Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
A working actor since she was 11, Julia Stiles has spent literally all of her adult life in the public eye. A brainy child raised in New York, Stiles never fit into the “kid actor” mold, instead breaking into acting via experimental theater, a Cyndi Lauper video, and a bit part as an almost comically ’90s hacker on an episode of Ghostwriter. Stiles’ big break came when she played Kat Stratford, the riot grrrl protagonist of teen romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. (Her interests, according to a fellow student: “Thai food, feminist prose, and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion.”) From there, Stiles went on to star in other unconventional Shakespeare adaptations, including O and Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet, before diving into less tragic fare like Save The Last Dance, State And Main, the Bourne movies, and, just last year, Hustlers. Her latest role is as troubled art curator Georgina Ryland on Sundance Now and Sky Atlantic’s series Riviera, which is now in its third season with new episodes airing every Thursday. The A.V. Club talked to Stiles about that series, as well as a number of other roles and pit stops in her already lengthy career. Video clips from that conversation are below, along with a full transcript. A full-length version of the video can be found on The A.V. Club’s YouTube page.
The A.V. Club: At the end of Riviera season two, it seemed like we were in for a full reset of the story, and of Georgina’s life, and in some sense, that’s what we’re getting with season three. How do you think the new season pushes the show forward?
Julia Stiles: Season three starts off with Georgina really trying to distance herself from her past, and she’s taken her maiden name. A little bit of time has passed. She’s moved to London and has a job teaching. But very quickly, in walks Gabriel Hirsch, played by Rupert Graves, and he offers her a job in art restitution that will promise a lot of adventure, and she can’t resist. So off they go to Venice to try and recover a stolen Picasso. And then she gets wrapped up in this international conspiracy that takes them back to France, and then all the way to South America. This season, I think the scope of it is a lot bigger. The Riviera is the title character and will always be a big part of the show, but what happens in the south of France now extends all the way to other parts of the world. I think that also makes it tonally a little bit different because it’s not so much about the Greek tragedy of the Clios family anymore. It’s more a conspiracy thriller.
One of the things I love about Georgina as a character, [is] if she comes up on danger, she doesn’t run from it. She’s hellbent on taking down these big figures, a bit like David and Goliath. She says, “I’m sick of wealthy people getting away with doing whatever they want and thinking they can get away with it just because they have money.” So she’s targeting a politician who is buying elections in Buenos Aires. She’s targeting a tech billionaire. It is a mystery up until a certain point. I don’t want to give away too much. But it’s just bigger in terms of locations and bigger in terms of what Georgina’s confronting.
AVC: The show is already pretty big in terms of locations. They’re stunning. I don’t often use the word “sumptuous,” but they are. Has there been one location or one day on the show when you’ve thought to yourself, “I can’t believe I’m here,” or “I can’t believe this is what I’m doing today”?
JS: It’s literally every day on the show. I can’t even post on Instagram or text my friends at home because everybody wants to poke my eyes out. It’s amazing. Obviously the south of France is extraordinary, and we got to spend a lot of time there, but then this season we start off in Venice. So we were filming for, like, a month in Venice doing night shoots. Because Venice is built on water, we would be taking boats to get to work during sunset over the Grand Canal, and I would just be like, “This commute doesn’t suck.” And then we went back to St. Tropez and Nice, and then I got to spend three months in Argentina. It was extraordinary. Especially looking back now, when travel is so restricted, I feel really fortunate to be on this show.
AVC: Part of what I liked about the show was that, because I’ve been stuck at home for so long, it gave me a chance to go somewhere glamorous and exotic for a second. I love to travel and go new places, and this scratched that itch just a little.
JS: I’ve spent the last four years—the show has done three seasons, but it’s spanned over four years—mostly living out of a suitcase and putting my stuff in storage. It’s been wonderful.
AVC: News recently broke that Dexter is coming back. You had a fairly long and fairly beloved run on that show. What was that experience like for you?
JS: It was great. It really introduced me to what it would be like to work on a cable television show. It was already a very well-established show, so I was just sort of along for the ride. But I really love what they wrote for me. It was at a time when, just before that, cable was getting really good. Before that, I had this fear of doing TV because—and it was a misconception—but I thought, you know, you sign a five-year contract, and it’s a leap of faith. Sometimes the show gets repetitive or it takes a left turn into a story, and it’s not really what you signed up for. So I was really reluctant to make that sort of commitment. But Dexter was a wonderful experience, and so then years later, when approached about Riviera, I was very keen to do it, and I thought that actually—and this has proven to be true—but actually working on a cable television show can be extremely rewarding, because you get further into stories and you have consistency with the people that you’re working with. Plus the quality of cable television is a lot better now.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of theater as well. When I’ve talked to people or talked to people who have played a character for years, it’s come up that it allows you to really dive into the depths of a character. You get to know them better than you would on a three-week job or even a three-month job. Do you feel that way?
