“Okay, question for the day,” says the waitress in her slow Charleston drawl. “Did you recognize that little girl who just left?” Julia Stiles, the brown-eyed, blonde actress who was crowned one of Hollywood’s brightest young lights by Vanity Fair that very weekend, murmurs no. “That was Tara Lipinski!” the waitress exclaims. “You know, the figure skater!” Julia nods politely. The waitress shakes her head. “Ah, you failed the test,” she sighs sadly.
In Charleston to film her new movie, O, based on Othello, Julia Stiles is at that precious, fleeting stage of pre-celebrity when the biggest invasions on her privacy are teens who stop her at clubs to say “You’re famous … aren’t you?” and Citadel cadets who whistle at her as she walks down the street (“But I think they do that to anybody,” she admits). While her face – camouflaged by stars and stripes in ads for the NBC mini-series The 60s – was all but unavoidable last month, Stiles goes unnoticed among the extras on the South Carolina set of O, who cluster excitedly around her co-star Rain Phoenix instead. But with a string of movies on the horizon (her latest, a teen version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew called 10 Things I Hate About You, opens this Wednesday), things are about to change.
Stiles is, as they say, in play. She’s in Miramax’s upcoming Shakespearean knockoff, a modern-day New York version of Hamlet that also stars Ethan Hawke and Bill Murray. Julia plays an East Village Ophelia in combat boots. Now Madonna’s MadGuy productions is avidly courting her to star in Going Down, Jennifer Belle’s best-seller about an NYU student who pays her tuition by turning tricks. And Calvin Klein just photographed Stiles in jeans for his summer ad campaign. Then there’s super-producer Lynda Obst, who cast the SoHo-born-and-raised actress in The 60s – and who gushingly compares her to a young Meryl Streep.
Not bad for an 18-year-old. But except for her tendency to describe things as “cool,” Stiles is not your prototypical New York teenager. She’s not surly or jaded or fashion-obsessed. She doesn’t even smoke. She’s just landed her first real boyfriend, a co-star from 10 Things she refuses to talk about. Growing up in a decidedly boho SoHo household (Mom’s a potter; Dad runs the business), Stiles never had to sneak out of her parents’ house at night, a la Gwyneth. She just informed them she was going. And despite all that freedom – or because of it – she’s a very mature 18. Her mother, Judith Stiles, says her daughter’s tenaciousness in family discussions (everything was decided by consensus) led her to believe that she’d spawned a future litigation lawyer. But there were early premonitions of her eventual career. When Julia was 6, her parents caught her riffling through the phone book looking for an agent. By 7, she was entertaining the family by acting out complete episodes of The Honeymooners.
The precocious prepubescent was duly enrolled in modern-dance classes, where she learned to compose three-minute routines with such titles as “The Gods Ate My Jewelry” at the tender age of 8. The same year, after she caught her first play at La MaMa, Miss Stiles officially decided to become an actress. “I got a letter in the mail written in crayon,” says Bob McGrath, who heads the avant-garde Ridge Theater Company. “It said that she was Julia Stiles and she wanted to be an actress and if I had any, ’and I mean any parts for kids, please give me a call.’ She included all these Polaroids of herself as all these characters that she’d made up.” McGrath immediately wrote a part for her in his play Jungle Movie. “I don’t think she had any idea what the premise was,” he laughs. “I’d say, ‘Well, Julia, it’s sort of a meditation on thirties jungle movies cross-pollinated with Freudian psychology,’ and she went, ‘Mmm, I can do that.’ She had this serious focus about the craft of acting from the time she was 8.”
“She’s both extremely intuitive and extremely intellectual, which is rare,” adds Obst. “I see her as a worker and a thinker and a philosopher in a weird way. My exchange with her is as rich as with any sort of college professor.” Obst lowers her voice dramatically. “I don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable by saying this, but she has a small savant quality.”
Stiles first attracted serious attention in 1998, when The Anarchist’s Daughter, a screenplay she co-wrote with McGrath and Scott Saunders, was accepted into Sundance’s Screenwriter’s Lab. That same year, her low-budget thriller Wicked appeared in the Sundance Film Festival. The movie wasn’t notable so much for its story line (Julia plays a precocious teen who gets too close to her father when her mother is murdered) as for the quirky talent of its young star. The buzz quickly propelled her out of the world of cattle calls and auditions and won her a reputation as a skilled if slightly somber actor. “When I used to audition for commercials,” she says, “I’d always get people telling me, ‘You have to go in and light up the room and be bubbly and talk a lot!’ ” She groans at the memory. “But my mom has a mantra, ‘I am what I am and that’s all that I am,’ and it’s very helpful.”
So her character in 10 Things I Hate About You, a prickly teenager repulsed by her popularity-seeking peers, isn’t too much of a stretch. The truth is, Stiles makes an unlikely ingenue. She’s not terribly good at small talk and is appalled by artifice. In her parachute pants and Puma flip-flops, she looks less like a Hollywood starlet than like the soccer player she was in high school. “I sense that she’s uncomfortable with superficiality,” says Obst. “She’s afraid she’s going to get it wrong. She doesn’t know the lines she’s supposed to say in certain kinds of ritual conversation. You have to actually talk with her and engage her.”
In her cluttered hotel suite – her home for two months – Julia sits behind a coffee table piled with flowers, schoolbooks (Conceptual Physics, The Bhagavad Gita), and a Hampshire College brochure. (Earlier this morning, she took a Spanish exam online.) She is, of course, dying to graduate this May. She’s applied to schools she didn’t have the time to visit and figures she’ll take a year off, make a few movies, and “travel and be human.” Her plan was partly inspired by the advice she got from her Hamlet co-star Bill Murray, who plays her father, Polonius. “Right after Ghostbusters, or whichever movie totally made him a superstar, he studied in Paris and traveled around Asia,” she says. “His agent couldn’t even get him on the phone. Bill said, ‘You can’t take this too seriously and let it run your life.’ “