BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Jan. 9, 2000 — As a freshman at Columbia University, Julia Stiles is more than happy to play the role of college student.
“[Actress Anna Paquin] and I have mutual friends, but I don’t see her that much,” the 19-year-old says. “I think we’re both really afraid of being like, ‘I’m an actress, you’re an actress, let’s hang out together!’. [But] it’s great; it’s wonderful. I love it. I feel like I’m in the center of all this stimulus and there’re so many things I want to study and I love being around people my own age.”
But she can’t ignore her day job forever, and with an already impressive resume to her credit, Stiles is ready for leading lady status. First up is “Save the Last Dance,” in which she plays Sara, a high school girl whose ballet dreams come to a crashing halt when her mother is killed in a car accident.
Moving to inner-city Chicago to live with her musician father, Sara slowly befriends Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), whose love for a different dance — hip-hop — forges a bond between them. As the friendship turns to romance, they face opposition from their friends, while Sara’s aspirations of Julliard rise to the surface once again.
Hollywood.com recently met with the actress/student, who discussed her drive for authenticity in the film and which degree she might pursue first.
In “Save the Last Dance,” they chose to hire an actress who could dance rather than a dancer who could act. What were the challenges for you?
Julia Stiles: The dilemma for me was I had to constantly prove myself as a dancer, because I didn’t want them to double me. So I was like, I understand you’re gonna have to double on pointe [ballet] cause I can’t do pointe, but everything else has to be me. And I told them I didn’t want them to bring a hip-hop double in. … We focused more on the hip-hop and I was more comfortable with it … with the ballet stuff I just had to work really hard to do as well as I could.
If you were comfortable doing the hip-hop, were you nervous during the ballet scenes?
Stiles: Everyone’s expecting that you’re not gonna be able to dance well because you’re the actress. The first time we shot one of the ballet things I was shaking. And when we’d done a couple of takes I was able to relax.
What defined the character of Sara for you?
Stiles: Her ability to defend herself and rise to the circumstances around her is what makes her so appealing. … If she was like the wimpy wallflower that shrank when everyone else intimidated her, who wants to be friends with somebody like that? Just kidding. She has that element of toughness and the ability to make people want to be her friend.
So when you went to school, which crowd did you sit with during lunch?
Stiles: I went to two really small high schools. … I moved around a lot. In the junior high, I went to a school a lot like [the film] where I was the only white girl. And I wanted to be a homegirl so badly, so I hung out with the tough homegirls and pretended to be like that. And then in the beginning of high school it was the grunge crowd, ’cause Nirvana was popular. And then I switched schools again and got back into rap and stuff, so it’s more who I can be myself around.
Do they leave you alone on campus or do they pester you?
Stiles: In the beginning it was a little hard because … I wasn’t even really fully aware of what people were saying. But I would get people coming to my door and knocking on it in the middle of the night. But it pretty much died down.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve been recognized?
Stiles: It’s shocking if you roll out of bed and go to the deli in your pajamas and think that no one’s watching. And somebody stops you and say they like one of your movies, and you say “Don’t look at me! I just got out of bed.”
How are you going to balance Columbia with film work?
Stiles: I might try to do a supporting role or smaller role while I’m in school. Ideally I’d work in the summertime, then go to school. I would be willing to take off a semester or year if a really great part came along. But I’m also really enjoying school, so I don’t mind staying there. [Right now I’m taking] sociology, Spanish, liberal arts, literature. … Next semester I’m taking psych and international politics … a really wide variety.
Any thoughts on a college major?
Stiles: I’m thinking — which is probably gonna change the minute I walk out of this room — it is history. Or sociology. Maybe a concentration in Spanish …. OK, no, I don’t really [know].
“Save the Last Dance” opens Jan. 12.