JS: With Riviera, I certainly look back on three seasons and I’m kind of amazed at the evolution of Georgina as a character and not only the places that the show is taking me but also what we’ve explored in terms of story. It’s been really rewarding.
The framework for cable shows is that the gun that’s established in act one appears later, and sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, you can have an evolution of a character or story point that doesn’t play out until three seasons later. So when I was first offered Riviera, I spoke to the producers and asked, “Okay, where is the show going to go?” They said to me, “Well, she’s not going to be this sort of naive, guileless American all the time. She’s going to deal with her husband’s death in the first season, but then she’s going to become a female Michael Corleone.” In seasons one and two. I kept saying, “Okay, well, when are we going to do that?” And, finally, in season three we do. I’m sort of rambling, but the great thing about TV is that, just in terms of the amount of screen time, what you get to do is a lot richer.
Theater is wonderful. I think it’s like going to the gym for actors, meaning you don’t have the crutch of a camera and being able to stop and start. It’s also very rewarding because you’re telling the story chronologically. So you can get lost in that. The immediate feedback from an audience is great, but if it’s not the right play that has room to grow and change, then it can be really repetitive, too. So it sort of depends on the play itself. I guess onstage, the actor is more in control of their performance. You don’t have a director stopping you and telling you to do it again.
AVC: Speaking of theater, you’ve done some Shakespeare onstage, and you’ve done multiple Shakespeare adaptations on-screen. How do those things differ? Obviously, the projects have been different, but is there a different vibe to doing the Bard onstage versus on-screen?
JS: Oh, well, I really wish I had a do-over on Shakespeare onstage. I did Shakespeare In The Park when I was in college, and I was studying Shakespeare as a literature major, but I hadn’t studied how to perform Shakespeare. So I feel like I need a do-over a bit on that one. On film, it’s maybe more forgiving. You are allowed to loosely adapt it more. You’re allowed to not speak in verse. The setting can be anywhere, but in some ways, if you do it in verse, that’s more challenging also because the language is so big that when a camera’s close up on your face, it requires a different kind of performance. You can’t be as theatrical and as grand, I guess. But I do want a do-over on a lot of those, because I was very young and inexperienced.
AVC: Something I always like to ask people is what they’re most recognized for. Is yours 10 Things I Hate About You?
JS: It depends on where I am and the demographic I’m surrounded by. A lot of people do say 10 Things I Hate About You, which is really great, but then sometimes it’s Save The Last Dance. I always love it when somebody comes up to me and cites a really obscure project that nobody saw, and I’m like, “Oh, you saw that?” But it’s usually either 10 Things I Hate About You or Save the Last Dance.
JS: It’s A Disaster was a comedy that I did with a bunch of friends of mine, and I feel like it still holds up. Actually, with the pandemic apocalypse that’s going on right now, it’s kind of timely. So when people tell me they caught it on Netflix, I’m very happy.
AVC: You worked with David Cross again on Hits, too. How is that working relationship?
JS: He has become a friend. Also, his wife, Amber Tamblyn, has become a good friend. Hits, I literally had the smallest part probably on the planet. I don’t even know if I had one line. If I did, it was such an insignificant line. I texted [Cross] when it came out on Netflix, though, because I was listed as the star of the movie. Basically I just did it because he’s fun and creative, and I wanted to support him in his directing debut. He was like, “Can you do a cameo in my movie without even reading the script?” I said sure and then realized it was the most nothing part. I don’t care, but I think it’s funny that I’m listed as the star.
It’s A Disaster was a comedy written by this group of guys in L.A. who I knew through friends. They had a sketch comedy thing called The Vacationeers. So I had done a couple of shorts with them, and then Todd Berger, who wrote and directed It’s A Disaster, sent me the script. I thought it was so funny just on paper that I jumped on board. Then I think I sent it to America Ferrera, who signed on and she sent it to David Cross because she’s also friends with Amber Tamblyn, and that was that.
AVC: Sometimes Hollywood seems like a very small world.
JS: Things can seem like that, but it’s also not like we’re all best friends and we have Sunday brunch together. Sometimes, but not always. The other thing is the New York side of it. America, David, and Amber live in Brooklyn, and I am from New York and have lived there most of my life. So I think it’s a smaller community there. It’s the actors who didn’t go to the West Coast.
