How Julia Stiles Ignored The Rules & Became Everyone’s Favorite Hollywood Rebel
It's hard to remember now, in the age of Mileys and Jenners and Taylor Swifts, but there was a time, not too long ago, when seeing a young woman's rebellion from the status quo on-screen wasn't so common. These famous women, with their quick tongues, sarcastic side-eyes, and middle fingers thrust in the air, were outliers in the '80s and '90s, kept in the background of films and TV shows to provide little more than some occasional biting wit (say, Tai in '95's Clueless) or a "what not to do" example for the more innocent main character (see: Gia on Full House in '94). So when, in 1999, 10 Things I Hate About You , a major Hollywood movie, featured a smart, sarcastic, high school-hating teenage girl in its leading role, it came as a total surprise — both to audiences and to its then-17-year-old star, Julia Stiles.
Today, Stiles, 35, is everywhere, painting pottery on Inside Amy Schumer, flirting on The Mindy Project, and starring as CIA operative Nicky in Jason Bourne , out July 29. She's played every type of role under the sun over the course of her career, but when 10 Things was being cast back in the late '90s, taking on the part of the teenage rebel wasn't much of an option.
"When I first started acting, and I was auditioning for commercials, I was an angsty teenager, and I would get rejected and turned down because they thought, 'you’re not bubbly enough, you’re not effervescent enough,'" Stiles tells me. It's a chilly day in mid-May, and the star has just rushed into Bustle's Manhattan office from Brooklyn, the morning rush hour traffic having put her in a bit of a time crunch. With not much time before our photoshoot, she's being forced to shout over the sounds of a blow dryer and ignore the make-up brush dabbing at her face, but Stiles barely seem to notice. Instead, she seems genuinely lost in thought, the decades-old memory of taking on 10 Things still fresh in her mind.
"When the role of Kat came along, I really responded to — and I think probably audiences did as well — [the fact] that I had never seen a female main character, especially in a teenage role, who was that thoughtful and angsty," she says. Kat Stratford, based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew character Katherine, was unlike any other heroine of the day, the kind of focused, whip-smart, won't-take-crap-from-anyone teen that shows up regularly in movies and TV shows now, but was practically nonexistent in the late '90s. Most Hollywood productions at the time focused on characters like Kat's sister, Bianca — a cute, sweet, and yes, bubbly girl concerned with prom night and romance — not her critical, uptight "shrew" of a sibling, whose hobbies include, as described in one of the movie's most iconic quotes, "Thai food, feminist prose, and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion." 10 Things was an anomaly, a standout in a sea of She's All Thats and Can't Hardly Waits.
Making the movie was a bold move, considering it was reaching into uncharted territory for teen fare. But, as we all know now, it was one that paid off in a major way. 10 Things was a box office success and a critical darling, responsible for jump-starting the careers of Stiles ("a baby" at the time, she jokes) and Heath Ledger, and making the already-famous Joseph Gordon-Levitt a star outside of 3rd Rock from the Sun, all while inspiring a new generation of girls to ditch rah-rah attitudes in favor of sarcasm and wit. The the changes in Stiles' life were huge; suddenly, the teen was elevated to the top of the teenage A-list, winning MTV Movie Awards and appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair 's 1999 Hollywood Issue. Yet for the young Stiles, the film's popularity and the attention she won for playing Kat, while certainly nice, were also overwhelming.
"I think that I was either completely naive or in denial," she recalls. "I often look back at a lot of that time, and I think of all the amazing things that were happening to me professionally, and in some ways I want a do-over on it, because I was so immature."
At the time, Stiles was so busy taking advantage of the opportunities that 10 Things' success presented that she barely had time to actually think about her newfound stardom, she says. If she could do it all again, she'd be "way more nervous and self-conscious" than she was back then, about everything: playing Kat, being in the film, becoming a massive star in such a short period of time. The movie brought a level of publicity that even today, the star doesn't seem entirely comfortable with. "If you could imagine when you were in high school, having a home video or a videotaped school play or something being broadcast for that many people to see... to me, it’s like, I was 17. God," she says about seeing her teenage self performing in 10 Things.
