by Chesley Turner
“… I have such a reverence for theatre, especially for a play you believe in, that allows for change every night. The worst case scenario is a play that doesn’t move or grow. But something new or some surprise keeps it exciting.”
Julia Stiles has played the shrewish tomboy, the proper housewife, the CIA operative, and the serial killer’s confidant, the increasing complexity of her roles indicating a growing maturity. Meanwhile, the girls who swooned over the modernized Shakespeare romance in 10 Things I Hate About You have grown up, gone to college, and started treading the mean streets of NYC. Now, both Julia and her fans are faced with what it means to be a discerning, conscientious, confident woman in today’s world. And as we all know, what you choose to do can tell a lot about who you are.
Taking a short break from film and television to get back to the boards, Julia has chosen to take part in Fat Pig, a 2004 play by writer/director Neil LaBute that will open at the Belasco on Broadway in late April. She will appear alongside Dane Cook and Josh Hamilton in a piece that addresses relationships, body image, and superficiality with plenty of fiery dialogue. “The issues of physical appearance, particularly with women, come up in this play. That’s one of the reasons I chose to be a part of it.” LaBute is one of Julia’s favorite playwrights, and she has worked with him before. “I became a fan of his work through our collaborations, a short film I did, and the conversations I’ve had with him about his plays. We are like-minded people,” she comments, recognizing the rarity of finding “like-minded” artists in her line of work. “It’s so easy to feel isolated and scattered in this industry that when you come across someone who thinks the way you do, it’s something to hold on to.” With the production still in its germination, the actor and the playwright are working to finalize the script. “I like that Neil writes dialogue that is so exact. It is so much fun to have a very precise sentence or paragraph that is scripted but sounds like people talk. It’s a fun challenge.” However, lurking in the back of her mind is the third act, which calls for her to wear a bikini on stage. “I’m treating it like a science project. But sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why did I just pick my worst nightmare: tackling self-image on stage?’”
Julia is looking forward to being a part of a play that examines the enduring importance of self-esteem and the continuing effort to re-examine the definition of “beautiful.” And yet the erstwhile tomboy of 10 Things has an appreciation for style mags and storefronts. “I’ve taken an interest in fashion much more recently and I embrace the idea that you can use fashion as a creative tool, but also as a way to celebrate one’s appearance. I used to be a little bit more of a tomboy, insistent on being recognized for my knowledge and thoughts as opposed to my looks, but now I think it is empowering as a woman to know that you can get attention and feel good about yourself for the way you look. You’re radiating something positive.”
“Radiate something positive” should be a catch-phrase for today’s youth, an idea that embraces the constructive, healthy side of the fashion world. Julia recognizes that self-image is as fragile a thing as ever, particularly with the onset of technology that alters the way people – especially young girls – see the world and represent themselves. “I was riding the subway a while back and there were these teenage girls on the train. They were 12 or 13 but very advanced for their age – in a bad way. All of them were text messaging while having a vulgar conversation.” Beyond the improper deportment of adolescent NYC girls, Julia was struck by their lack of awareness, or presence, to one another. “I sort of get disappointed when I see how much people are not present; they’re affected by CyberEther.” Yet Julia also has a personal blog, and just like the rest of us, she benefits from the modern miracles of tiny telephones. “The word ‘blogger’ is blech. I was reluctant to start writing a blog, but I knew it would be a fun outlet and creative tool. And when I went to Cuba last month, at first I was excited about detaching and not text messaging. But being there and having such restricted access to the Internet, I was excited when I got to hear from people at home. There is a convenience element that I take advantage of with, but I kind of hate it when the conversation goes entirely into text messages. Everybody has a love/hate relationship with technology.”
So since she wasn’t texting and Tweeting 24/7, what did Julia do while she was in Cuba? “It was a legal trip – otherwise I wouldn’t be talking about it!” she exclaims. It seems the cultural allure of Cuba was too hard to resist for the Save the Last Dance star, and music and dance were high on her list of favorite experiences. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful city, although it’s crumbling. There’s still some amazing beauty there. The music was amazing and the dancing was amazing, though it was a little overwhelming traveling around.” Beyond purely cultural inquiries, she also made some political observations. “I was curious about daily life in a socialist country. My sister was studying abroad there, so I arranged to go legally with a humanitarian aid group. We visited with various children’s groups, including a group of special needs children that perform and sing around Havana. We brought them basic art supplies and things to use in their performances.” Julia was surprised the denizens of Cuba recognized her. “I really thought for some reason that they wouldn’t. But a lot of American movies are circulated on the black market. I would walk down the street and hear someone yell, “La CIA! La CIA! because they recognized me from the Bourne movies.”
All that street recognition calls for confidence and conscientiousness, and a newfound love of fashion can’t hurt. Although, Julia notes, people in the Big Apple rarely make a big deal about celebrity sightings, “especially when it’s cold out. New Yorkers are so wrapped up in their own lives. But Dexter fans are really cool. They admire the character I play and when they see me on the street and say something, it’s cool because it’s like my work is being recognized. I see the positive side.” The Showtime hit with an unconventional protagonist and stalwart fans has been a wonderful experience for the actress. “I love the people and the material. The environment is so supportive and the enthusiasm is contagious. I would get very excited to see what the writers would come up with next.” Julia’s performance as Lumen, the something-more-than-a-friend to Michael C. Hall’s Dexter, has earned her a Golden Globe nomination, an impressive mile marker. Still, she looks forward to returning to the stage this Spring. “Theatre is really wonderful. I have such a reverence for theatre, especially for a play you believe in, that allows for change every night. The worst case scenario is a play that doesn’t move or grow. But something new or some surprise keeps it exciting.” That’s what makes theatre true entertainment, both for the actors and for the audience.
Beyond Broadway’s Fat Pig, there are lots of opportunities waiting in the wings for Julia. “Other opportunities are good problems to have.” In the meantime, she has some gentle advice for her fellow New Yorkers: “Take a deep breath; everyone’s in a rush. And don’t forget to say please and thank you.”
Thank you, Julia.