NEW YORK (Back Stage) - Sometimes, Hollywood feels like high school: impenetrable cliques, appearance angst, and of course the sobering sting of rejection.
Julia Stiles, who first garnered notice in high school-set flicks, knows this all too well. “There was a chunk of time right before ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ that I got rejected so much,” she recalls, wincing a little at the memory.
“And I remember just sobbing on the floor. I was devastated. It was like one role after another where I would get really close and it’d be down to me and somebody else and I wouldn’t get the part.”
Of course, she finally got the part she was supposed to get all along: as whip-smart teen Kat Stratford in “10 Things,” a 1999 contemporary update of “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“I look back on the movies I didn’t get, and it never would’ve made sense for me to be in them,” says the 29-year-old actress. “‘Hot cheerleader’ probably wouldn’t have been a good fit. I was quite angsty.”
Her latest gig, as a bruised soul out for revenge in Showtime’s twisty “Dexter,” is quite a departure from many of the uber-confident women we’ve seen her portray before.
As Lumen, a traumatized young woman who forges an unlikely bond with our favorite serial killer (Michael C. Hall), Stiles is heartbreaking, terrifying, and utterly watchable. A fan of the show, she says she heard through the grapevine that producers were crafting a mysterious female character and asked her agents to look into it. She usually chooses parts based on the writing, but with “Dexter,” she said yes even though the role hadn’t been penned yet.
“I jumped at this opportunity and they had not shown me a single word on paper,” she marvels. “I just spoke to the producers about what they envisioned for the arc of the character over the whole season, and after they told me what they imagined, I was speechless. I was so amazed and eager to be part of the show.”
She was offered the role without having to audition, though she’s quick to note that advocates like “Dexter” executive producer John Goldwyn, who’d previously worked with her on “Save the Last Dance,” helped tilt the scales in her favor. She has been immersing herself in Lumen’s unique world ever since. The character has been through a major trauma, so Stiles has found herself doing quite a bit of work to connect to the experience.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to necessarily draw on personal experience. I cultivate my imagination, almost like meditating,” she explains. Lumen “has an association: If someone touches her in a certain way, she’ll flinch, and to get that physical response takes a lot of thinking that then will connect to the muscles. I think I learned this from doing stage work: After repetition, the mind connects to the body.”
Stage work has always been a big part of Stiles’ career — it is, in fact, the root of her inspiration to become an actor. She grew up in New York, and her mother, a ceramics artist, surrounded her with creative people of all different stripes. One painter friend also happened to be a set designer for Ridge Theater. “They needed a kid in one of their plays, and I was this precocious little girl who wanted to play dress-up and perform all the time, so I actually wrote a letter saying, ‘I want to be in your show, and here are the characters I’ve created,’ which is kind of ridiculous,” Stiles says, laughing at the memory.
She didn’t have any lines in her first show — a spoof of 1930s jungle movies — but the experience led to other plays with the company, which ultimately helped her find representation. “I was young and not really thinking about ‘What am I gonna do as a profession?’” Stiles says. “I was kind of like, ‘It’s really fun to hang out with these wacky adults. You get paid to do make-believe!’ But then as I got older, I started auditioning and getting some work.”
One of her first roles was a decent-sized part in the Claire Danes/Jude Law film “I Love You, I Love You Not.” As with Stiles’ stage debut, the character didn’t have any lines, but the experience offered a nice intro to the business. “It was really fun,” she says. “When I went to the set to have my final audition, I saw Claire Danes walk to the craft-service table and I was totally starstruck.”
Within a couple of years, her own star was on the rise: She landed “10 Things I Hate About You” her junior year of high school and followed it up with filmmaker Michael Almereyda’s ambitious take on “Hamlet” and David Mamet’s “State and Main.” She can now recall a lot of surreal moments as a young actor learning the ropes. “I have a story of a director that shall remain nameless,” she says, chuckling a little. “I was supposed to meet him for his new project at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and it ended up being, like, a two-hour weird meeting where he was wearing a bathrobe and telling me about all the coke that he did when he made another movie.”
Luckily, Stiles’ mom was around to keep her grounded — and to keep crazy directors at bay. “I was 19 or 20, in California for the first time. She came with me to protect me, and two hours into this meeting, the concierge called and said, ‘Julia’s mother is downstairs. She just wants to know if everything’s okay.’” Stiles grins at the memory. “I love her for that.”
Although many young actors would have used Stiles’ considerable momentum to do as many movies as possible, regardless of quality, she tried to keep her choices smart and interesting. She also decided to go to college: Columbia University, where she earned a degree in English. “Part of it was my own curiosity about having that experience, having that safety net of a place where you can make mistakes and make friends,” she explains. “My parents definitely said, ‘You have to go to college.’ And then, oddly, because ‘Save the Last Dance’ had come out and I was doing interviews and talking about being in school, I was like, ‘Well, I have to finish now, because it’s been written about.’”
Though she downplays the weight of her decision to attend school (“A lot of people go to college; it’s not that special”), Stiles acknowledges that it was occasionally challenging to balance her studies and acting work. But she feels that living a normal student-type life helped her remain grounded in the midst of potential craziness. “‘Save the Last Dance’ came out when I was a freshman,” she says of one of her biggest hits to date. “And as bizarre as that was, it was so humbling to be at a rigorous school where they’re focused on other things besides how much money your movie’s making.”
Unlike many of her peers, Stiles has made the tricky transition to grown-up roles, winning acclaim for her subtle work as a CIA agent in the “Bourne” movie series. But, she notes, it hasn’t always been easy. “It was maybe a very slow, gradual change, but there was a period of time where I didn’t work for a while — by choice and not by choice. And I spent a year doing ‘Oleanna,’” she says of the production on Broadway and in Los Angeles. “To people in the movie end of the industry, that’s meaningless.”
Since those first few moments as a kid actor, theater has remained a staple of her career. Recently she returned to her roots, collaborating once again with Ridge Theater, for “Persephone,” part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
“There are resources you can develop in stage work that are hugely beneficial when you’re working on film or television,” she says. “It’s like going to the gym for an actor. There’s a discipline and a lack of preciousness about actors that I think is really important. It’s so easy to go on a film set and everybody’s tiptoeing around you: ‘Can I get you water?’ That kind of thing. It feels really nice, but I would never want to be reliant on that.”