Julia Stiles’ 20-Year Journey to ‘Hustlers’: ‘Nobody Knew What to Do With Me’
For too long, Stiles felt that she didn’t fit anywhere in Hollywood. Now the “Hustlers” star sees that there’s a place for her again—and it’s in the favorite movie of her career.
In theory, yes, Julia Stiles would have played a stripper in Hustlers, had she been asked. She has been on record—to the press, to writer-director Lorene Scafaria, to Jennifer Lopez—that she would have cleaned the set or stocked meals at craft services if it meant she got to be a part of the film, although she admits that she doesn’t think “anyone can compete with what [Lopez] does in this movie.”
Stiles, who has spent two decades as a major Hollywood presence, since her breakout turn in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, can’t remember the last time she sought out and actively pursued a project, like she did with this.
She had read the New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, “The Hustlers at Scores,” that the film is based on, and started following Pressler’s work. “I was obsessed with that Anna Delvey story she wrote,” she says, referring to the now-iconic feature on a fake heiress who scammed her way through New York’s haut monde. Our conversation is nearly derailed gushing over Pressler’s recent yarn about a class riot among the 1 percent when Brooklyn’s oldest nursery school tried to modernize.
When she heard a project based on the hustlers article was in the works, she asked her agents to get her the script. “They were like, you might really like this but the part’s not that flashy because you’re not playing a dancer,” she says. But she was instantly struck by Scafaria’s take on the story and asked to meet with the director, whose previous film, The Meddler, had a well-received release in 2015. “I spoke to her and I was like, I don’t care if I have to sweep the floors. I’ll do anything to be part of this movie.”
We’re having a late lunch on a scorching day in early August before she has to be home to relieve her babysitter. The family is getting ready for a mini-vacation to visit her parents before their now-annual relocation to Europe, where she shoots the noir thriller series Riviera, which airs on Sky Atlantic in the U.K. and on Ovation stateside. The new season adds Italy and Argentina to the titular shooting location.
Stopping herself from detailing the hectic nature of the travel plans, a giddy smile broadens across her face. “I always feel like a jerk when people ask where I’m working,” she laughs. “Like, no big deal: the South of France.”
She had just snuck into an early Hustlers press screening a few days before, after waffling over whether or not it would be weird for her to show up. It would still be a month until the film’s premiere last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival—it officially hits theaters Sept. 13—but she is so glad she went: “I can’t remember being in a movie that I kept thinking about this much afterwards.”
It turns out that Stiles didn’t have to sweep floors. She plays the role based on Pressler herself: Elizabeth, the journalist who sits down with former strippers Destiny (Constance Wu), Ramona (Lopez), and the detectives who investigated their crimes in order to piece together what exactly these women had done and, more importantly, why.
After the Wall Street crash in 2008, dancers at a New York City strip club saw their clients evacuate the Champagne Room en masse, so they devised a plan. The group would go “fishing” together at bars for executives who seem like they still have high limits on their credit cards. They’d drug the men with a combination of MDMA and ketamine—to keep them happy, but passed out—take them back to the club, run up charges on their cards, and take a cut of the profits.
At first, Elizabeth is judgmental. But the more she talks to the women, the more compassion she has for them.
“They could have made five different versions of this story,” Stiles says. “It could have been Striptease. It could have been Showgirls. It could’ve been a true crime story demonizing these women, focusing on the aftermath of what happened to the men they drugged. But Lorene focuses on the sisterhood and the partnership between these women, trying to get us to understand why these women did what they did.”
The reviews for the film have been ecstatic, with many critics championing it as a stealth Oscar contender—stealth only because of a double standard that would historically see a film about strippers dismissed, even though everything from its themes and tone to its structure is something that would be celebrated if, say, it was a Martin Scorsese movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
We talk a lot about that double standard over lunch. It’s a conversation that’s been high on Stiles’ mind for practically her entire career. She’s aware of how difficult it was to get Hustlers made for that reason. She’s engaged in conversations about it on the set of Riviera. She had to give up the rights to a long-gestating adaptation of The Bell Jar—which is still wallowing seven years later—because of it, too.
