A young Jodie Foster in training, the up-and-coming actress has wowed critics and audiences with her thoughtful, brainy performances. But now, the Ivy Leaguer has a new mission: to prove she can also be the class clown.
It's mid-May, and finals week has just ended at Columbia University. Walking near campus, you can almost smell the giddy excitement in the air -- or maybe it's just stale beer. Like hundreds of her fellow dorm-dwellers, Julia Stiles, rising young Hollywood star and sophomore English major, is packing up and moving out.
The long, narrow lobby of her dorm is dim, dingy and no doubt home to more than a few members of the insect world. And if location is everything, well, the home of the 21-year-old actress who starred in the box-office hit Save the Last Dance, the controversial Othello update O and David Mamet's State and Main is next to a parking garage and a stone's throw from an emergency room. No magazine (including this one) will be showing up to do a gauzy spread on Julia's glamorous lifestyle.
After a year spent sharing a suite with six other students, you'd think Stiles would be ready for a little star treatment. Turns out, she likes living in noisy, cramped quarters. "A huge part of school for me is hanging out with people my own age. I don't get to do that in my work," she says. "I also like that it's a completely different world from acting. On a movie set, you have all these people catering to your every need. 'Can I get you this? Can I get you that?' You can become very self-absorbed. In college, you have to be self-sufficient."
It's not that Julia dislikes being famous; she admits she enjoys the fringe benefits. She just insists they won't change her. "I don't think that circumstances change people. I think they bring out your true character. So I hope to maintain my sense of self in spite of what fame does to my life. Because so many great things come with fame -- even the stupid perks, like a table at a restaurant, getting into clubs, getting baseball tickets. I wear one Mets shirt to an awards ceremony and I get to meet the New York Mets! It's incredible."
Occasionally, though, Julia's worlds collide, with unnerving results. "This year I went to the MTV Video Music Awards," she says. "And they sent this white stretch limo to wait outside my dorm room. So I come back from classes, and I can see it a block away: this huge, gleaming limo, and it says VMA/STILES on it. A sorority house is next door, and I can see these girls snidely looking, and this smart-ass kid from my dorm comes down in a tux and says, 'I'm ready for my date, Julia.' I was just mortified."
Her fellow students seem to have gotten used to having a celebrity in their midst, and Julia, low-key by nature, usually has no trouble fitting in. But if you're a college guy trying to strike up a conversation, it can be a little... intimidating. "I saw her at this bar with a bunch of her girlfriends," says Jason Colombo, a handsome, brown-eyed 21-year-old who took International Politics with Julia. "I was like, 'Do I go over? Do I not go over?' So I yelled, 'Hey, Julia, I want to talk to you.' Already, I feel like a jerk. But she says okay. So we start talking, about regular stuff. What I came away with is that she's smart and funny and not at all stuck-up. She doesn't think she's too cool for the Columbia scene." He pauses, looking slightly wistful. "And she has this smile," he says, "one of those smiles that touches you -- that makes you smile."
After several dramatic, edgy roles, Julia will get to make audiences smile when her romantic comedy A Guy Thing opens in September. She plays Becky, a freewheeling tiki dancer who mysteriously winds up in bed with an uptight guy -- who turns out to be her cousin's fiancé. Needless to say, hijinks ensue. "It's a real out-there, full-on comedy," she says.
Her costar, Jason Lee (Vanilla Sky, Almost Famous), admits that when he first met her, he wasn't sure she could pull it off. "I was a bit apprehensive," he says. "She struck me as a quiet, conservative, mild-mannered student. I thought, What if she's just not funny? But she was very funny. When things began to loosen up, suddenly she was being loud and doing accents and quoting from South Park. She's a cool chick."
For her part, Julia says that dorm life was good training for A Guy Thing. "As an actor, especially with comedy, you can't be vain," she says. "You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself and be silly. You can't be self-conscious."
Her director, Chris Koch, agrees. "And I have the outtakes to prove it," he laughs. "She has this scene where she makes a toast, and during filming, she'd get up there and go for it and improvise. Some of it made us wince, and some of it had us falling on the floor laughing. But she was fearless."
In fact, courage is something Julia, a native New Yorker, has never been short on. When she was 10, her parents, Judith and John, who run a ceramics company together, took her to see an opera -- about Charles Manson. Julia was so inspired by it that she wrote the director of the avant-garde theater company and asked him for a part. (He hired her.)
When she was 16, she became the youngest writer to be accepted to the Sundance Institute's prestigious Screenwriting Lab. Way before that, "when I was little," she says, "I wrote a letter to [then-New York City mayor] Ed Koch saying I knew how to handle the sanitation system. Hopefully, I haven't lost that spirit."
"I Am What I Am"
Julia Stiles hardly fits the usual profile of the sexy, young Hollywood up-and-comer, and she admits that it makes her anxious. "I get upset when I see young actresses on the cover of Maxim, because I'm thinking, Should I be doing that?"
It's only momentary panic, though. Julia knows she's not a Maxim kind of gal. She's the girl who wrote the mayor when she was eight and made a movie while attending an Ivy League school and is still braving the cockroaches in her dorm. "My mother had this cartoon on the refrigerator for a long time that showed Popeye at a job interview," she says. "And the interviewer said, 'I am what I am and that's all that I am. What the hell kind of résumé is that?' I always remember that. You always feel like you have to mold your personality, or the way you look, to fit this Hollywood model. And it's nice to be reminded that I should remain an individual."