AVC: Speaking of New York, Ghostwriter. That show was one of the first things you did, along with a Cyndi Lauper music video. What do you remember about those projects?
JS: The Cyndi Lauper music video was mind-blowing to me, because I was and I am a huge fan. I don’t know how old I was, maybe 15 or maybe younger, like 14 or something. I remember I was playing an older teenager, and I hadn’t developed yet, and I needed to stuff my bra. I was playing as a younger version of Cyndi Lauper, and that was so exciting. She was the sweetest. I actually ran into her decades later. I don’t remember where, but I very shyly, unconsciously went up to her like, “Do you…?” And she was like, “Julia!” She remembered me, which was cool.
Ghostwriter, I mean, to be honest, I’m pretty embarrassed, and I wish that it didn’t have a life on the internet. I was so little and precocious, and it’s embarrassing to me. I mean, I’m grateful for all the work that I’ve been able to do in a job, and especially because that was when I was auditioning and all you want to do is get work. So I’m certainly grateful, but also extremely embarrassed.
AVC: What do you remember about making State And Main? It’s a David Mamet movie with a very star-studded cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin. Tell me about that process.
JS: I was a huge fan of David Mamet’s writing. Not only his plays, but also he writes a lot of books about film and television as well as essays. I was really into his writing, so I was so happy to work with him. At the time, I probably didn’t realize the star-studdedness of that cast because I would have acted weird. On some level I probably did. I was maybe a little shy around Alec Baldwin and Sarah Jessica Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was familiar with Alec Baldwin’s work and Sarah Jessica Parker, but it also wasn’t until later in life that I became obsessed with Sex And The City like every other woman. So looking back on it, it was kind of innocent that I thought I was too young to be weird around them. And William H. Macy! I mean...
Working in film, the premise of that movie and some of the lines in it—like when William H. Macy is the director and he’s trying to convince Sarah Jessica Parker to be naked in the movie and telling her that she has to suffer for her art… All of it was such a cynical, hilarious view of filmmaking, which now I understand even more. I learned a lot from making that movie, too. One very specific lesson that I got from it was to let go of these ideas that you have about what you’re going to do in a film. Surrender to the director a little bit more. I had this idea that, because I was playing a waitress, I was going to chew gum in the diner. And then when I saw the film, they must have been so horrified when they watched in the edit, because every single time I snapped my gum, they cut it out. They’d cut around it. You have these ideas about, “Oh, I’m going to do this for the character,” but I think David Mamet doesn’t like a lot of flourish, so he cut all that out.
AVC: Are there other movies or other TV projects where, looking back, you learned really memorable lessons?
JS: The first thing that comes to mind is Silver Linings Playbook. I don’t really want to get into David O. Russell as a director, but I learned a lot about acting, for better or worse, in terms of how he treats people on set. I’m not condoning that, but I learned a lot from him because he constantly talks throughout your take. He’s talking at you while you’re acting or trying to act. It’s very jarring, but it got me out of my own head. I had no time to censor myself or be really self-conscious because he’s barking at you and you have to obey or listen. As jarring as it is, it got me to not think so much as an actress, I guess. It got me out of my own head.
The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), Jason Bourne (2016)—“Nicky Parsons”
AVC: The Bourne movies are, compared to some of your other projects, on a pretty large scale. It’s a franchise, and they’re action-packed. What has being involved in that franchise over time meant to you, and how has that role changed?
JS: It’s amazing, you know. It was unexpected. There’s no guarantee that after a first movie that there’s going to be a franchise, or that they’re going to make sequel after sequel after sequel. And there’s also no guarantee that I or my character would be a part of that. So that was delightful because it was really like almost all of my adult life up until the last one that I was re-creating this character. They they put so much into the films. There are a lot of reshoots and there’s a lot of work to be done. Even after you think you’re finished filming, they usually go back and add more. The opportunity to work with Paul Greengrass was also really wonderful. He’s a super kind man. He comes from documentaries, so I remember if I was running down the street and turned a corner, I’d be surprised that there would be a camera there. He’s always telling you, “Don’t stop acting because there might be, like, a long lens camera around the corner that you’re not expecting that’s capturing what you’re doing.”
AVC: You mentioned cable television when we were talking about Dexter and Riviera, but you’ve done work in other formats as well, like with Blue, which was a webseries that eventually shifted around to different platforms. What made you want to take a leap and work on something like that?
JS: Rodrigo Garcia. It was an experiment because it was really on the cusp of when streaming was taking off and YouTube started having scripted content. It was all a big question mark, like “What is this platform?” But for me, Rodrigo is such a talent, and I really loved the first script that he sent me, so I just wanted to work with him. I thought the subject matter was really interesting and the way he approached it was really interesting.
