Why Julia Stiles Still Loves Her Old Movies As Much As You Do

At 40, Julia Stiles is taking on some of the most interesting roles of her life. But she can't take her mind off the time she played 10 Things I Hate About You's resident angsty teen.

By Sarah Grossbart Mar 28, 2021 7:00 AMTags
Watch: Happy Birthday Julia Stiles!: E! News Rewind

For some stars, reflecting back on their first film roles—the parts they accepted when turning down a job wasn't exactly an option—is entirely cringe-worthy, an exercise in humility. (See: George Clooney any time he discusses 1997's Batman & Robin.) 

And while Julia Stiles admits that seeing her teenage self on-screen in flicks like 10 Things I Hate About You and Save the Last Dance isn't the easiest, she certainly doesn't hate her earliest fare. 

Not even close. Not even a little bit. Not even at all.

"It's really funny to me when people tell me which movies they respond to," she remarked to The L.A. Times in 2017, "and it's usually movies I didn't expect would resonate with people so many years later."

More often than not, the name-checked film is 2000's loose adaption of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew that introduced the world to future stars Gabrielle Union, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Heath Ledger

20 Secrets From 10 Things I Hate About You

"I do not take for granted that a movie that I did 20 years ago is still talked about because it meant a lot to me, even at the time we were filming it. It was a lot of fun," Stiles reflected to Forbes last November of 10 Things I Hate About You. "To have it find an audience and connect with other people is what you strive for as a performer."


Admittedly, as a teenager "you're so in your own little 19-year-old bubble, that the idea of what life would be like 20 years from now is, like, pfft," she told E! News in January. But as someone who "was a lot more serious maybe than I am now," she continued, she was very intentional about her choices. 

Coming of age in the golden era of teen films that was the early 00s, the actress drifted away from the likes of Bring It On, Can't Hardly Wait and She's All That and straight toward opinionated, unapologetic, Sarah Lawrence-bound high school senior Kat Stratford. 

"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," the native New Yorker recalled in a chat with the Independent last October.

"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." (Though she joked, with the wisdom and experience of two extra decades, "I look back and I see more of the humor 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 romancing Ledger (and getting her dad to agree to her East Coast liberal arts college dreams), she took a turn in Save the Last Dance, as a ballerina transplanted from the suburbs into a largely-Black Chicago high school where she falls hard for Sean Patrick Thomas' aspiring doctor Derek. 

Once again, "I was really kind of happy that we were able to sneak in bigger issues into what was otherwise a teen dance movie," she told E! News, the characters' romance allowing for discussions about interracial relationships and white privilege. "I thought this subject matter makes it edgier or different from your average dance movie. You still get the entertainment, but there's something bigger going on. And it opened my eyes to a lot of perspective that I had never really considered before."

Raking in more than $130 million, it also turned her into the it girl of the moment. She collected MTV Awards for Best Kiss and Best Female Performance and a Teen Choice trophy for Best Fight Scene thanks to her face-off with her new guy's ex (Bianca Lawson) at STEPPS, the must-attend club that ain't no square dance. And she scored a gig hosting Saturday Night Live and a Rolling Stone cover, the mag declaring her "the coolest coed."


Because by then she'd already enrolled at NYC's Columbia University, meaning 2002's The Bourne Identity had to shoot around her finals schedule and major mag interviews were conducted on the Ivy League's Upper Manhattan campus. 

"I was running away from fame, to be honest," she admitted to the Independent. "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."

The move allowed her to find her footing in both worlds. "Academic professionals don't really give a s--t about me being in a movie or having to go the MTV Movie Awards," she explained to the Daily Beast in 2019. "But then also people in the entertainment industry don't really care about university. That helped me a lot."


She was determined to build, not just an acting resume, but a sustainable career. "I was thinking, 'When I am a grown-up,'" she noted to the Independent, "'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.'" 

A sound strategy and yet, she acknowledged, "I think of myself back then and I think I was probably obnoxiously precocious, like, a little too smarty pants. 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."

And, perhaps, few should commit to a firm life plan.

With an English lit degree and more than a dozen movie credits in hand, Stiles admitted to NME last year, "I wasn't as clear about what I wanted to do. I just took roles because I thought it was interesting to have that life experience. 'Oh, I'll go to this part of the world or I'll work with these people or this is kind of an interesting story.'"

As in, why not dip back into the Bourne franchise for three more films? "I got to travel to amazing parts of the world and work with Matt [Damon]," she reasoned to the L.A. Times. Or, perhaps, try her hand at television, her season-long stint as a murderous rape survivor on Dexter earning her both a Golden Globe and an Emmy nod. 

But in between she shot a string of indies that never gained much traction and began to worry that all the entries on her ever-growing resume weren't actually adding up to a satisfying career. 

"I felt like I was sort of jumping from job to job that I wasn't really connected to," she explained to the Daily Beast, "and worried about where my career was going."

All the Secrets You Forgot About Save the Last Dance

Then she booked glossy drama Riveria in 2017, the south of France-set series that sees Stiles as a reckless anti-hero drawing millions of viewers each week on the U.K.'s Sky Atlantic. And she made it her mission to work her way into the cast of 2019's Hustlers

Reading the script about a group of savvy New York City strippers, she scored a meeting with writer-director Lorene Scafaria and offered her services. "I spoke to her and I was like, I don't care if I have to sweep the floors," she recalled to the Daily Beast. "I'll do anything to be part of this movie."

Winning the part based on Jessica Pressler, the journalist who wrote the original New York magazine piece about the duplicitous dancers, felt like a sign she'd officially settled into a successful second act. 

"I think a few years ago my frustration was feeling like nobody knew what to do with me. You know, I had had some success in my twenties and now I'm in a different place in my life and I didn't really fit anywhere," she explained. "But a movie like Hustlers to me is such an affirmation that like I have a place in the film industry and stories that I'm interested in are being told."

Once upon a time, she may have been worried about what her milestone March 28 birthday may have meant. "I wouldn't know where my career was going to go or if there would be opportunities for me beyond an ingenue or a girlfriend role," continued the 40-year-old. "Now I think that I'm really excited about the opportunities that are out there for me and my peers, and I think the roles that we're playing have gotten so much more interesting than what we were doing in our 20s."

David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Sky Atlantic

That's not to say she doesn't harbor the same nostalgia for her teenage work as the high schoolers who once happily consumed it. 

"That was my first big role in a movie, so I was thrilled beyond belief," she told the L.A. Times of her 10 Things I Hate About You memories. "We all had so much fun together. We were teenagers out in Seattle on our own for a summer in a movie where you didn't have to cry all the time. It was a delight. I think it's really special that people do still watch that movie."

She feels the same about her follow-up smash, Save the Last Dance. "It's such a gift that the movie still entertains and still resonates with people," she told E! News. "And that's such a wonderful thing for any actor. It's what you aspire to is, like, you tell stories that stick with people." 

Dave Allocca/StarPix/Shutterstock

Including Stiles, who said she'd be down for anything that reunited her with her Dance love interest Thomas. "They'd run into each other at, like, the grocery store and both have their adult lives and then you take it from there," she pitched to E!. "It would be so special." 

She's not entirely sure how best to revisit the Stratford clan, but she's not opposed. "I don't even understand how that would work," she told NME when asked if she'd be down for a reunion sequel. "It might be interesting to see. I would hope that Kat would be a lot happier outside of high school. I would watch it, for sure!" 

In other words, she doesn't hate the idea. Not even close. Not even a little bit. Not even at all. "I have no problem at all [with it being made]," she continued. "My question would be 'why?' but I think it would be fun to see how it turns out."