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Julia Stiles Travels Back to the Stage in a Downtown Train to Phoenix

The film actress recounts her childhood in the theater, from the Chekhov she had to muscle through to the "fluke" that led to her stage debut.

Julia Stiles made her last New York stage appearance in 2009 with her Broadway debut opposite Bill Pullman in David Mamet's two-person play Oleanna. She's now breathing a deep sigh of homecoming at the Cherry Lane Theatre in another two-hander, starring alongside James Wirt in Scott Organ's Phoenix, a dark romantic comedy that traces the aftermath of a one-night stand.

An entire generation of millennials has long equated the actress with iconic teen films like 10 Things I Hate About You and Save the Last Dance. Yet years before she fell into the Hollywood limelight, her acting career began in the far more modest forum of off-off-Broadway. As she chatted with TheaterMania about her long-awaited return to the stage, Stiles hinted at hopes for a Broadway return while reminiscing about her days as the middle-school mainstay of downtown theater.

Julia Stiles costars with James Wirt in Scott Organ's Phoenix, directed by Jennifer DeLia, at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© Harry Fellows)

What made you decide to do a play this summer?
It was just a feeling, really. I started in theater — downtown theater particularly. And I kind of felt like it would be a nice chance to get back to my roots and all the reasons why I wanted to be an actress in the first place. I was hungering for live performance. I missed the depth and continuity of doing a play — an extended rehearsal period and the freedom that you have when you're doing a live performance to make it your own and really get lost in the story.

How old were you when you started doing downtown theater?
Twelve. [Laughs]

What got you started at such a young age?
It was sort of a fluke. My mom's an artist and she had a lot of friends that she hung out with who are also artists and one of them was a painter and a set designer for this theater company called Ridge Theater. They were hanging out one night and the founder of the theater company was like, "Do you want to be in our show?" and he gave me a little bit part. Then as I got older, the roles that I had got bigger and I became a member of the company. I loved it, so I continued with it through high school.

Was Ridge your first experience with the theater or had your family already been taking you to other shows in New York?
My grandmother took me to a lot of plays. She had done summer stock in college and she was very literary so she would take me to see shows a lot. I remember she took me to see Three Sisters at Circle in the Square and she took me to see A Doll's House [with] Janet McTeer.

Those are pretty hefty selections.
I actually remember being really bored. [Laughs] Not with Janet McTeer. We had seats in the very back row and I remember being riveted because she was so accessible as an actress and powerful. But I remember some of the Chekhov was a little over my head.

Has it been a smooth transition back to the stage with Phoenix?
When we had our first read-through, I sighed, like ahh this feels so good. It's sort of like going to the gym again. It just feels right and really joyous for me. I'm finally able to play.

Why did you choose this particular play?
Jennifer DeLia called me and said, "I had a dream that we should do a play together," and I was like, "Well, incidentally, I'm dying to do a play! But where and when and what play?" I liked the idea of doing a two-hander because I had had some experience with that with Oleanna and I really enjoyed the challenge of [it]. We were throwing around ideas for plays and she found Phoenix. I read it and it just stuck with me. I liked that it's not cynical in its point of view. I thought that was really refreshing. I love the subject matter too — just the idea of fight or flight. In any given relationship whether it's superficial or deeply intimate, you have this instinct of either fight for the other person or fly in the other direction. It caught my attention right away. I find it to be more and more true that you don't pick the part, the part picks you. When I read it I was like, wow, this girl's really neurotic and funny, ha-ha-ha. And then as we were going through rehearsals, I was like, oh, wait a minute, I kind of identify with her, too.

Is theater something you'd like to do more of in the future?
Absolutely. I'd love to go back to Broadway. Every experience I've had onstage has been an enjoyable one, so right now, at least, I'm craving more and more live performance.

Do you have any dream roles in mind?
Lady Anne from Richard III.