Even now, with dozens of films and a Bourne franchise under her belt, 10 Things I Hate About You remains the movie Stiles is best known for, and the one with the biggest legacy. Over 17 years after its release, its fashions have returned (Stiles laughs when I mention Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez's accidental Grammys tribute), its feminist quotes have turned into memes, and its most famous scenes — like Ledger's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" song and dance — have been re-watched millions of times. The film has become iconic, and, Stiles, despite her reservations, says she's proud to have been a part in it, especially because of its unabashed feminism.
"That kind of longevity... it's visceral," Stiles says, referring to fans' continued appreciation for the film. "I am pleasantly surprised when a young girl now tells me she likes [10 Things], because it’s almost like sneaking a feminist message into a very pop culture-y, entertaining movie."
Indeed, 10 Things was, for many women, one of the first pieces of entertainment that told them that being a feminist — and making their beliefs known, loud and clear — was nothing to be ashamed of. Today, we live in an era in which shows like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend exist, characters like Game of Thrones' Cersei are worshipped, and celebrity women are chastised for not labeling themselves as feminists, and it's easy to forget that this celebration of female power in pop culture is relatively new. It took certain characters — Thelma, Louise, Buffy, Elle Woods — to make our current climate possible, and for teen girls just beginning to figure out their identities, the Sylvia Plath-quoting, patriarchy-hating Kat was — and still is, for so many — not just a character, but a revelation and a role model.
For Stiles, Kat is just one of many women she's played whose feminism is central to their identities. After Kat, there was Sara of Save the Last Dance, a dancer set on fighting prejudice; Nicky of the Bourne movies, a technician with agency and fast moves; Lumen of Dexter, a flawed, vengeful, rape survivor; and, most overtly, Joan of Mona Lisa Smile, a 1950s woman whose choice to pursue marriage over law befuddles some, but is a decision she proudly makes for herself. In 2004, shortly after Smile's release, Stiles wrote an editorial for The Guardian in which she defended the movie from critics who thought it overlooked real challenges faced by '50s women in favor of nice clothing and sweet throwbacks, writing, "Without those 'pretty frocks' and 'feminine period details,' Mona Lisa Smile would have appealed only to women already familiar with feminist theory, or — unfortunately — more likely the film would not have been made at all."
When I bring up this editorial now, Stiles seems a bit embarrassed by its "verbose" language ("What an obnoxiously petty way to write," she says with a cringing laugh, recalling how she'd been getting her English degree at the time), but defends its content. Movies like Mona Lisa Smile can, and should, be political, she says, but "to make it more palatable," sometimes balance is needed. Saying this, Stiles is thoughtful, but confident; it's clear that at 35, with nearly two-thirds of her life spent in the industry, she's learned a bit about how Hollywood runs. This is a woman, after all, who, despite working steadily, starring in a blockbuster franchise, and earning an Emmy nom, is the subject of new "where is she now?" and "what happened to her?" articles every year. She hasn't gone anywhere — but because she's carefully curated her resume, she's a mystery in Hollywood's eyes.
To Stiles, it's all nonsense; she's happy with her jobs, and proud of the work she's done. "I've come to learn that in anybody’s career, if you’re lucky enough to keep working for as long as I have been, you’re going to have periods of being in the spotlight, and also periods of being in the background," she says. "And that’s OK with me. I think that’s healthy for your life." In 2016 alone, she's starred in two dramas, Misconduct and Blackway; signed onto a miniseries, Riviera; and reprised her role as Nicky in Jason Bourne. She's excited about these projects, especially Bourne, the latest film in a series that started when she was just 19. "It blows my mind," she says, "because that series of movies has been my entire adult life." Riviera, too, gets her revved up; in the Neil Jordan-created series, Stiles says, she'll play a Michael Corleone-type character whose husband's sudden death leads her into a life of crime and corruption. It's a part, Stiles explains, that was written by Jordan to "play to my strengths."
Now, 23 years after her first role, the seriousness that once got Stiles rejected from commercials has become her calling card. With so much success behind her, it's hard to imagine her demeanor ever having been considered anything but a strength; now, it's what wins her edgy roles and sets her apart from her peers. Back in the '90s, being a perfect fit for the part of the smart teen rebel might've placed Stiles outside of the Hollywood norms — but today, it's what makes her one of the most compelling actors around.
Images: Bianca Consunji and Kenny Suleimanagich; Location: The High Line; Design: Liz Minch; Styling: Kara McGrath; Photoshoot Producer: Kelsea Stahler
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