Julia Stiles Explains How Doing Theater Is Like Being in a Band

Julia Stiles in "Phoenix"
Julia Stiles in "Phoenix"
 

Julia Stiles wants to start a band. "I mean, in my dreams," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I'm slowly working up the courage to sing in front of other people, but I can carry a tune. I do some mean karaoke." Her song of choice? Anything by Stevie Nicks or Dusty Springfield. "All the ladies with deep voices!" she answers with a laugh.

While she won't be showcasing her vocal stylings onstage anytime soon — "Maybe I can get a Casio keyboard or, you know, some electronic machine, then I could figure it out," — she will be returning to the stage in Phoenix, starring opposite James Wirt. The play is playing Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York through Aug. 23.

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"It's the closest I'll ever get to being in a band," she says. "I love the interactive nature of theater. I just craved it. As much as I love working on a film or TV set, most of the storytelling happens in the editing, whereas when you're doing a play the storytelling is in your hands as an actor."

And Stiles is no stranger to the stage. The New York native made her acting debut at age 11 with the avant-garde downtown theater company La MaMa. She also appeared in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues Off-Broadway in 1999 and as the pants-wearing Viola in Twelfth Night as part of Shakespeare in the Park in 2002. She made her West End stage debut as Carol in David Mamet's Oleanna opposite Aaron Eckhart in 2004 — a role she went on to play opposite Bill Pullman on Broadway in 2009.

Phoenix came about as a result of a dream. Director Jennifer DeLia, with whom Stiles had been wanting to work, dreamed she and Stiles should do a play together, and when she heard this, Stiles was immediately on board. She knew she didn't want to spend the warm summer months dealing with darker subject matter like "betrayal" or "Incest," so when DeLia sent her Phoenix — a dark comedy about two people who had a one-night stand and now have to deal with the unexpected ramifications — Stiles immediately connected to it.

"It always kept me guessing," she says of first reading it. "I thought it was really humorous, and also really not superficial or too light. I love that the point of view of the play is not cynical ultimately, which is very refreshing. It was a gut reaction that I had reading it. I love that my character Sue is very unapologetic, but she's a lot less self-aware than she would like to think she is. She's very neurotic in some ways. It felt very accessible to me, the idea that everybody would like to find a connection to another human being, and there are all these obstacles that get in the way of that, which are usually self-imposed."

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Stiles has a history of playing strong-willed, independent women — from her '90s entree as the charmingly unyielding Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You to her Emmy-nominated turn as the unlikely serial killer Lumen Pierce on Dexter to playing the title role, a single mother who moonlights as an escort, in the WIGS web series Blue, which recently transferred to Hulu after a successful run on YouTube.

"I'm so a believer, even more and more now, in the expression that you don't pick the part, the part picks you," Stiles explains. "I had this intuitive, visceral reaction to Sue of, ‘Oh, I like this girl.' I didn't put words to it or think about it too hard. And now in rehearsals, I'm like, ‘Oooh, because that's me.' "

But that doesn't mean it's been easy. Since there are only two characters — a form Stiles is familiar with from Oleanna — memorizing her lines caused the actress to panic slightly during the first week of rehearsals.

"How am I ever going to remember these lines?" she recalls of her initial freak-out. "Because sometimes the line is just 'Yeah,' or 'Okay,' and they're very specific, so it's not like you can paraphrase or improvise. And I wouldn't want to because I love what's written. But how do you remember the difference between 'Yeah, okay' or 'That's right,' — that's an exciting challenge. You have to invest. You can't just expect somebody else to be responsible for this."

For extra preparation, Wirt, DeLia and Stiles went on a retreat before rehearsals began. "We were able to get away from the city and unplug, and also focus on the play. During the day we would read through the play, and then at night we'd make dinner together," Stiles recalls. "We played games. We played Cards Against Humanity...and I actually almost won, but this is the problem. I started winning and then everybody turned against me, and I don't like being in that position, so I stepped back."

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Stiles also loves the idea of working on a new play — a mission of the producing company Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. (The theater has produced work by Jesse Eisenberg and is currently staging The Long Shrift, directed by James Franco.) Phoenix originally premiered in 2010 at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and this production marks the first in New York. However, there are still some existing roles Stiles wants to play.

"Lady M would be lovely to tackle at some point in my life, and there's a play Hysteria by Terry Johnson that is really moving and interesting," she says, but she also has some ideas for a twist on the classics. "I so find Harold Pinter and David Mamet's writing to be exciting and obviously there aren't that many female, at least with Mamet, there aren't that many good female roles. But I always thought it would be interesting to play one of the guy roles."

It might be a while before Stiles tries out drag, as she has a fairly busy slate of projects coming up. She has a "small but memorable" role in The Great Gilly Hopkins, based on the young adult novel, and she'll also be returning to the horror genre with Out of the Dark opposite Scott Speedman. She's already thinking about her next project with DeLia and Wirt: a film about actress Mary Pickford (played by Lily Rabe) that DeLia is developing and in which Stiles is set to play screenwriter Frances Marion, a good friend of Pickford's.

"I have to do everything all at once," Stiles says. "That's my style."

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