Julia Stiles is a NYC-based actor and activist. She first hit the stage at New York’s renowned La MaMa Theater Company at the tender age of eleven, and hasn’t stopped since. Known for her films (10 Things I Hate About You, Save the Last Dance, The Bourne Trilogy, Mona Lisa Smiles) and stage work (David Mamet’s Oleanna, Twelfth Night at Shakespeare in the Park), she was nominated last year for both Emmys and Golden Globe awards for her unforgettable turn as Lumen Pierce in Showtime’s Dexter. From October 24 through October 27, Julia will perform with political cabaret troupe The Citizen’s Band at the Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. The show, co-sponsored by MoveOn.org, has been described as a “melodious rallying call to the polling booth.”
I met Julia back in 2001 when she attended a performance of “Rene Risque & the Art Lovers,” the now defunct musical comedy act I was a part of at the time. She came backstage to say hello and tried on the white fluffy coat that was a part of my costume. We became fast friends. Through the years I’ve always been impressed with her intelligence, heart, incredible talent, and [ability to be] levelheaded in an industry not exactly known for those qualities. I caught up with her on her current shoot in Boston.
Laura Dawn: Ms. Stiles!
Julia Stiles: Please, call me Steez, or Stiles, or J. Steez. Or Julia.
LD: I’m always calling you Hooliah but I think I’m gonna switch to Steez. What the heck are you doing in Boston?
JS: A movie for ABC called The Makeover. It’s basically Pygmalion or My Fair Lady set in the world of politics. I play a girl who has [unsuccessfully] run for congress in Boston, and [tries] to refine this working-class guy into the perfect candidate in the run-off election. But because fundamentally women and men are different, she ends up getting schooled by him!
LD: Does he teach her the ways of love? This is ABC right? Should we not expect any hot love scenes?
JS: No hot love scenes, but maybe a lil’ tongue action.
LD: You were nominated for an Emmy for your work in Dexter, a show that gives me nightmares every time I watch it. How did you deal with swimming in those kinds of dark waters, artistically?
JS: I really enjoyed it, even the dark stuff, up until about episode ten, when things got pretty grim. I think the saving grace for me was that Lumen got to enact vengeance, so I wasn’t playing the victim the whole time. I loved what they wrote for me. I think I became an actress to tackle those dark things in a safe place, using my imagination. It’s all one big pretend game, and I get paid to play dress-up! How lucky am I?
LD: Again with that level head of yours. But still—no residual checking of your closets before you go to sleep or any post-serial killer neuroses?
JS: Everyone has their coping mechanism, right? I’m still searching for mine.
LD: You are a yoga fiend, right? That’s a good coping mechanism. What role has yoga played in your art and in keeping [you sane] in a crazy business?
JS: Yoga has stopped me from destroying my joints after running. It slows me down. My brain and body can go into overdrive—yoga teaches me to focus on the moment and not get ahead of myself.
LD: I know for a fact that you are an awesome tap dancer. What other talents are you hiding?
JS: [laughs] Well, as with everything, I’m still learning. Other talents include a must-see Jim Carrey impersonation. And I’m pretty great at “name that tune.”
LD: What inspired you to become an artist?
JS: I think I was born an artist. But the key is that I have a mom that encouraged and supported my artistic side. She still has the stick-figure drawings framed.
LD: What’s inspiring you these days?
JS: Music, music, music.
LD: Wanna name any names?
JS: The Little Death, forever! Papercranes, no joke. And Andrew Bird is an absolute genius.
LD: What makes you vulnerable, and how do you keep that vulnerability close to the surface when working?
JS: I feel particularly raw these days, so my challenge is more to keep the vulnerability at bay. I try to sing, hum, make jokes when I’m on set to keep the mood light—I’m working on a rom-com, after all.
LD: Good, I’m glad the rom-com is treating you right. You’ve worked on some seriously tough pieces, like your amazing turn on Broadway in Oleanna. That was extremely rough terrain to live through night after night. How do you put that away at the end of the night and make the transition back to “real life”?
