On the Phone With Julia Stiles

On the Phone With Julia Stiles

Summer in New York for movie queen Julia Stiles means keeping it downtown. There’s a new apartment in the East Village and a limited run in Scott Organ’s play, Phoenix, in the West Village (thru Aug. 28). In between packing and rehearsing, the native New Yorker and Columbia University grad, talks about her craft and what it means to be a woman/actress in her early 30s.

Francis Lewis: Can you tell me about your character, Sue, in Phoenix?

Julia Stiles: She’s not as in control or as self-aware as she likes to think she is. She’s a woman in her 30s. I always think of people in relationships (or ex-relationships) as having a fight or flight instinct, and her instinct is to take flight, meaning she’s noncommittal, more comfortable being nomadic, not really rooted anywhere and not in an intimate relationship. I guess you could call that free-spirited, but I think it’s also rooted in fear, too.

FL: Is she someone you can relate to? Is there a little of Sue in Julia? Or a lot of Sue in Julia? And is it important for you to identify in some way with every character you play?

JS: It’s not important to me. I do find the most delicious characters to play have negative qualities that you might not necessarily like but are entertaining to watch. I think there’s an expression: "You don’t pick the part, the part picks you." When I first read Phoenix, I thought there was a lot of humor in the role.  I thought, this girl’s ridiculous. But as I read it more and more, and started to read through it with James [Wirt, co-star] and Jennifer [DeLia, director], I started to identify my own personality traits within her unexpectedly. Yes, there are certain things I relate to. To me, it’s really interesting having her as a woman in her 30s having to make a decision about whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. That’s so much more significant and fraught than for a woman in her 20s. I’m in my early 30s and at a stage in my life where a lot of my friends are either trying to have children or have encountered difficulties with motherhood. The stakes are a lot higher, if an accident happens in your 30s rather than in your 20s.

FL: You’ve been acting since your teens. Do you think you might ever chuck it in and pursue something else?

JS: Realistically, no. When we did the first read-through [of Phoenix], I had this moment when I said to myself, “Ah,  this is what I am meant to be doing. This feels right to me.” That’s part of the reason I wanted to do the play: to get back to my roots and all the reasons why I wanted to be an actress in the first place. I would certainly like to explore other arenas in filmmaking, in particular, like directing and writing. But, in my heart, I’m a performer. It’s been a while since I’ve been onstage, and I’ve been missing that rush you get from live performance.

FL: But, at this stage of your career, to do a small play Off-Broadway and a limited run at that … why not Broadway or another big-budget movie? 

JS: The venue and the medium don’t matter as much as the story and the people involved. I would love to do a Broadway play, [but] Phoenix came about quickly and spontaneously. Jennifer, the director, and I have become friends because I’m attached to a movie she’s trying to develop.  She called me one day and said that we should do a play together. She wanted to do something over the summer, like summer stock, so we batted around some ideas, and she contacted Rattlestick [Playwrights Theater] and the Cherry Lane [Theatre] and made it come together very quickly. I felt like it was a nice opportunity. There was something serendipitous about it. I’m very fortunate because I’ve been able to work in big movies or TV shows that are rewarding, but also pay nicely. I have the freedom to go and do a tiny little play.


Julia Stiles and James Wirt in Phoenix. Photo ©Harry Fellows

JS: It's really important. If there’s something that makes you [as an actor] afraid of a role, then that challenge is worth pursuing. I think also I would be bored if I played the same type of person over and over again. As much as it’s in my control, which I don’t actually think it is [laugh]. Like, for instance, with Lumen. I really had no idea what the part was going to be. All I knew was she was going to join Dexter in some murders. Other than that, it was kind of a surprise to me. If I’m going to get bored playing the same kind of role over and over again, then obviously audiences are going to get bored.FL: You certainly play a variety of roles, from Shakespeare to Mamet. One of your darker and most memorable ones is Lumen Pierce in the fifth season of Dexter. How important is it to shake things up by playing different types?

FL: You’ve been quoted as saying, “There are a handful of actors who sustain interest because it is exciting to watch them get better at what they do. I want to be one of those actors.” Does that still apply? And what does it mean to get better in your craft?

JS: Thank you for pulling that quote because so often when I hear a quote I think why did I say that, or I don’t believe that, or I’ve been misquoted. But that I do still believe to be true. Getting better? It’s such an ephemeral and subjective thing to describe: What makes a good actor but being more honest, being more truthful and authentic in the roles [he or she] can play. There are also skills that you develop. There’s a boldness, too, that comes with experience. You kind of have this tool kit. Actors like to do theater because they've built this tool kit that they can then use. And breaking out of habits, too. It’s very easy to get into habits that you can fall back on.

FL: New York has always been an anchor for you, hasn't it?

JS: It has. I spend about six months of the year in LA, but I don’t have a place there.

FL: No going Hollywood for you then?

JS: There are definitely things that I like about Los Angeles. The lifestyle is certainly easier. I have a lot of friends who live there, so I like being able to balance the two cities. I grew up in SoHo and went to school around the corner from the Cherry Lane [Theatre]. So this is really like coming home.

» Phoenix, Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., btw Bedford & Hudson sts., 212.352.3101, thru Aug. 23