As a teen actress, Julia Stiles was known for her cerebral roles. Now she's in this summer's biggest action movie – but only because it's intelligent, she tells Gill Pringle
Famously dubbed "the thinking teenager's movie goddess", the former teen actress Julia Stiles is now all grown up and fully in control of her career. At 26, she refuses to compromise her integrity, even if it means losing out on roles to actresses more willing to flaunt their flesh. " It's not that I'm prudish. It's just that I don't really want to go to work and take off my clothes," says Stiles, explaining why she will never compete with Hollywood's sexy young stars.
Co-starring with Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum, the last of the Bourne trilogy, the actress commends the film's intelligent style. Spy movies for grown-ups, the Bourne films have never required their actresses to run around in bikinis à la Bond.
"I think people appreciate that these films don't fall into the conventional traps that most action films do. I love that Bourne is not your typical action hero in that sense, because most assassins or hitmen are made to look really cool and tough in terms of the crimes they commit. Whereas Jason Bourne is struggling with how guilty he feels about what he has done. I like that Jason Bourne has a conscience."
Better still, Stiles likes how all the Bourne women are smart and self-confident. And fully clothed. "You'd be surprised how much nudity is called for as an actress," she continues. "I don't have a problem with it or a problem when other actresses do it, but I'm a modest person and generally steer away from nude scenes and love scenes because, more often than not, I find they're gratuitous."
She is wary of how "art" can easily become pornography: " People in the film lab can do something with the footage and, no matter what the context is in the actual film, it can end up as pornography on the internet.
"I've worked with foreign directors who think that it's an 'American thing' [her reluctance to do nudity] and they don't understand why it would be such a serious issue for me. But it's not my own hang-up; it's the hang-up of the audience."
Stiles realises that by setting such boundaries she limits the range of roles offered to her; recently she lost out to Jessica Alba for the role of Sue Storm/Invisible Girl in Fantastic Four. "But I think that, for young women especially, the roles are very limited, anyway. They are generally the appendage of the main character, who's a guy, so you get to play the love interest or the girl that he has a crush on – but she doesn't have her own defined character."
This may seem to be a mature approach to the movie business for such a young actress, but Stiles seems to have been a grown-up her entire life. As a teenager, she stood out from the pack by choosing to make Shakespearean-themed films, most notably Gil Junger's 10 Things I Hate About You, Tim Blake Nelson's O, and Michael Almerayda's Hamlet, in which she played Ophelia.
Stiles was 11 when she began performing with New York's La MaMa theatre company, in her spare time submitting her resumé to agents, asking that they keep her in mind for roles. A student at New York's Professional Children's School, at 12 years old she lost out to Kirsten Dunst on the role of the vampire child, Claudia, in Interview With the Vampire, although that same year saw her appear in Cyndi Lauper's "Sally's Pigeons" video.
Having failed to star opposite Brad Pitt in the Anne Rice adaptation, Stiles finally got to share screen time with him, aged 16, when she was cast as Harrison Ford's daughter in The Devil's Own. It was her big break, and, after a number of roles in teen flicks, Stiles gained critical respect for her appearances in David Mamet's State and Main and Patrick Stettner's The Business of Strangers. Just as she had become bankable, however, she temporarily interrupted her career to attend college.
Graduating with a major in English literature from New York's Columbia University in 2005, she is uncertain whether her degree improves her career options. "It's funny, because being cerebral isn't necessarily the best thing for an actress. It is in terms of understanding a role or understanding what roles you want to choose, but in terms of being a visceral actor and reacting emotionally to things, it can be an obstacle. I tend to think about things too much," says Stiles.
"The good thing about being in college was that people took little interest in me because they were so preoccupied with their own ambitions and exams. Also there's that thing in academia where movie-making isn't supposed to be that important, it's sort of low-brow. So that was refreshing to me and I was determined to be taken seriously."
She has certainly managed to keep a low profile in terms of her love life, which has included romances with the musician John Mays, Latino artist Jonathan Cramer and actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Joshua Jackson.
Hailing from a liberal Greenwich Village family, Stiles is the daughter of Irish-American teacher and businessman John O'Hara, and Judith Stiles, a potter of Anglo-Italian ancestry. She never has used her father's name. " I like Stiles. Stiles has a bite to it that I really like," explains the actress.
Stiles employs a "one for the money, one for the soul" attitude towards acting, accepting lavish pay cheques for big-budget movies and then working to scale for offbeat stage productions or independent films. After Bourne comes a project close to her heart. Having bought the rights to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, the film adaptation – in which she stars and which she is producing – is finally in pre-production.
"I thought The Bell Jar would be perfect for cinema. A lot of Plath's biographies have overshadowed her work and people perceive her as this dark, brooding, depressed woman, which, as far as I can tell, is not true.
"What is written about in The Bell Jar is a character who experiences extreme highs and extreme lows and has this artistic drive she can't channel, and that's what makes her implode. I think Sylvia Plath wrote so many great visual images in it that should be in the film. Her creativity in her poetry came out in the way she described what Esther was seeing, so it's a great opportunity to make a very stylised, almost hallucinogenic film."
Stiles certainly identifies with the book's troubled heroine, Esther Greenwood: "I related to that at Columbia in the sense that there's something overwhelming about being in school with the cream of the crop and feeling inadequate, or feeling like you want so intensely to achieve or accomplish something.
"But the problems I think Esther has at school is that she's very ambitious and wants to take advantage of all these opportunities but she's slowly realising the doors are closing for her and that, at the time she's living in, there really aren't that many opportunities. For instance, she has this internship on a magazine and she thinks that it's going to be a stepping stone to becoming a successful writer, but it turns out that all they do is learn how to bake and go on dates."
Plath's semi-autobiographical novel was published two weeks after her suicide in February 1963, and the American-born poet would go on to become a posthumous heroine of the feminist movement. This is not the most important thing to Stiles, however: "At the end of the book, she leaves the institution, and we all know that Plath later committed suicide, but I'm trying to keep the book separate from her biography. My film will be about The Bell Jar's Esther, not Sylvia Plath."
'The Bourne Ultimatum' opens on Friday.