AVC: To tie it to another project you’ve done more recently, Blue is about a mom who also happens to be a sex worker. She’s doing what she can to make ends meet. Hustlers is about, in part, the same type of thing. I love that there are more projects, including P Valley on Starz, that are taking honest looks at women working in the sex industry. In the past, stuff like that was always overly salacious, but now they’re showing the breadth of the human experience. Why are projects like Blue and Hustlers important to you?
JS: The connection between Blue and Hustlers for me is exactly what you said. It’s understanding sex workers as full people, not just as their job. That’s something that’s interesting to me. Other stories about prostitutes or call girls or strippers or whatever that have a different perspective just don’t interest me as much.
AVC: You hosted SNL in the early aughts. What was that week like?
JS: Again, I want a do-over so badly. It was amazing and obviously a huge deal. I remember that I was in college, and I was living at my dorm. They got me a hotel room for the week so that I wouldn’t have to be living the dorm life. It was extraordinary. All my friends from school got to come and see it. It’s a thrill ride. You’re just along for the ride.
AVC: That’s nice of them. You didn’t have to use a shared bathroom.
JS: Exactly. I didn’t have to wear my flip-flops to the shower.
AVC: What was it like to remake a horror classic like The Omen? Is there pressure when you’re remaking a beloved project?
JS: Yeah, there’s pressure not to mess it up. I’m not into that genre at all. I mean, I appreciate classic horror films from the ’70s or whatever, but I don’t really watch them, especially now. I just can’t. There’s enough horror in the world. That’s not entertainment to me. What I look for and what I found in The Omen is the character and the story. What is this character dealing with? What are they confronting? I treat it almost like any other genre. At the time, the idea that she was so disconnected from what she thought was her son, it was almost like postpartum depression. She didn’t love, and she didn’t feel love reciprocated, so that was an interesting plight to me.
AVC: How has becoming a mother changed the way you relate to mother roles, or to roles involving children? I know that since I became a mother, there are certain things that I loved before that I just cannot stomach now. Are there roles that you think about differently now that you’re a mother?
JS: I am working on a movie now that has given me so much anxiety. There’s a headspace that I have to get into where I’m confronting your absolute worst fears as a parent, and I don’t want to think about that stuff. I’ve had to do a lot of… not cleansing, but just meditation on “this is fiction, this is fiction, it’s this fiction.” I guess now as a parent I also have to think about more practical things like where I’m going to be filming or what the workday is going to look like. I also think about, you know, he’s too young now, but I think about “Will I be proud of this movie and want him to see it eventually in life?”
AVC: So you’re saying you don’t want him watching Ghostwriter?
JS: No, no. I wonder if he’d even recognize me.
AVC: Last question: You were in a number of very popular romantic dramas and comedies in the early aughts. Do you have one that sticks out in your mind as a really great experience?
JS: I have to think about that for a while... Obviously 10 Things I Hate About You, even though the memories are fading a little bit, I remember just loving every day of working on that film because I was so excited to have that part. It was my first big movie and the rest of the cast was so wonderful. It was just really, really fun.
AVC: I will say that, as a young punk, I loved that I could look at Kat and say, “Wow, she likes The Slits and X-Ray Spex” and whoever else. I saw myself and my friends in that movie, and that wasn’t always the case in teen movies of the time.
JS: The writers, Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, their genuine voice was really cool, and it wasn’t watered down. That movie came at a time for me when I was a teenager and angst-ridden or whatever. I was serious, but not overly so. Still, I would go to these auditions for commercials or whatever, and they were always like, “Don’t be so serious, don’t be so intellectual. Be more bubbly, be more effervescent!” And it was always so jarring to me as I was trying to figure out who I was. So then to see that represented on-screen… When I read Kat as a character, I was like, “Finally, this is a character that I relate to.” To have people enjoy the film is an affirmation that I wasn’t too whatever they were calling me.
I hadn’t seen a teenage girl portrayed on-screen as feisty and opinionated and as much of a fish out of water in high school. I mean, there are a lot of high school movies where the main character is a fish out of water, but other than some John Hughes movies that Molly Ringwald did, I feel like the girls are usually not that.
AVC: Even in those Molly Ringwald movies, she still would love to be popular. She wants to be popular for being herself, but she still wants that recognition. Kat, on the other hand, is like, “No, I’m good. I’m going to live my life.” As an adult, you can watch that and think, “She doesn’t even know how cool she is.”
JS: “I’ll have a life. I just need to ride this out until I’m done with high school.”