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Style and substance... Riviera star Julia Stiles reminisces about the decade that made her Hollywood's teen queen

Julia Stiles was the 'thinking teen's' poster girl of the 1990s. Now, all grown up, playing a morally corrupt character in a hit TV show, she talks child stardom; how motherhood improved her acting and her sadness at co-star Heath Ledger's untimely death

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Julia Styles

Julia Styles

Julia Styles as art curator Georgina Clios in the popular Sky show Riviera

Julia Styles as art curator Georgina Clios in the popular Sky show Riviera

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Julia Styles

There is something about Julia Stiles that makes people purr with nostalgia. Like a tattered schoolbook or a rave armband, she is a reminder of a more innocent time: the 1990s. While the rest of us who were teenagers in that decade spent our days smoking behind a bike shed or trying to grow a beard, Julia was the young queen of Hollywood, starring in hits like Ten Things I Hate About You and Save The Last Dance and providing relief for a legion of Leaving Cert-weary teenagers (10 Things was based on Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew, so you could watch it and kid yourself you were sort of doing English homework).

It was the era of Teen Choice Awards and she was always the choice - she was called "the thinking teenager's movie goddess". MTV loved her. All of us dreamed of living her charmed life. And yet, talking to Stiles today, it seems to be that even she cringes looking back at the 1990s.

"Those were my baby giraffe years!" she tells me down the phone from Canada, where she's been holing up for the pandemic. "There was a lot of trial and error on display. Looking from the outside in, you might imagine I was always confident but that wasn't the case. In many ways, I was a very normal teenager. I still have a lot of affection for those performances. Starting out as an actor, I'd get my hopes up and wear my heart on my sleeve. After enough disappointment, you learn to temper your expectations."

She is notably patient when people use her as the jumping-off point for a 1990s nostalgia reverie, and, in a sense, the decade brought her to where she is now. As a child, she auditioned for the part of Claudia, the child vampire in the 1994 movie Interview With the Vampire. The part went to Kirsten Dunst but Stiles, then just 13, caught the eye of the director Neil Jordan and a quarter of a century later, he would be instrumental in her getting the lead role in Riviera.

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Julia Styles as art curator Georgina Clios in the popular Sky show Riviera

Julia Styles as art curator Georgina Clios in the popular Sky show Riviera

Julia Styles as art curator Georgina Clios in the popular Sky show Riviera

Sky TV's glossy drama series sees her play Georgina Clios - pitched to her as "a female Michael Corleone" - whose untouchable life comes crashing down after her husband Constantine (Anthony LaPaglia) is seemingly killed in a yacht explosion, all while she's bidding in art auctions and sipping Bolly with Adrian Lester's dulcet-toned Robert Carver. The show was created by Jordan and co-written by him and Booker Prize-winner John Banville - although both are no longer involved in the project.

Paul McGuinness, the former manager of U2, has produced the show, and Stiles says he has become "a good friend". "There are Irish fingerprints all over this thing," she says. "Maybe in a future season, we've got to go to Ireland."

But do we have enough yachts and stunning vistas to make it worthwhile? There is, of course, much more to it than that. Despite some critical scepticism that it wouldn't last, Riveria's three seasons are evidence that it is a huge success story, with Series One drawing in 2.3 million people an episode, making it Sky's most-watched original series.

"When I took the role on I loved the fact that you could have this opulent setting and then underneath it this grimy, seedy underbelly," Stiles says. "I didn't know my character was a murderer when I first signed on, but knew she was an anti-hero and compromised morally. I fought really hard to have that murder in the first season be really deliberate. The plan was that it would be in self-defence but I wanted it to be pre-meditated."

The second season of the show also coincided with Stiles becoming a mother for the first time. A few months before filming began, Julia and her Canadian husband, Preston J Cook, welcomed their son, Strummer, into the world.

"That was a magical time," she says. "Motherhood has changed my life in so many ways. It made me a better actress because I don't come home at the end of a working day and feel that I lived and died by how it went. I approach work more as play now."

