Julia Stiles Looks Back At The Roles That Have Defined Her Career

We hate it when she's not around, and the fact that she didn't call.
Archive Photos via Getty Images

Hit Backspace for a regular dose of pop culture nostalgia.

This weekend, Julia Stiles stars in her fourth “Bourne” movie. If we discount the 2012 diversion “The Bourne Legacy,” she and Matt Damon are the only actors to appear in all four of the franchise’s installments: “Identity,” “Supremacy,” “Ultimatum” and, now, “Jason Bourne.”

Stiles, who became famous for teen fare like “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Save the Last Dance,” never imagined she’d spend so much time masquerading as an action star. When I met her at a Manhattan hotel earlier this month, I arrived with a laptop in hand, ready to look back at her transition from millennial idol to grown-up adventuress. (She went to college in between!) With a pre-loaded collection of her movie scenes in tow, I sat with Stiles and watched her career unfold before our eyes.

“It’s been a day of ‘this is your life,’” she said. “I just did an interview where they were showing photos of fashion choices from when I was, like, 18 and didn’t know how to dress myself. Hilarious.”

Take a trip down Stiles Lane with these seven modern semi-classics.

"Ghostwriter" (1993-'94)
"No, I can’t," Stiles said, jumping as soon as I pulled up this clip from "Ghostwriter," the children's mystery series that aired on PBS from 1992 to 1995. "Do we have to? I can’t watch it!"

I told her we didn't have to, but before I could close the tab on my computer, Stiles continued, "We all have our -- ugh, please, I can’t watch it. It’s too corny. Also, my saving grace is that every actor starts off somewhere, but ... yeah. It’s too embarrassing. It’s ridiculous."

In the clip we were going to watch, Stiles plays a young hacker with what would have been a nice premonition for the nascent internet, had it actually proved true: "It's a world where you're judged by what you say and think, not by what you look like."
"10 Things I Hate About You" (1999)
Of course the most noted scene from "10 Things I Hate About You" is the titular poem that Kat reads in front of her English class. But the most fun is this paintball escapade. "We had to be really careful with the continuity," Stiles says. "Oh, see, the continuity is not right there." Pay attention to the splotches on her suit, and you'll notice the amount of paint suddenly amplifies around the 0:36 mark of this clip.

"That was fun," she said of the day she shot the scene. "I had never done paintball before."

Stiles stayed in touch with Larisa Oleynik and Joseph Gordon-Levitt after the shoot ended, but she lost contact with Heath Ledger. She was "shocked" when a friend called to inform her of the actor's death in 2008. "It was so sad," she recalled. "That was such an amazing time for all of us, and we were all so innocent." Stiles was moving recently when she found a gift from Ledger. "I dug up this old note that he had written on this hotel stationery because we were all staying at the Sheraton in Tacoma, Washington, and it said -- I forget the beginning of the quote, but it’s like, 'Dance like you’ve never heard the music and love like you’ve never been hurt.' It was so sweet. I almost cried. That was his goodbye note to me."
"Save the Last Dance" (2001)
"Oh, my God, I look like a baby!"

Stiles said several times throughout our conversation that "Save the Last Dance" was the most arduous shoot of her career. She was already a dancer when she got the part, but she rehearsed with a trainer for "a couple months" before production began -- ballet in the morning, hip-hop in the afternoon. Once shooting was underway, Stiles operated on a seven-day workweek, attending dance classes on the weekends. Knowing the weight of the movie was on her shoulders, she took it so seriously that she opted not to party with Sean Patrick Thomas and her other co-stars when they went to Chicago nightclubs.

"I was so lame," she said. "I felt like I had to be disciplined because I thought, “Oh, my God, I need to go home and go to bed because I have to get up and do four hours of ballet in the morning -- which I guess was responsible of me, but so boring.”

Stiles hasn't taken another dance class since the movie wrapped: "I just get too self-conscious, and dancers can be very critical. But I have replaced it with yoga."
"O" (2001)
Stiles seemed excited when "O" first popped up, but then she realized it was the scene where Othello (Mekhi Phifer) smothers Desdemona with a pillow. "Oh, I was so pouty when I was younger," she said. "Look at my face. I was so ... sorry. Oy. Oy, oy, oy. OK, OK, I can't watch."