JS: I’ve really turned a corner recently in terms of not taking work too seriously, so it is much easier for me to not take my work home. I used to struggle a lot with dwelling on how the day at work was, and I would dwell on my performance. Now, I’m like, “Well, that’s over and done with, and I can’t control the outcome, so move on.” I just remember that it’s entertainment I am making. I know it sounds earnest, but I do really feel in my bones that acting is just a small part of the equation when you are making a movie. The director really is in charge. Actors are as important or unimportant as the rest of the people around them.
LD: Do you feel theater is a different beast [than film]?
JS: I bruise easily, this I know is true. Theater is like going to the gym for actors. I am forever grateful that I got some training in the theater—it reduces performance anxiety. Theater makes working in movies or TV seem like a cake-walk.
LD: What causes you pain? And what do you do with pain? How do you utilize it in your work?
JS: The only thing that gets me through any type of pain, emotional or physical, is to make it worthwhile by putting it into my work. Seeing other people in pain causes me pain.
LD: Speaking of funneling pain into work, what issues, causes and organizations are you passionate about?
JS: Education is huge for me. I went to public school until I turned thirteen, and was lucky enough to afford college once I became successful as an actress. I cannot believe that quality education costs as much as it does in this country. Ghetto Film School is a remarkable public high school in New York City where students get to learn to express themselves through filmmaking, and have hands-on access to equipment.
We can become very short-sighted in terms of objectives. The first thing to go during times of economic crisis and budget cuts is funding for things that are essential and not-quantifiable, like the arts. Save Big Bird!
LD: We just posted a video of Mr. Rogers defending PBS on MoveOn.org and it literally made me cry. He was that important to me as a child. Who are some of your heroes, and why?
JS: Famous heroes: Jimmy Carter, Yoani Sanchez, Hillary Clinton, César Chavez, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, and Jane Fonda. Not-so famous heroes: every doctor and nurse, EMT, firefighter, and police officer that has ever helped or saved anyone. No-longer living heroes include Nina Simone.
LD: What’s the last book you read that really rocked your world?
JS: It’s a short one, just a poem, really: “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes. Anything by Yeats.
LD: I heard a rumor that you are performing with The Citizens Band in their upcoming string of NYC shows. Can you confirm or deny?
JS: Confirm! So psyched. I was just told I get to be in a bunch of dance numbers! Maybe some humming along to the real singers? A girl can dream.
LD: I think what they’re doing, the way they mix art and politics, is so important—like a groovy clarion call to get in the game and help shape our country’s future. Why were you compelled to work with them?
JS: Because they are rock stars and sexy as hell. And it’s for a good cause. Henry Street Settlement is the bomb and has been for a long time.
LD: What are your thoughts on love these days? How does love fit into your work?
JS: I am forever a romantic. I try to bring that into my work. I try not to be fooled by romance. Or work.
LD: But don’t you think every act of creativity is an act of love?
JS: Love always. “Love save all of us/Save us from ourselves” is a lyric written by Ms. Rain Phoenix, head of Papercranes and partner-in-crime [with] Citizens Band. I can’t think of anything more true. In my worst moments, I try to think about loving instead of hating. Creation versus destruction, know what I’m sayin’?
LAURA DAWN is the Creative & Cultural Director of MoveOn.org. Laura is a writer, director, editor, producer, artist organizer, national campaign strategist, singer, songwriter, and expert on the nexus of art & social change. Her work with MoveOn.org has helped to grow the organization into a 7 million-member progressive powerhouse and her media work for MoveOn has garnered over 50 million views online. Also an accomplished singer and recording artist, Laura regularly collaborates with worldwide electronic artist phenomenon Moby, most notably as the featured singer on his multiplatinum album Hotel and subsequent world tour, and on their noir/blues project, “The Little Death”.