'I auditioned for Neil Jordan on Borgias and Interview with the Vampire' - Julia Stiles on Riviera’s Irish links and how they attracted her to lead role
The original idea for glossy thriller Riviera came from none other than U2’s former manager Paul McGuinness. Leading lady Julia Stiles talks about the show’s Irish links and how they attracted her to take on the starring role in the series...
Acting may be the ultimate “capricious mistress”, with today’s awards ceremony pat-on-the-back the proverbial six inches from tomorrow’s kick-in-the-backside rejection for a role. But as Julia Stiles, star of this summer’s blockbuster series Riviera, points out, there are times that make it all worthwhile.
Shooting the new Sky Atlantic drama along the Côte d’Azur was “very enjoyable, and a wonderful opportunity to live there for seven months. It’s so beautiful and romantic — a lovely place to work”.
A linguistic cherry on top, she adds, was being surrounded by people speaking French. Though she herself doesn’t parlez français, Stiles says: “It’s a beautiful language. And as an artist, it does something to the muscles in your brain to be surrounded by it.”
Riviera — a glossy, twisty, very enjoyable 10-part melodrama that premiered Friday night — sets its cautionary tale of money and power in the sun-splashed French Mediterranean. Yet there’s a strong Irish connection: ex-U2 manager Paul McGuinness is credited with the original idea, John Banville co-wrote two episodes and Neil Jordan created the overall concept and wrote several instalments.
He also cast Stiles in the lead role of Georgina Clios, art curator and recently bereaved widow of a billionaire banker. And though Jordan’s involvement didn’t make it to the production stage (“for reasons I won’t go into”), 36-year-old Stiles credits the Sligo man with piquing her interest.
“I hadn’t worked with Neil before,” she says, “although I had auditioned for him, on The Borgias and Interview with the Vampire. I was definitely attracted to this by his involvement; when I heard he was doing it, I was intrigued.
“Then when I read the first episode, I was struck by how poetic it was — it felt like this definitely came from Neil. Sometimes you read a pilot episode and they’re trying to grab your attention by being provocative; I often find the writing a little blunt. Neil’s is not that. It reads almost like a novel.”
Fine writing is something Stiles knows all about, having completed a degree in English Literature at Columbia in her home city of New York. The core course, she remembers, covered “a broad spectrum”: everything from modern-day American literature to British classics, right back to the Greeks. That, she jokes, makes her a literary “jack of all trades and master of none!”
Stiles attended Columbia at 19, following a gap year, by which time she was already an established actress. Daughter of an artist mother and businessman father (with Irish roots), she began with a local theatre troupe as a child.
By the time she started college, Stiles had worked with the likes of Claire Danes, Jude Law, M Night Shyamalan and — her breakout role — the late Heath Ledger in teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. Since then she’s made dozens of films and TV shows, the most famous being the Jason Bourne series with Matt Damon.
For all that, she insists, she had “a pretty normal childhood. I wasn’t working regularly until about 17, and in my formative years, auditions or theatre work didn’t take me away from school or my peers. And my parents were encouraging, though protective.
“Then I went to university, just as my career was breaking. I slowed things down and had a normal experience there. It seemed a natural next step, and helped me grow up.”
Riviera gives Stiles something substantial to get her teeth into. As she investigates her husband’s death, and life, her character navigates a treacherous, seductive, unknowable world of sex, wealth, corruption and all sorts of politics.
“This show was very rewarding for me,” she says, “starting with the fact that my character had so much screen time. The producers were open to my input, because by halfway through, I knew her better than anyone else.
“While Georgina says she’s not interested in money — and she’s not snooping around because she wants money, she’s more interested in the truth — she’s become accustomed to that lifestyle. So she’s not totally innocent.”
Behind the melodrama, the central theme explored in Riviera is wealth: how it warps things and people, and has its own gravity. Were there parallels to be drawn between the international banking jet-set and Hollywood’s A-list?
The biggest difference, she says, is age. “The money accumulated in Riviera — this is maybe more of a European thing — is old money. It has a different quality to the US, where there’s a lot of new money. My character is American, so the show touches on that disparity between Old and New Worlds.”
Off-screen, Stiles is engaged to cameraman Preston J Cook (they met while filming the 2015 thriller Go With Me). Only this week, the couple announced that she was expecting their first child.
Then, there is what George Clooney called “the currency of celebrity”: using your fame to make the planet a better place. It’s important to her to use this platform for good causes.
“But,” Julia adds, “I don’t think I do enough. And I’d like to find a way to do it meaningfully. It’s nice to bring attention to a cause, but I’d like to know the results will be substantial and quantifiable.
“I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in university, and you knew when you were done with a project, a house was built. That kind of concrete — no pun intended — result is important. That you’re not just doing something for the sake of appearances.”
She’s also outspoken in her criticism of Donald Trump. In interviews Julia has described the US President as “disgusting” and “offensive”. After recent terror attacks in the UK, she tweeted: “What a disgrace, to use the tragedy in London for political opportunity. Shame on him.”
Professionally, Stiles would like to do more theatre, is working on a feature-film script, and toyed with the idea of a novel “but then talked myself out of it because nobody would want to read it.”
Surprisingly, she admits to still getting nervous before acting, with certain scenes at least: “If they’re very challenging emotionally, or if I don’t know what to expect.
"But that’s a good thing. And on TV, you work pretty fast, because you have more to do each day, and that’s good too — it keeps the energy up and keeps you on your toes.”
All episodes of Riviera are now available from Sky Atlantic and NOW TV