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Achieving balance in life, and getting distance from the intensity of acting, has long been a goal. Stiles grew up in Manhattan, where her mother ran a pottery business. She started acting at the age of 11, performing with New York's La MaMa Theatre Company, but, while she was working from a young age, she was not quite a child star and it would be a few years before she would appear in movies. "It was a different time, there wasn't so much social media. I was precocious but I still got to be a kid," she recalls.

Her first film role was in I Love You, I Love You Not with Claire Danes and Jude Law, but it was in Wicked she first took the lead, playing a girl who grapples with her Electra complex - she may have murdered her mother so she can have her father all to herself. That year Stiles was described as "the darling of the 1998 Sundance Film Festival".

Part of her appeal was that she was a teen queen with an intellectual edge. She starred in three films based on » » Shakespearean plays in three years. Along with 10 Things, in which she starred alongside Heath Ledger, she was also in an adaptation of Hamlet opposite Ethan Hawke and O, an adaptation of Othello alongside Josh Hartnett and Mekhi Phifer.

Unsurprisingly it's Ledger, who died of an accidental overdose aged 28 in 2008, who seems to have made the greatest impression on her. "I was with him at a time in our lives when we were all so green. He had this lust for life and this energy and enthusiasm. It's so sad that we all miss out on the great things he would have done. It's so sad he's not here. We were good friends during the making of the movie, but we didn't really stay in touch after that."

At the height of her fame, Stiles did something that few expected from a Hollywood starlet: she stepped back in order to go to college, enrolling in Columbia University in Manhattan to study English literature. "I always wanted to have the college experience and I felt I'd missed out on that. It's just such an important thing for any kid to go through, I think. Then, once I started, it was mentioned in so many interviews that I felt I had to continue because everyone knew about it, so I put that pressure on myself."

She says that escaping the endless press intrusion was also a huge part of it. "Going to university helped to insulate me from all of the attention. I was able to put things in perspective. No matter what kind of attention I was getting, I still had to do my homework and it was happening in the context of classmates who were studying to be doctors.

"I never totally took time off. I went to a university which also allowed me to work, but I did slow down and entertain the idea of alternate careers. Fame and celebrity, or whatever you want to call it, didn't seem that serious in that setting. There was still a feeling of being in a fishbowl; they couldn't ignore the fact that I was getting all this media attention. I knew I was being looked at."

She graduated in 2005 and says she's not sure if her acting was helped in any way by her study of literature - she points out that performing is a more visceral, instinctive thing - but, by the time she emerged, she was no longer America's teen idol. She acted in the Bourne franchise alongside Matt Damon and won warm reviews, but for much of the next decade the majority of her work would come in television.

Hustlers, which came out last year, represented something of a big-screen comeback for Stiles, and she says that she took inspiration from Jennifer Lopez's strong on- and off-screen persona.

"The first day we were filming, I almost had to be taken out of my scene with her because I was just so impressed with her ability to transform - she was not the Jennifer Lopez we know, she fully inhabited the character. Then when we were promoting it, I could really see what a grafter she was. She's very famous; she walks into the room and the air changes, but despite that, she is really grounded."

Stiles may be no stranger to sabbaticals but she says that this enforced one has been difficult. She says that when Covid-19 has passed, the thing she's most looking forward to doing is travelling and getting back home to New York City. "You want to put a silver lining on it in that you don't have to travel, but honestly I really miss it. Particularly seeing my family, or even just exploring other parts of the world. Not being able to do that has been hard. I'm looking forward to all this being over and getting back to normal."

The writer Graham Greene once said that we should "pity" the actor who makes it big when they're young because "time's chariot is at their back". If Stiles feels it approaching she doesn't seem concerned. She says that the MeToo and TimesUp movements have had a huge impact, not just in the way female stars are treated off set, but in the general selection of roles that are offered to women of all ages. "I've noticed changes recently, in the last two or three years, for sure. When I think of my career in my 20s, I would have been wary and worried about opportunities that wouldn't come my way 20 years down the line.

"I look around now at my peers and the work they're doing and the great stories about women that are coming out, and I think that there has definitely been a sea change. I got to executive-produce Riviera and that has been incredible." l

All episodes of 'Riviera' Season Three are available On Demand on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV


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