Why Julia Stiles Chased Down 'Hustlers' Role

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Julia Stiles

The actor insisted on reading the script, even after her agent said only less-than-flashy roles were available.

[This story contains spoilers for STXfilm's Hustlers.]

Julia Stiles was determined to be a part of filmmaker Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, even if it meant working in craft service. In the 20 years since she rose to stardom in 10 Things I Hate About You, a pillar in the romantic comedy genre, Stiles hasn’t had to resort to a “whatever it takes” mentality to land a role, but that’s how intrigued she was by Jessica Pressler’s New York Magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores,” which Scafaria adapted into Hustlers.

Despite being told by her agent that only a less-flashy role was available in the film, Stiles insisted on reading the script, which concluded with her asking Scafaria for an opportunity in any capacity. As it turned out, she’d be playing the part of Elizabeth, a character inspired by the very journalist who piqued her interest in the first place — Jessica Pressler.

“I reached out to her over Instagram, and I said, ‘I’m playing you in this movie, I think we should meet,’” Stiles tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We both have young kids and didn’t have babysitters, so I was, like, ‘Well, what if we have a playdate?’ So, I brought my son to her apartment in Queens, and he proceeded to destroy her living room while we talked about point A to point B. There were a lot of things that I took away from talking to her.”

The film, which also stars Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, has become a bona fide hit, opening to $33.2 million over the weekend.

It’s rather fitting that Stiles felt creatively invigorated in the same year that celebrated the 20th anniversary of her breakout performance opposite Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You, an experience she looks back on with fondness.

“Oh, it was so fun. We were staying at the Sheraton in Tacoma, Washington, but we made it like the Shangri-La,” the actress recounts. “No one was jaded, and everyone was open-hearted. … And Heath — he was this bad boy that came in from Australia, and I think he was the eldest of our group. … Heath kind of led the pack.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Stiles also reflects on her role in the Bourne franchise and why Lumen Pierce never reappeared on Showtime's Dexter.

So, Hustlers is one of the only times where you actively went out of your way to be involved with a film in any capacity?

Since I was starting out as an actress — yeah. It’s also the first time, recently, that I was in a film and still thinking about it days and weeks after.

I presume it’s rare to come across material where a group of women get to be sympathetic antiheroes for a change?

It’s very rare, and I think that people pay lip service to aspiring to that. Those different factors seem like they would be popular, but I do sense this reluctance when push comes to shove. But with Hustlers, it was already on the page, and you could tell what Lorene’s focus was and how far she wanted to take a movie about female antiheroes that are not all good and not all bad.

I know you were told right away that you wouldn’t be playing a dancer, but hypothetically, would your Save the Last Dance skills have come in handy at all?

(Laughs.) I never had to wear four-inch platform heels in Save the Last Dance, so that would’ve required a whole other level of training.

As far as preparation, did you talk to Jessica Pressler, who first reported this story for New York Magazine?

I did. I reached out to her when I was cast, and I had been following her work for a while. That was part of the job for me. But, I reached out to her over Instagram, and I said, “I’m playing you in this movie, I think we should meet.” If that didn’t work, I knew other writers at New York Magazine, so I was going to ask them to connect me to her. But, she responded and joked about how I went to a better college than she did, which I don’t know if that’s true or even relevant. (Laughs.) So, we were going to get together; we were both working in New York, and we could only get together on the weekends. But, we both have young kids and didn’t have babysitters, so I was like, “Well, what if we have a playdate?” So, I brought my son to her apartment in Queens, and he proceeded to destroy her living room while we talked about point A to point B. She was really open, and I told her I wasn’t going to imitate her. We were going to take some licenses with the film because Lorene had some differences in mind, starting with my wardrobe. She offered up so many interesting anecdotes, like how she first got in touch with Rosie [Constance Wu’s Destiny], in particular, and got her to open up to her. There were a lot of things that I took away from talking to her. It was really helpful to have the actual person available, and then, when we were filming, I would text her during scenes just to ask questions like, “How much do you take notes? What do you do if this happens?”

The thing about my wardrobe was more that I kind of know that New York Magazine writers are pretty hip, and I think Lorene wanted me to dress in something that would show that Elizabeth came from privilege and already had more opportunities from the onset than these dancers did.

In the film’s 2015 timeline, Destiny calls Elizabeth to ultimately ask about Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), and at the time, Elizabeth is pregnant and at her own baby shower. Is that detail true?

When Rosie [Destiny] got back in touch with her, I think Jessica told me that she already had her child. I think Lorene wanted it to be her baby shower just because you see Jennifer and Constance as mothers and the difficulties that they have paying for childcare, finding childcare and supporting their families. Elizabeth is now entering into that world, too; it’s an interesting parallel. But, thank you very much for knowing that it was a baby shower because I was worried that it wasn’t clear and that I just had a big belly. (Laughs.)

The group mostly targeted Wall Street guys who they deemed responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, and Elizabeth eventually said that she didn't feel bad for these particular men that were taken. Do you feel sorry for those men, specifically the Wall Street crowd?

I think Lorene handled it really well and with nuance because you do meet Doug (Steven Boyer), who’s an otherwise good guy. He’s the outlier where he didn’t really deserve to have what happened to him, but for the most part, when you say “Wall Street guys,” I think of the ones who were throwing trash at them in the champagne room. That line really stuck out to me and resonated where she just says it point blank, “I don’t really feel bad for them. It’s just a taste of your own medicine.” So, yeah, when I think of the ones who were objectifying them, treating them like dirt, manipulating them and taking advantage of them — I, in many ways, see it like it was just a business transaction. (Laughs.)

The biggest laugh at my screening was Elizabeth second-guessing her decision to drink Destiny’s tea. How many takes did that reaction shot require?

