Why Julia Stiles Fought For Her Role in ‘Hustlers’

Julia Stiles Jennifer Lopez

“I was kind of bouncing around from project to project without a rudder… and then ‘Hustlers’ came along”

Nothing motivates me on a Monday quite like a badass group of women succeeding in a male-dominated world. That story describes both the plot and the incredible reception of the new female-written, directed, and produced film Hustlers, which opened this weekend to the tune of $32M. Based off of the New York magazine article written by Jessica Pressler (who we spoke with last week!), Hustlers follows a group of savvy strippers who swindle their wealthy Wall Street clients. Pressler is portrayed in the film by Julia Stiles, who fans will remember from her starring roles in early 2000s films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and Save the Last Dance. I spoke with Julia about what life has been like since teen stardom, and why landing a role in Hustlers makes her want to cry.

Katie Couric: You are probably best known by audiences for starring in cult classics of the early 2000s like ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ and ‘Save the Last Dance.’ Since establishing yourself as a teen icon back then, you took a step back from blockbusters (except, of course, for your recurring role in the Jason Bourne films) to attend Columbia University, work on some smaller films, and start a family. How did that period of time shape your hopes or aspirations for the continuation of your career?

Julia Stiles: It was a combination of things. I had to grow up, and learn what the industry is all about. I had to learn what people wanted to see me in, and reconcile that with what I was interested in. I learned that there’s a lot that you can’t control in your own career. Of course, I was so happy to be doing the Jason Bourne films, and I was happy to jump on (TV drama) Riviera and see where that would go. I also became a mom two years ago. But in terms of my career, I was kind of bouncing around from project to project without a rudder. And then when Hustlers came along, it was so important for me to seize that opportunity and say, I really want to fight for this.

You mentioned your son — congratulations, by the way! When you choose roles now, do you take into account what he will think when he grows up and sees your work?

I think I will probably consider that more as he gets older. Honestly, right now I’m like, “Oh, I’d love to do a cartoon.” I’d love to be able to say to him, “Hey, Mommy is the voice of so and so in this Disney movie!” That would be fun.

In ‘Hustlers,’ you play Elizabeth, who is based on journalist Jessica Pressler, who wrote the article that inspired the film. We spoke with Jessica the other day, and she said that she thinks Elizabeth is a bit more buttoned up than she is, because “you’re Julia Stiles! You have an Ivy League education!”

That’s hilarious. I reached out to her when I was cast, and I was like, “Oh hey! I’m playing you in this movie! Can we get together?” And she made a joke about how I went to a better college than she did.

I didn’t want to imitate Jessica for the film, so Elizabeth is only loosely based on her. But one of the biggest liberties we took visually was with her wardrobe. Like most New York magazine writers, Jessica’s style is pretty hip and casual. But the director Lorene Scafaria wanted to show that my character had a lot more opportunities available to her than the strippers she was interviewing. So I think for the sake of the film, I had to be a bit more buttoned up than Jessica really is, to show the contrast between someone on a more straight and narrow path and someone on a more elicit path.

Jessica also joked about the fact that Elizabeth has a much nicer apartment than she does…

If you are fortunate enough to be on staff at a magazine, you probably still can’t afford to live in Manhattan, or even Brooklyn these days. But yeah, my apartment in the movie is pretty nice.

Can we talk about Jennifer Lopez in this movie? She is on fire! The scenes where she is dancing are absolutely mesmerizing. Were you ever envious that you weren’t part of those scenes?

They did all that dancing in four-inch stiletto platform heels. That’s a level that I can’t even wrap my head around. I was totally impressed. The dancing was amazing to watch, but I understood that wasn’t my part in the film. I wasn’t even entertaining the idea of being cast as a stripper. It’s funny, a friend of mine texted me when she found out that I had been cast but she didn’t know what my role was yet. And she said “Congratulations! OMG are you playing an aging stripper?” And I was like, “F you!” Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez doesn’t look a day older than she did when she first started in this business. I think if I’d been cast as a stripper it would have required a lot of training, and I definitely would have had to get out of my comfort zone a little bit. But I really liked playing the only person who isn’t taking advantage of these women, and who really grounds the story in reality, and provides the lens that the audience views the women through.

The film is exciting and fun, but it’s also pretty groundbreaking. This is a story that features a group of women who work in an industry where they are constantly objectified, but also shows them as the strong, smart, three-dimensional people that they really are. And audiences are loving it! How does it feel to be part of that?

You’re going to make me cry. You totally articulated everything that I’m feeling. I’ve never been more excited to be part of a movie. Sure, I’ve been in movies that have been successful, or that people care about, but this feels different. I remember reading this story and thinking, if they do this right, it’s going to touch a nerve with people. Not just because it’s sexy, but because it shows what money and power will do to people, and how it can corrupt people. I do not take for granted the humanity with which Lorene decided to tell this story.

One of the brilliant things that she did is that she captures the humor, and the flashy, seductive high that these women had when they finally turned the tables on these men. I love that I am playing the character who comes in and says “Hey, I’m not here to take advantage of you or exploit you. I actually want to know who you are as a person, and what your side of the story is.” And she’s speaking to a group of women who have only ever been looked at as commodities, but who also have this complex and fascinating story to tell. As Lorene says, it shines a light on our broken moral system, but in a way that’s really entertaining. I just feel so honored to be part of this moment. It does make me want to cry. It’s such an affirmation that people want to see it.

Elizabeth is an impressive character, but you have never been one to shy away from strong female roles. It’s been 20 years since ‘10 Things I Hate About You,’ and Kat was a feminist before it was cool to be a feminist. Why do you think that the movie has become such a cult classic?

I think people love it for the same reasons that I wanted the part, which is a lovely thing to realize. I was 17, and I had been auditioning for roles in commercials and TV shows, and I was so sick of everybody telling me that I was too serious, and that I needed to be more bubbly. It really frustrated me. And then the part of Kat comes along, and it was written by two women, which was huge, and she was feisty and opinionated and a fish out of water. But she didn’t care that she didn’t fit in — in fact, she took pride in it. And that really resonated with me. And for a romantic comedy, that movie has a lot of bite to it. It’s not just a saccharine romcom. And to see that audiences responded to that, and that they still do, is amazing.

I read one review of the film that said that Elizabeth is who Kat might have grown up to be.

[Laughs] Well she’s maybe not as cranky as Kat. Although I guess Kat would be out of high school, finally. Maybe she grew up and got over some of the teen angst.

The film also stars some heavy hitters in the music world… I have this fantasy of the cast having a Lizzo, Cardi B, J Lo mash-up singalong on set. Please tell me that actually happened?!

I wasn’t at all of those strip club scenes, but I had friends on the crew. I was like, “Can I just sneak into set when Cardi B is there?” But I didn’t want to seem like an obnoxious looky-loo, so I didn’t do it. But I have that same fantasy when I listen to Lizzo’s music, don’t worry. We are all starstruck by Lizzo.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium.com