Julia Stiles has plenty of experience performing Shakespeare—only none of it has been on stage. Her first major film credit was "10 Things I Hate About You," Gil Junger's 1999 adaptation of the Bard's The Taming of the Shrew, set in a contemporary high school. She played Kat Stratford, the character patterned after the man-hating Kate. One year later she was Ophelia to Ethan Hawke's Hamlet in Michael Almereyda's bleak, dystopian vision of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy. And last year she was Desi Brable (Desdemona to you and me) in playwright-actor-filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson's movie version of Othello, retitled "O" and again set in a modern high school. So that's three of Shakespeare's biggest female role in three years, and all before Stiles' 21st birthday. This summer she's going for four, as she takes a break from her schooling at Columbia University to play the cross-dressing Viola in the Central Park production of Twelfth Night, a production of The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. The New York native, who began her acting career at La MaMa and The Kitchen Off-Broadway, told Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson she has always had the Bard in her blood.
Playbill On-Line: This is your first stage Shakespeare stage play, isn't it?
Julia Stiles: Yes. I've done film adaptations of Shakespeare and I've done stage before, but not the Delacorte, not summer Shakespeare.
PBOL: It's interesting that you've done so many cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. Have you always been interested in his plays?
JS: Yeah. What actress wouldn't be? Even just reading Shakespeare, I have such an affinity for his language. He's just great. That's why he's lasted as long as he has. The great thing about this production, about the Delacorte and the New York Shakespeare Festival, is Shakespeare wrote these plays to be entertaining and to appeal to big audiences. This is a really fun environment to be performing a comedy in.
PBOL: Did you find an immediate challenge in having to speak the lines out loud in front of an audience as opposed to speaking the words into a camera?
JS: Oh, sure. You have to be a lot more clear in your speech. And I've been working with a vocal coach for a long time to project and also enunciate each word. The language is so beautiful, you don't want to lose anything.
PBOL: You're going to school at Columbia University. Did you have the idea in your head to do a play over your summer break?
JS: Yeah. I'd been wanting to get back on stage for a long time. And especially doing Shakespeare. So when I found out they were going to do Twelfth Night this summer, I jumped on it. PBOL: So you contacted them?
JS: Yeah. And I auditioned for it and fought very hard to get this part.
PBOL: Did you have to audition more than once?
JS: I did. I met with the producer and then I auditioned for it twice.
PBOL: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences doing Shakespeare on film?
JS: Adapting just the plot to contemporary times isn't that different from doing a regular film. But the version of Hamlet we did used the old language, so that introduced me to iambic pentameter and all that. But it's certainly different being on stage—just having to remember the whole body of the play in one go, as opposed to having to stop and start and just remember your lines for the day, is very different.
—By Robert Simonson