The Feminist Mystique

Photo: Sarah Dunn

Julia Stiles, whom a theater critic once called “the thinking teenager’s movie goddess,” is walking purposefully past Tompkins Square Park, talking about her sophisticated Soho childhood, when a gang of high-school sophomores runs up on her left flank.

“Excuse me! Hi, are you Julia Stiles?” asks the apparent leader, Sophie, whose head reaches Stiles’s shoulder. “I’m just a big fan of yours,” she says, catching her breath. Sophie’s favorite “teen” star, who is about to make her Broadway debut in David Mamet’s very grown-up play Oleanna, graciously introduces herself.

“I’m wondering, do you go by any method?” Sophie asks. “Like Lee Strasberg or Adler?”

“Meisner I really like,” Stiles says, “but a combination.”

“Like a toolbox kind of thing?”

“Yes, good word for it!”

I ask the girls for their favorite Stiles film. “Come on,” Stiles chides me. “We’re doing an interview right now,” she explains to them. As we’re inching away, Sophie shouts, “10 Things I Hate About You, oh, God—sorry! I know we’re embarrassing you.”

Farther down Avenue A, Stiles says, “I’m proud of the movies I’ve been in, but I hate being identified with [teen flicks]—it’s limiting. Especially because I’m 28 years old.”

The actress has gotten flack for protesting too much, for seeming to imply she’s too good for her fans or her early roles. It’s true that her career-making films had loftier aspirations than your average teen romance, but Stiles claims it’s sheer coincidence that three of them were modern adaptations of Shakespeare: 10 Things, based on The Taming of the Shrew; a very arty Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke; and O, with Mekhi Phifer as a basketball-star Othello. She also downplays the old profile chestnut that has her 11-year-old self sending an adorable letter to the avant-garde Ridge Theater Company, which promptly cast her in productions at La MaMa and the Kitchen. “I was this precocious little kid. It sounds so annoying to me right now.”

It must be a relief, then, to have outgrown precociousness. Now she can simply be a serious actress, which does not preclude having a sense of humor about herself. The actress recently created a funny web video, “Julia Stiles Styles,” in which she hawks ridiculous ecoconscious clothing like TEN SHIRTS I LOVE ABOUT YOU. Tabloid gossips assumed she was tweaking Gwyneth Paltrow; she denies it: “I was going after dimmer bulbs. And making fun of myself.”

It probably takes a sense of humor—some would say a taste for masochism—to inhabit Carol in Oleanna. The character—a naïve-seeming student who transforms into a feminist harpy, accusing her professor of sexual harassment—is notoriously unlikable. During the play’s original run in the early nineties, just after the Clarence Thomas hearings, audience members would shout, “Get the bitch!” toward the play’s end. Mamet was bashed for stacking the deck against Carol— and all women.

William H. Macy, who played the professor in Oleanna, onstage and in the 1994 film, told Stiles, “Oh, God, that’s such a hard part for the girl.” And yet she’s played Carol twice—first in a 2004 London revival, opposite Aaron Eckhart, and now in a new Doug Hughes–directed version (the play’s Broadway debut) opposite Bill Pullman. In L.A. tryouts, the anti-Carol catcalls continued (Stiles’s father joked to Pullman after a performance, “I feel like I should apologize for my daughter’s behavior”). But Stiles is dedicated to finding depths in Carol—depths that Mamet hasn’t specified. “He would say backstory doesn’t matter, and I don’t necessarily agree,” she says.

A peripheral player in the Mamet universe ever since she appeared in his film State and Main, Stiles is a great admirer of the famously male-centered playwright. And Oleanna’s misogyny rap clearly rankles. She later sends an e-mail insisting “the play is largely about rage. Most people go through life swallowing their anger, because it’s taboo. One thing I like about Carol—I know it sounds odd—is that she is confrontational.” It helps to have a supportive co-star, and Pullman has less of a Method approach to the relationship than Eckhart did. “It feels more collaborative this time,” Stiles says with a wry smile.

On the lookout for a bar, we somewhat appropriately end up at McSorley’s, one of the last old watering holes in New York to admit women. “I still feel like my career is in flux,” she says over a beer and a curious combo of white cheese, Saltines, and onions. She’s dabbled in directing (including a short called Raving, starring Bill Irwin and Zooey Deschanel) and producing—she’s trying to get a film of The Bell Jar off the ground, in which she also would star. It’s been a while since Stiles carried a film; she’s made just three films since 2006, two of them obscure indies, and a small part in The Bourne Ultimatum. “I definitely need to do a movie after this,” she says.

Stiles is often lauded for her potential rather than her (adult) accomplishments. Either she’s the next Meryl Streep or, in the mind of Hughes, the next Liev Schreiber. It’s a strange comparison that hints at the difficulties in casting her; she’s never been an obvious romantic lead, despite her early movie roles. “Julia’s got a poise and dignity that comes with not wearing it all on your sleeve,” Pullman says. But her career was also slowed by college (she studied English at Columbia), and she’s picky about parts. “I don’t know if it’s a gender thing,” she says. “Roles for younger women are mostly the Girlfriend—but there are exceptions.”

Pullman appreciates her dilemma. “Last night, an actor”—not Stiles—“said there was an expiration date stamped on her forehead. I never thought that I would expire at certain points. Would I take shitty roles just to keep myself from going under?” Stiles, he says, has obviously chosen not to. “That selectivity is brave.” Then he speculates on why she feels a connection to Oleanna’s mysterious Carol—a hunch about the character that could just as easily apply to the actress. “Does she need a lot of sympathy, or a lot of respect? I think she’s going for respect.”

The Feminist Mystique