Julia Stiles talks women in Hollywood, her favourite teen movie and her controversial baby name

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Harriet Hall
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Dancing on tables, performing heartfelt spoken-word poems, spitting out salty one-liners: these are just a few of the moments that set Julia Stiles apart as a feminist teen-movie icon. Whether she was playing the anti-heroine in Shakespearean reboot 10 Things I Hate About You, a prima-ballerina-cum-breakdancer in Save the Last Dance, or even an Art History undergrad blowing the lid on patriarchal values in Mona Lisa Smile, Stiles has never shied away from headstrong female characters. In fact, she welcomes them.

Her latest? A turn as high society art curator, Georgina Clios in Riviera. Set in the breathtaking environs of (you guessed it) the French Riviera, the 10-part series follows Midwestern Clios whose glossy, moneyed life – think immaculate satin gowns, icy-blue sea and priceless Monets – is fractured when she discovers her billionaire husband has died in a freak incident on a yacht. As with all such dramas, nothing is as it seems and Stiles’ character, initially underestimated, reveals her true capabilities as she fights to discover the truth.

Riviera is one in a string of cinematic, high-budget TV dramas that are putting women in the lead. From Big Little Lies to The Handmaid’s Tale, TV is the place to be if you’re after strong, multi-layered female roles with big-screen value. In Riviera, Stiles is the same, fierce woman we have come to know and love in other roles, and she’s loving the chance to develop a role across several hours, in her first move into TV.

I spoke to her on the phone as she nipped around New York in a car, finishing errands and ducking away from paparazzi, on the eve of Riviera’s DVD release, to talk female roles, teenage throwbacks and her strangely contentious choice of baby name.

How did you find making the move from film into TV?

My experience working in TV has been great. I enjoy a character having more screen time than they would in a film – you get more in terms of storytelling, and I like having the experience of working with the same people for that amount of time.

Your fiancé was on set with you. How was that, working together?

Yeah, he [Stiles’ fiance, Preston J Cook] is a camera assistant, so he was able to work on the show as well which was such a delight because we got to be together for seven months in a very romantic place. We had this fantasy that we would be able to live there someday. It’s an amazing place and such a nice lifestyle, too. There’s something really nice about a different mentality or outlook on life where instead of the North American attitude of living to work, you have this appreciation for enjoying life and working just to live.

You’re playing another fierce woman in Riviera – did you choose the role for this reason?

I think I was most drawn to playing the character for such a long period of time because I wanted to watch her evolution, because ultimately she’s a good person but ends up becoming quite ruthless.

TV is currently jam-packed with amazing female characters. Do you think Hollywood is still behind when it comes to female representation?

On the one hand it’s easy to take for granted how far we’ve come, but there is still a lot… I heard someone say on the radio recently it’s not a principle until you don’t profit from it, and while I’m really pleased that there are more opportunities for women, there are more people in the media talking about equal pay and all these issues that you just mentioned, but I feel at the heart of usually is some sort of profit and so we will only really have success as long as it keeps making money.

How do you feel about the idea of women taking on male roles – I’m talking Ghostbusters, Lord of the Flies and James Bond?

I’ll take it, it’s certainly better to have those kinds of stories being told than not being told, but I’m always conscious that it is rooted in a business.

Would you be the female James Bond?

Well, it would always depend on the same reason I’d be interested in any project – is it well written? Are there intelligent people behind it? I think one thing I appreciate is you notice a lot more women creating their own shows these days, whether it’s Girls, Broad City, Big Little Lies… To see women behind the camera is really exciting. That’s really where the power is.

You’ve directed a bit recently. Would you want to direct more?

I definitely would like to. I don’t know about full time – directing is a lot of responsibility but at some point I’d like to direct a feature [film].

What kind of responsibility?

As an actor you show up on set and you are responsible for knowing your lines and being as truthful to the character as possible and being as interesting as you can be, but ultimately I feel that when something comes out or it’s not well-received you can always blame somebody else! Whereas if you’re a director and a writer – when I directed my short I felt so much more ownership over the material. That was so much more exciting and empowering; you feel a lot more attached to it and the final outcome and how it’s received. It’s much scarier and much more personal in many ways.

Many of your roles are pretty headstrong, I’m thinking about 10 Things…

I definitely related to that part a lot – I hadn’t seen a character in pop movies that was that sort of feisty.

And in Save the Last Dance there’s a lot of attitude…

I actually think she was more vulnerable.

Which did you prefer?

I think 10 Things I Hate About You because that was [my] first big job and we all had a lot of fun together and we were so open and not self-conscious.

I remember Heath [Ledger] bringing a digeridoo from Australia which was pretty special. I’d never seen one before. But we had a really good time. It was special because most of the time when you’re on location now actors with more experience tend to come guarded, but this was an occasion where we were all open to one another and unguarded.

The dance movie was great, but it was a lot of work in terms of the dance preparation and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I had a double for some of it but I wanted to do the best I could so that they wouldn’t have to double it, and then ballet is sort of a culture of stress and pressure. I wanted to be good.

Do you remember any of the dance moves?

Sort of, but I don’t do them, and I haven’t been to a single dance class since that movie. I dance in my living room a lot though… The moves are in there somewhere.

Does it feel weird that people are so adoring of these films you did so long ago?

I always think it’s really nice when people are interested in those movies and remember them. You want people to have an audience, you want it to resonate with people – so the fact that they do is pretty special.

Acting, directing and I read recently you also play the banjo. Any more hidden talents?

I actually do hair very well. One of my friends got married last weekend and the hair stylist didn’t show up because she has the wrong date, and I was like: “I got this.” I spend about a third of my life in the hair and make-up chair and my friend was really panicky, so I did her hair for her wedding and it wasn’t bad. So if this doesn’t work out I can always be a hairdresser.

[In the middle of our interview, Stiles ducks back into her car as “people are staring at me”.]

Do you find it hard to be recognised?

I don’t find it hard at all. My day to day life is quite good… I took the subway the other day and I was amazed at how nobody offered to give me the seat because nobody realised I was pregnant.

You are pretty obviously pregnant now, though, aren’t you?

I’m due in fall – so pretty soon. It’s great, I’m really excited. I know it’s something that women have been doing for ages. but for me it’s the first time and I’m so happy and so excited.

Have you planned a name?

We have a name that’s been passed around and it’s stuck, and now we’re used to using it. So yeah, we have a name and both sets of grandparents aren’t thrilled about the name – but I think they’ll come around.  

Riviera: The Complete Season One is out on Digital Download, Blu-ray & DVD on 25 September.

Images: Rex Features