But that’s why she’s so unabashedly gleeful about Hustlers, and this moment in her career.
“If you had talked to me two or three years ago, I might have been more nervous or more frustrated, but I’m really, really happy where I am now,” she says.
Before Riviera came along, she had shot a string of independent films that nobody saw. “I felt like I was sort of jumping from job to job that I wasn’t really connected to, and worried about where my career was going.”
“I think a few years ago my frustration was feeling like nobody knew what to do with me,” she says. “You know, I had had some success in my twenties and now I’m in a different place in my life and I didn’t really fit anywhere.”
That afforded her the opportunity to direct and do more theater, but she felt lost in her own industry. “But a movie like Hustlers to me is such an affirmation that like I have a place in the film industry and stories that I’m interested in are being told.”
You could say that Julia Stiles is having a moment.
She’s had them before. But what’s rare about this one is that, thanks to the recent blitz of press timed to the 20th anniversary of 10 Things I Hate About You and the (much deserved) fawning over her performance as Kat, the “moment” is simultaneously rooted in nostalgia for her big break and a celebration of her current work.
For Stiles, it’s an opportunity to reflect on how she’s grown, the ways she did and didn’t succeed in weathering the industry and fame as an It Girl ingénue, and how she’s seen the business evolve in ways that are more amenable to her interests, taste, and values.
A loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew set in a Seattle high school at the turn of the millennium, 10 Things I Hate About You was a cinematic incubator for future stars, from Gabrielle Union and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Heath Ledger. But it’s Stiles whose career instantly exploded.
Her Kat was a teenage feminist, a strong-willed and strong-minded heroine whose intelligence and unapologetic opinions never obscured the fact that she was still a high-school girl with big feelings and big emotions. Stiles beat out Kate Hudson and Katie Holmes for the part, owing to her intense chemistry with Ledger and the endearing vulnerability that shone through her buttoned-up strength.
During the scene near the end when her character reads the titular poem to Ledger’s character, Stiles started crying, even though it wasn’t scripted. As far as movies chronicling teen angst go, it’s the perfect performance in the perfect scene. It’s no wonder that Stiles would soon be cast in a string of similar roles in films like Save the Last Dance, Hamlet, O, and Mona Lisa Smile.
“I don’t take it for granted that people are talking about the movie 20 years later,” Stiles says. “It’s an affirmation that even back then the things, the stories, and the roles that I was drawn to, other people were interested in as well. That was the first time I really read a female character, especially as a teenager, who was feisty and opinionated and unapologetic.”
Stiles soon earned the moniker “the thinking teenager’s movie goddess,” a reputation that got cemented when, at the height of her Hollywood rise, she enrolled in Columbia University, graduating with an English literature degree in 2005.
It’s hard for Stiles to reconcile how all that played into her career: where she was being steered as a hot commodity in the industry, what she wanted from her career, and her own ambitions for education on top of it all.
“It happened to me before I could really understand what was going on,” she says. Going to college helped her keep her head on straight. “Academic professionals don’t really give a shit about me being in a movie or having to go the MTV Movie Awards. But then also people in the entertainment industry don’t really care about university. That helped me a lot.”
What fame meant, what it meant to have things you say written in print or scrutinized, is something she learned through trial and error. “I’m still figuring it out, but I feel a little less anxious about it than I did in my twenties.” She laughs. “Therapy helped.”
I ask her if she thinks she was ever being pulled in opposing directions, the way it appears if you look at her list of IMDb credits at the time. There’s the romantic dramas and comedies that seem to have been meant to capitalize on her 10 Things I Hate About You popularity—A Guy Thing or The Prince and Me among them—and then the string of Shakespearean films that seemed to more squarely line up with her “thinking teenager” reputation.
