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How Julia Stiles made a feminist statement on the set of 10 Things I Hate About You

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You

Behind the scenes on the high school romantic comedy, the actress was learning to assert herself.

When Julia Stiles read the script for 10 Things I Hate About You, she fell in love.

Not with Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), the bad boy with a heart of gold who would become her onscreen partner in the high school romantic comedy. But with Kat Stratford, the heroine whom Stiles immediately felt “desperate” to play. Never before had the then-17-year-old read a female part that wasn’t sickly saccharine and bubbly, but was complex and nuanced.

“I was an auditioning actor and mostly go out for commercials and they would tell me that I wasn’t bubbly enough,” Stiles has said. “They always thought I was angry so to read a part like Kat I was like, ‘Ah, this is perfect for me!’” 

Heath Ledger, Alison Janney and Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You
10 Things I Hate About You is still a classic

10 Things I Hate About You turns 20 this week and even if we didn’t live in a society marinated in nostalgia, the love for this film is real. It has more than stood the test of time even and maybe, especially, because high schools are a very different place today than how they appear in 10 Things I Hate About You.

There are no cell phones in 10 Things I Hate About You, no subplots about sexts or slutshaming that you see in so many high school movies these days. (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, we’re looking at you.) But there will always be teenagers, and there will always be teenagers who fall in love with each other. That is such an age-old story it’s practically biblical.

Imagine how 10 Things I Hate About You might look different if it were made today. Take, for example, the scene in which Kat and Patrick go to a party and Kat, drunk for the first time in her life, hops up on a table. She  dances with reckless and fierce abandon, crucially without the fear of being captured by a thousand camera phones. 

It’s one of the most important scenes in the movie and a turning point in their relationship, which up until that point has been strictly transactional, though Kat doesn’t know that at the time. 

Behind-the-scenes, Stiles was terrified to shoot that scene. “I hadn’t ever really been drunk before in real life,” she recalled to the New York Times. “I mean, I was 17, so I remember Heath – because he was older – giving me tips on what being drunk looks and feels like.”

Director Gil Junger knew how pivotal the scene in which Kat dances was, so he called his friend Paula Abdul to ask her to work on choreography for the scene.

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“I mentioned to Julia that I was going to have a big choreographer work with her,” Junger recalled. But Stiles was having none of that. She had no formal dance training, but she knew that she could move.

“Julia said, ‘That’s fine, but I can dance,’” Junger said. “I went against my normal instincts and trusted her.” 

“I would never have the guts to do that now,” Stiles added. “I’m glad somebody got that on film. I mean I love dancing, but sort of provocatively on the table? I was pretty guileless at that point.” Later, she found out that Thomas Carter, who would go on to direct Stiles in Save The Last Dance, saw her in that scene and instantly decided to cast her in his teen romance Save The Last Dance.

The cast of 10 Things I hate About You
The cast of 10 Things I Hate About You

“The director said to me that he had seen that scene, then realised that I could do hip-hop, not just ballet,” Stiles told the New York Times. And if you remember your Save The Last Dance scripture correctly, which I most definitely do, you’ll recall that in that film Stiles performed every dance routine herself. No ballet double, no hip-hop replacement. All Stiles.

Any conversation about 10 Things I Hate About You is also a conversation about the late Heath Ledger, who tragically died in 2008. Like Stiles, the high school romantic comedy was one of his first Hollywood movies, after toiling away on Australian soap opera Home and Away. And like Stiles, he proved himself to be an enormous talent, even from his very first audition for the film.

Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You
Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You

“Heath walked in, and I thought to myself, if this guy can read, I’m going to cast him,” Junger told New York Times. “There was an energy to him, a sexuality that was palpable… The instant the door closed, I turned to the women in the room and said, ‘Ladies, I have never wanted to sleep with a man but if I had to sleep with a man, that would be the man. Please cast him immediately.’”

Stiles recalled Ledger supporting her through the most difficult scene in the film, which involved Kat tearfully delivering a poem she wrote about Patrick to her class. It was filmed in one shot, and the scene you see in the final version of the film is the first and only take that Stiles filmed.

“I remember Heath, when they turned around to do his reaction shot, he said something like ‘I don’t need to do anything because this isn’t about me.’ A lot of times you get one actor crying in a scene and the other actor feels like they have to cry, and he knew to be sort of restrained. I thought that was really cool.”  

Happy birthday 10 Things I Hate About You, 20 years young. We know what movie we’ll be watching tonight. 

Images: Rex Features

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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