Stiles was pegged as a Shakespearean actress thanks to the triple punch of "10 Things I Hate About You" (based on "The Taming of the Shrew"), "Hamlet" and "O." (Stiles also played Viola in "Twelfth Night" during New York's annual Shakespeare in the Park one year after "O.") She had never performed Shakespeare before, and because 2000's "Hamlet" was a low-budget indie project, the cast barely rehearsed. "I remember the adults -- Bill Murray and Diane Venora and Liev Schreiber -- were pulling their hair out, like, 'What are you talking about, we’re not going to rehearse?'"

But Murray, who played Polonius, took Stiles to rehearse privately with Kristin Linklater, a renowned New York acting coach who specializes in Shakespeare and also happens to be Hamish Linklater's mother. "That was helpful," she said.

Later, while shooting Ophelia's suicide, Stiles fainted. "That scene in the fountain was shot in November in New York, and the fountain was cold water," she said. "It was so cold that I was hyperventilating. In order to pretend to be dead, you can’t have your chest moving. But we did three takes, and on the third take I blacked out when they called cut and I got up. But it’s OK, I had a bunch of people around."
"Mona Lisa Smile" (2003)
For this scene, I give Stiles a choice: the "Mona Lisa Smile" moment where her character tells her progressive art professor (Julia Roberts) that she's choosing marriage instead of law school, or the scene from "Down To You" where Freddie Prinze Jr. watches her dance to "Let's Stay Together." She picked "Mona Lisa Smile" without a blip of hesitation, calling the "Down To You" bit "awkward."

Stiles said the cast of "Mona Lisa Smile" went to etiquette school before making the movie. When she started filming the 1950s-set film, she opted for the Old Hollywood-style accent that women were taught in elocution school. Midway through shooting, director Mike Newell asked her not to use the accent anymore, and she suspects her character's cadence is "inconsistent" as a result.

But the "Mona Lisa Smile" memory that stands out is "caretaker" Julia Roberts teaching the cast to knit. "She’s really into knitting, and like wildfires spreading, everyone took up knitting," Stiles said. (The movie also stars Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin and Marcia Gay Harden.) "In these lecture halls [at Wellesley] in between takes, everyone was taking out knitting needles. She’s obviously very influential. I was terrible at knitting. It did not stick with me."
"The Bourne Supremacy" (2004)
Stiles mistook this clip for a "Bourne Ultimatum" scene when it first began playing. Stiles said her character, former CIA technician Nicky Parsons, was originally killed at the end of "The Bourne Identity." She shot a scene where Nicky's neck was snapped, but she was called back for reshoots so that Nicky would survive. Unsure whether Universal Pictures found her death too gruesome or if the studio was leaving room for potential sequels, Stiles "never could have predicted" that she would spend more than a decade of her life making "Bourne" movies.

"With 'Bourne Identity,' I remember the week before it came out, Matt Damon thought the movie was going to tank -- not because it wasn’t good; he was just worried because it was the first time he was the lead in an action film. And then we were all surprised to come back for 'Supremacy.'"

Regarding the "Supremacy" scene we watched, Stiles said she had to spend a second day shooting it too. "I got a phone call the next day because the film -- good old-fashioned film -- got destroyed in the lab, which doesn’t happen anymore," she said. "Which also could have been code for 'We need to reshoot this scene to make it better.'"
"Dexter" (2010)
Stiles, who earned an Emmy nomination for her 10-episode guest arc on "Dexter," likened Michael C. Hall to Heath Ledger, calling them both "very generous" scene partners. "He was listening very well, and that's the sign of a good actor," she said of Hall in this moment from Season 5 of the Showtime hit.

"They ended up doing it pretty much in one take," Stiles recalled. "I feel like working onstage helped me a lot there, and that’s why I bring up that they did it in one take. I think they were planning to go in for closeups and coverage just to have it, and then they were like, 'We don’t need to.' It’s one of the rare moments where you’re like, 'I’m good at my job.'"

Before You Go

"Mean Girls" (2004)

Stylish Teen Movies From The Early 2000s

Popular in the Community