When male characters run around with a gun, it’s cool,” says Julia Stiles. “But with women, there are all different kinds of implications.”
The 39-year-old does no small amount of running around with a gun in Riviera, the glossy melodrama set on the Côte d’Azur, in which she's starred since 2017. The actor, who first made a splash as a strident teen in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), plays Georgina Clios, an art curator whose life implodes at the same time as her billionaire husband does (he’s blown up while doing dodgy dealings on a superyacht).
At first, Georgina is her step-family’s moral linchpin, but she eventually flies off her axle; the first season ends in murder, the second in arson. I’m only allowed to see the first two episodes of the forthcoming third season, which sees Georgina taking back her maiden name and accepting a job in art restitution, but it’s not long before shots are fired.
“Georgina’s a reckless woman who does not run away from danger,” says Stiles, in a video call from Vancouver, where she’s been quarantining with her husband, camera assistant Preston Cook, and their two-year-old son Strummer (named after the late lead singer of The Clash, Joe Strummer).
It was Stiles’s idea that Georgina’s most violent deed be premeditated “and not an act of self-defence or even just erratic rage” – she didn’t want Georgina to be the good girl. Why not? “Well, because it’s boring,” says Stiles with a shrug. “I don’t wanna watch a show where people make the right decisions all the time. I became an actress because I wanted to be able to play out the things on screen that I don’t have the courage or wherewithal to do in real life. And so playing a good girl, it’s just boring. Playing somebody that makes the wrong decisions is just more compelling to me.”
That Riviera – a show full of ham and histrionics, sex and scenery porn – stays just the right side of ridiculous is largely down to Stiles. Since the start of her career, she’s had a self-possession about her, an ageless, alto voice and knowing gaze that occasionally gives way to something “almost feral”, as her co-star in The Business of Strangers (2001), Stockard Channing, once put it.
Stiles is just as potent a presence over Zoom – though she’s more of a raw nerve than I expected. Dressed in a grey T-shirt, she has a habit of gathering up her wavy brown hair in both hands and then letting it fall down her back again. When I ask if she’s managed to avoid pandemic anxiety, she doesn’t hesitate. “No. It’s been insane. I feel like the level of anxiety is, like, always bubbling under the surface and you do everything you can to keep it down. It’s been a huge emotional rollercoaster in the last six months. It’s been everything from finding moments of joy to bursting into tears for no reason.” She’s happy to be here, though. “I kind of look forward to interviews now,” she says, “because you get to talk to somebody.”
She’s even happy to discuss 10 Things I Hate About You. I had wondered if she might be sick of it. After all, she’s been in lots of wonderful work in the two decades since that film – Save the Last Dance (2001), the Jason Bourne films, Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Hustlers (2019) – but no character has clung on in the hearts and minds of a generation of young women quite like Kat Stratford. A Shakespeare heroine transformed into a Nineties high-school loner, she was sullen and righteous, enviably unbothered by the concept of cool. “I guess in this society,” she declared in English class, “being male and an a****** makes you worthy of our time.” The plot was based on The Taming of the Shrew. In the end, she is softened a little by the bad-boy transfer student Patrick, played by the late, great Heath Ledger. “It wasn’t that he got her to submit,” says Stiles now, “it was that he got her to relax and open up a little bit more.”
She was immediately taken with Kat. “When I was 17, I had a lot of teenage angst and I was always told to be more bubbly or more effervescent, to lighten up and stop being so serious,” says Stiles, who grew up in a loft in New York’s Soho district and at the age of six wrote a letter to the city’s mayor urging him to implement a new garbage disposal system. “I was trying to form an identity for myself,” she continues. She started acting before her teens. “At 17, you’re largely influenced by what people are encouraging and what they’re discouraging. So then I read 10 Things I Hate About You, and absolutely fell in love with this character. I thought, ‘Finally, a teenage girl who speaks to me.’ It’s just an affirmation that it’s OK to be intellectual, it’s OK to be somewhat serious, especially at that age.” Then again, she adds with a laugh, “I look back and I see more of the humour in it. It is funny that Kat is so angsty and serious and confrontational. My older self is like, ‘OK, lighten up a bit’, ironically.”
Two years after that film, Stiles jetted to the top of the box office again with Save the Last Dance, a teen romance about an aspiring ballerina who moves to a mostly-black Chicago school and falls in love with a hip-hop dancer (Sean Patrick Harris). The film was a smash hit, making over £100m and opening up just about every door a young movie star could hope for. Stiles went to college instead. She didn’t abandon Hollywood entirely, but shooting The Bourne Identity (2002) had to fit around exams, and the journalist doing her Rolling Stone cover interview had to follow her around campus while she bought philosophy books.
“I was running away from fame, to be honest,” she says of that time. “I wanted to be in the insular bubble of college. It was totally unconscious, but I wanted to be able to do all the trial and error mistakes that you make as you’re growing up and finding your voice in a more insular environment than just out in the public eye.” There was another reason, too. She wanted to be able to go toe-to-toe with the people in power. “I was thinking, ‘When I am a grown-up, when I’m sitting around with producers and studio executives, I want to be able to have had that experience, just to be taken seriously.’”
It worked. Maybe too well. “I think of myself back then and I think I was probably obnoxiously precocious, like, a little too smarty pants,” she says. “When people read back old quotes of mine, I think most of them are cringeworthy. I like to joke that nobody under the age of 27 should be quoted in print. The scrutiny now in terms of picking apart any statement is a lot more treacherous these days, so I’m glad I had to play that out before clickbait and cancel culture and social media.”
While still in college, Stiles played a college student on the London stage, in David Mamet’s controversial play Oleanna. She took on the role of Carol, whose professor subtly abuses his power and privilege over her, and whom she eventually falsely accuses of rape. One review at the time described it as an attack on “the lunatic excesses of political correctness” and asserted that “there is no denying the balance of sympathy lies with the professor”. Another critic wrote that it was a confirmation of Mamet’s “misogynist agenda”.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the play has “stuck with me”, says Stiles. “I really enjoy David Mamet’s writing, but I never felt like we got Oleanna right. Every night, by the time you get to act three and she says, ‘You tried to rape me according to the law,’ I would brace myself for the audible audience reaction. You’d hear everything from people groaning to cursing at me. It was scary. I would hate for anyone to walk out of the theatre and think that Carol is a representation of women in general, that women are lying or stretching the truth when they make an accusation like that.”
It was an eye-opening experience. “You realise how much a play like that is politicised,” says Stiles. “Men and women walk into it, and they’re not just watching two individual characters on stage, they’re watching what they think is a representation of all men and women, which is a tricky thing, and it’s sort of a dangerous thing when you’re the actor playing that part.”
She says she is “dying” to direct her own version of Oleanna. “It was hugely controversial and provocative and I think it would be even more so now, but my goal would be to not have the audience check out and just dismiss this woman as evil. You’d have to tread lightly, because it’s a lot of ‘he said she said’, which is all over the news.”
For now, though, she’s about to shoot a film called Esther – a prequel to the 2009 psychological horror Orphan. “I was prepared to not be working the rest of the year, because I thought the pandemic was gonna shut down our entire industry and mentally I was ready for that,” she says. “Then I got sent this script.”
In a way, a pandemic seems like the perfect time to shoot a horror film. “Even for me, as an actress who’s very much in touch with her emotions,” says Stiles with a laugh, “if they were buried down in the basement, they’re now at the roof.”
Riviera returns on Sky Atlantic on Thursday at 9pm