Julia Stiles on ’90s Nostalgia and the “Culture Shift” in Hollywood

The actress also opens up about her creative input on ‘Riviera,’ the soapy drama she stars in on Sundance Now.

Julia Stiles photographed by Michael Beckert for W Magazine.

It is hard to believe that Julia Stiles—an actress who has consistently worked in film for over two decades—is only just now leading a television series for the first time, but here she is, carrying the glitzy soap opera drama Riviera, the second season of which arrives Thursday on Sundance Now.

Set along the Côte d’Azur, Riviera follows a mysterious, glamorous art buyer named Georgina Clios (played by Stiles). She’s an American woman who marries one of her billionaire clients, but he dies a mysterious death in season 1. Upon which, of course, the skeletons come tumbling out of everyone’s closets.

Riviera is a big hit in Europe, but Americans are just now catching on. Joining Stiles in season 2 are Poppy Delevingne as the rightful heiress to the family fortune, and Will Arnett as Georgina’s uncle, who is a walking “reality check” of sorts for her (she seems to have lost touch with her roots). In the premiere episode, the formerly innocent Georgina has blood on her hands.

If a conniving and untrustworthy murderess seems like a departure from the typical characters Stiles has played in the past, the actress attributes that to the fact that this is the first time she’s had enough screen time to really mold a character. Stiles had her big break 20 years ago when she starred in 10 Things I Hate About You as the acerbically witty, Sylvia Plath–reading self-styled cynic Kat Stratford, opposite Aussie heartthrob Heath Ledger. For two decades, Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has held the bar high for teen rom-coms, and Kat Stratford endures as a voice of her generation.

“I wanted that part so badly because I responded to how they wrote Kat—and by the way, those were two female writers,” said Stiles, who is observant and inquisitive—and at times academic—in person. “It was so refreshing because I was an auditioning actress and an angsty teenager. Everyone would say, ‘Can you be more bubbly and not so serious? Just be more effervescent,’ and ‘Oh, you’re so intellectual,’ like it was a bad thing. Or, ‘You think too much.’ So to read a character like Kat, who was feisty and opinionated and a fish out of water—but not sullen about that, she’s proudly a fish out of water—I was like, yes, this is an amazing character.”

The movie was a springboard for the careers of so many young actors: Stiles and Ledger, as well as Gabrielle Union, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Larisa Oleynik. Stiles admitted that while “my memory fails me a lot when it comes to that movie,” what she does remember is that the whole experience was a positive one. “It was just a special summer because we all, all the actors in it, we were so open-hearted and not jaded,” she revealed. “We were excited to be there and we all hung out together in this Sheraton hotel in Tacoma, Washington, and were supportive of each other.”

“I do not take for granted that it is a special thing to be a part of a movie that people talk about 20 years later,” she added.

After starring in rom-coms like Save the Last Dance and feel-good dramas like Mona Lisa Smile in the aughts, the actress realized that she has until now missed out on the pleasures of shaping a character the way she can on Riviera, possibly with the exception of her supporting role in the Bourne franchise. “On a film, the director is the auteur and hopefully the creative force, or the producer is maybe. Usually everything is set in stone, anyway. Even with the Jason Bourne movies, Paul Greengrass rewrites a lot and the story changes quite a bit, but he’s the one responsible for it. You just are along for the ride.”

Things work a little differently as a series star. “I guess I’ve learned to step into asserting my opinion more about the writing and where the story is going, because I was allowed that,” Stiles said. “For instance, at the end of season 1, when Georgina murders her stepson, there were two versions of that. One was clearly an act of self-defense. They’re on the sailboat, he tries to make a pass at her, and she gets upset about it. I was very adamant that we not have it be that, and have it be something she does very deliberately and not in the heat of the moment. Luckily, the writers were responsive. I’ve never had the experience where I am the lead in the show and therefore it’s sort of my responsibility to give input.”

Playing Georgina requires Stiles to spend about half of her year in France, where she is joined by her young son and husband, Preston J. Cook. The rest of the year is split between Canada, Cook’s home, and her native New York.

You can ask just about anyone who grew up in New York before it became a playground for the über-rich, and they will probably tell you that they miss the way things were. Stiles is no exception, and she reminisced about the SoHo loft building that she grew up in years ago. “I’ve had times where it makes me sad a little bit, but then I also think one of the best things about New York is that it’s always changing,” Stiles admitted. “It’s this living, breathing, not stagnant thing.”

Julia Stiles photographed by Michael Beckert for W Magazine.

After growing up downtown, she headed uptown for college at Columbia University, where she earned a degree in English literature. One might assume there is a connection between a young actor studying English literature who also happened to appear in quite a few Shakespeare adaptations around the same time, including O, Hamlet, and 10 Things I Hate About You. “It wasn’t like I got hired for those movies or plays because of studying English. It doesn’t translate,” Stiles explained. “They don’t care. The movie people do not care about an English degree, and the English professors do not care about you in a movie.”

And yet the press has always had an endless fascination with stars who opt for a campus life. “I sort of remember when I was debating even whether to finish [school], I was doing a bunch of interviews for Save the Last Dance, and the story was always that I had started college, and I was like, Well, now I’ve gotta finish because it would be really silly if I was bragging about how I go to school and I just go for a semester,” recalled Stiles. “Then, I also remember having the foresight to be like, However you feel about this now, when you’re 40 you’re gonna be glad.”

Stiles is not quite 40, but she is entering “a different chapter” in her life. Over the years, she has seen Hollywood change. “Reputations matter more and more. The way that you treat people on a set or in a work environment matters more and more, and it will get back to you,” she said. “People could get away with so much shit before that they can’t get away with now, which I think is a good thing.”

“There’s been a culture shift, and I think the conversations around women and women in film in particular, whether it’s for financial reasons or whatever, made the entertainment industry change,” Stiles continued. “Looking back, when I was in my 20s, say, I might have been nervous about what it would mean for me getting older as an actress. Not that I’m old, but getting older by industry standards. Now, I think the opportunities for me and my peers are so much better than they were 20 years ago.”

Her next opportunity comes in the form of Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria’s adaptation of Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York magazine article that chronicled the true story of a group of strippers who pulled a Robin Hood on their Wall Street clients, drugging them and robbing them of their credit cards. Stiles plays Jennifer, a journalist character based on Pressler. “Hopefully I can get the audience to understand why they did what they did. It’s not a movie that denigrates these women. It’s not a ‘true crime’ story. My character, as hopefully the eyes and ears of the audience, starts off very judgmental of them, and then has a better understanding of why they did it,” the actress said.

The cast of Hustlers is stacked, with Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, and Cardi B playing the strippers who enact financial revenge. “Instead of just having a bunch of Barbie dolls running around naked, it’s exciting to see that there are all different kinds of women,” said Stiles, who, with apologies to Cardi B, seemed most excited about J. Lo. “Jennifer Lopez looks amazing, and I think she’s really going to be stunning in this movie. Doing scenes with her, it was hard to not have my jaw on the floor because she does so many different things that you forget she’s also a serious actress. She totally transformed for this part. It wasn’t just the makeup and the nails and the hair and the jewelry. It was, like, her Bronx accent, and she showed these moments where she was getting emotional retelling the story, but then because there’s this toughness that woman has, she was hiding it from me, and then would turn around and be really charming and manipulative. It wasn’t Jennifer Lopez, but I didn’t feel like it was a performance. It was really stunning.”

After Hustlers, Stiles plans to eventually get behind the camera when the timing is right. “I would really like to direct something longer. It’s just a question of time because directing is time-consuming and it has to be the right story,” she said. “But happily, I get pulled away into things like Riviera.”