“I think there was the commercial viability of romantic comedies and that’s how people saw me,” she says. “And then there was what I was interested in, and I was trying to balance both. But I was also so young and had to learn how to stick up for myself and assert what I wanted.”
That took some time, and some stepping back.
It’s not that she wasn’t working, or that the projects weren’t seen. There was The Omen remake in 2006 and Silver Linings Playbook in 2012, with the Jason Bourne film franchise dotting her resume from 2002 until the most recent installment in 2016. She earned some of the best reviews of her career when she joined the Showtime drama Dexter for a season in 2010, earning Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her performance.
The experience was formative, not just in terms of revealing what goes into a well-written, long-running show—something she’d remember when considering joining Riviera—but also some of the frustrations that can plague actors who are years into a long TV contract. And while playing a rape survivor on a revenge-murder spree marked a definite departure from the roles she had been known for, she says she actually didn’t see a noticeable change in what she was being offered after the whole experience.
The story that actually pops into her head is from the Golden Globes, when she attended as a nominee. As usual, the names of everyone nominated in her category are read out as the camera pans to each actress. When Stiles’ name was read, however, the camera showed the wrong person—a producer from the show instead. “So that was like, you know, a great reminder to not get too confident.”
She takes great pride in the praise that her character on Riviera, Georgina, gets. An art curator whose life is upended by the mysterious death of her billionaire-husband, Georgina has been described as “a female Michael Corleone.”
As such, she says the idea of “likability” comes up often on the Riviera set. At the end of season two, for example, her character commits a violent crime. There was a version of the script where it’s committed in self-defense, but Stiles fought for it to be unequivocally deliberate.
“It was the question of, is she sympathetic, and I was like, I don’t really care,” she says. “Any mafia movie or gangster movie you watch, you can have a guy running around with a gun and it’s cool. But if you give a woman a gun in a movie or TV show, you have to jump through hoops to explain why she needs it.”
The gender double standard leads us to talk about The Bell Jar. For years, she held the rights to the Sylvia Plath novel, about a woman’s descent into mental illness, even commissioning a script.
“Nobody wanted to make it because they said it was too dark,” she says. “And it was at a time when nobody was interested in female-driven stories.” She had envisioned a “very hallucinogenic” approach, citing director Julian Schnabel’s style in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. By 2012, she had decided to give up the rights.
In 2016, it was announced that Kirsten Dunst would direct an adaptation starring Dakota Fanning, but Dunst recently said she was no longer attached. Fanning is still involved with a version in development at Showtime as a limited series.
“I don’t know where things are now,” Stiles says. “But now I think there’d be much more of an audience for it.”
Before she heads out to resume baby duty—her son with husband Preston Cook turns two in November—she makes a point to pick this entertainment journalist’s brain for some TV recommendations, as she was nearly done with her current binge of Netflix’s Dead to Me.
At the mention of Fleabag, she both gets visibly excited and turns a bit red. She had the chance to meet creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the BAFTA Awards, she explains, “and totally fucking embarrassed myself.” Primed with some liquid courage, she gushed to Waller-Bridge about how much she loved her work. When the conversation had run its course, Stiles said goodbye and for some reason—she’ll never be entirely sure why—she winked at her. “Like an asshole,” she says.
“Then I was like, ‘Oh my god, why did I do that? I’m so sorry.’” She began fabricating excuses. “I was like, ‘I’m tired and have a twitch—like you know when you’re tired and your eye just starts twitching?’ I totally embarrassed myself.”
She’s still shaking her head when the waitress brings the leftover food from lunch for her to take home. She gets up to leave and it clicks why the silly story is so endearing. It’s Kat. It’s Sara in Save the Last Dance. It’s Joan in Mona Lisa Smile. It’s Elizabeth in Hustlers. It’s goofy and vulnerable, from a person you didn’t expect it from, who you now understand better because of it. It’s Julia Stiles.