really fun.”
Next up for her is a play she’ll be doing in London’s West End, in which she’ll be playing an insecure college freshman in a revival of David Mamet’s Oleanna.
Who will play her victim (her professor)?
“Oh, we don’t know yet.”
P.S. It was Aaron Eckhart