It was Lorene’s idea. She was like, “Can you just look like you’re a little bit worried about this tea?” and I was like, “Sure!” I think we did two takes of it. I wasn’t really sure what my face was doing, but Lorene was laughing so we went with it. I think I did a few different versions.

When Destiny turned the voice recorder off, was it scripted that the sound would cut out, or was it a touch that Lorene added in post?

She scripted it that way. With Lorene, I’m telling you: Everything was on the page aside from what the cast and crew brought to it in putting it together. On the page, she had written that the sound goes out, and in those moments, I thought you could really see her artistry and also what she was interested in focusing on. It also seems very effortless and poetic, but I think it was very well thought out on her part.

Did you have pocket dialogue written for you during the muted portion, or was it just improvisation?

We were improvising, largely led by Lorene. It didn’t have to be precise, and it didn’t have to be perfect dialogue. So, we kind of just riffed on me being confused about what was happening now and stumbling my way out the door.

Can you talk about working with Lorene and what perspective she brought that male directors might not offer? Or, are female directors virtually no different than most male directors, which makes their low employment numbers all the more baffling?

On the one hand, I don’t want to say that the movie is great because Lorene is a female director, because I feel like that’s doing her a disservice. Men and women are different, so the fact that she’s a woman — or maybe just a different type of director regardless of her gender — means that what she chose to focus on stands out. I don’t think you can divorce that. I would like to think it just depends on the type of director and the type of artist, but maybe what men and women focus on is different. You can’t separate the fact that she’s a woman from what she made. You could’ve told five different versions of this story, so it’s a testament to Lorene — and what drew me to the project — is that she made it the movie that she is. I feel like it sounds belittling to say it’s because she’s a woman, but I also think you can’t forget that that’s probably part of the reason that she was a compassionate director, one that wanted to see these women as full human beings and not just tropes.

I think it was also influenced a lot by Jessica Pressler’s article. Her article might’ve been a little bit more skewed towards New York Magazine, but when I saw her after the press screening in New York, I said, “Congratulations! How do you feel?” and she was more concerned about what the women in real life would think. It’s because she had become close to them. I don’t know if that happens all the time with journalists. 

Is watching 10 Things I Hate About You, or any older film of yours, similar to looking at an old photograph, only magnified times 20?

One hundred percent — it’s like looking at old photographs of me. But, there’s another bizarre element because it’s not like you’re looking at a photo of you, dressed the way you dressed at that point. There’s another layer around you because you’re playing a character that’s not really you. I’m not saying that’s good or bad; it’s like if you saw pictures of yourself when somebody else had dressed you up for Halloween. (Laughs.)

What comes to mind as far as your downtime on 10 Things with Heath Ledger?

Oh, it was so fun. We were staying at the Sheraton in Tacoma, Washington, but we made it like the Shangri-La. I never even been to the Shangri-La, so I don’t know what that means. (Laughs.) We had a great time, and we were all excited to be there and just hang out with each other. No one was jaded, and everyone was open-hearted. It was really, really fun. And Heath — he was this bad boy that came in from Australia, and I think he was the eldest of our group. Maybe David Krumholtz was, but Heath kind of led the pack.

In terms of her belief system, are you somewhat amazed that 10 Things character Kat Stratford was so ahead of the curve and that she wouldn’t be considered an outsider in this day and age?

I think she’d be happier being out of high school. I’m still amazed and pleased that people are still talking about it. That’s a huge privilege for an actor, and it was such an affirmation that, even at 17, my instincts, in terms of what I was interested in, actually resonated with other people, too. That’s great.

I was always surprised that the character Lumen Pierce never resurfaced on Showtime's Dexter, especially since your performance was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Was there ever an attempt made to bring you back?

No — and I don’t really know why.

As far as the Bourne films, I always viewed your character Nicky as the Alfred to Bourne’s Batman, or the Q to his Bond. Thus, I was somewhat disappointed by how things turned out for her in the fourth film. What’s your perspective on Nicky’s conclusion?

I expected it only because whoever gets really close to Jason Bourne ends up dead. When I was in the first one (2002's The Bourne Identity), Nicky actually got killed then, and they recut it so that I survived. Then, I went on to make ultimately four movies, so that was awesome. When Paul Greengrass first sent me the script for the latest Bourne movie (2016's Jason Bourne), he called me almost to warn me that she was going to get killed, and I actually thought it was good to go out with a bang, so to speak. I sort of knew that it was going to be her last installment, and I was happy to do it in a dramatic way. It was fine. I think there’s only so many you can do, and I really deferred to Paul Greengrass and respected his artistry that this was the story he wanted to tell. I didn’t debate it or question it.

You directed some television a few years ago. Did Lorene Scafaria create a new itch in you to get behind the camera again, or are your directing days long gone?

I do still have it. Lorene confirmed that it’s possible even though she had an established career before there was an appetite for female directors. Yeah, I definitely still have an itch; I’m just trying to find the right story. I also don’t really have time right now, but eventually, that’s a long-term goal for me.

Your show Riviera has shot on location in the South of France, and now it’s shooting in Italy. Does it still feel like a job at the end of the day?

I mean, it’s ridiculous. I pinch myself. I have a hard time talking about it with other people because I know they want to punch me in the face. There’s an element to it that, of course, it’s still work, but it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to travel to some beautiful places in the world and live there long enough to immerse yourself in day-to-day life. It’s wonderful. Maybe, I just say that there’s still a work aspect to it to pay my ticket; I have to justify why I’m here by thinking that I’m working hard. (Laughs.) It’s remarkable, and I do not take it for granted.

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Hustlers is in theaters now.