If you were a girl growing up around the turn of the last century, and especially if you were a girl who liked reading and mouthed off a little bit too much for her own good, Julia Stiles was a hero. Thanks to her role as the brainy, sharp-tongued Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, Stiles became an icon for teenage girls who wanted to be weird and get the guy, or who wanted to know it was OK not to be as obsessed about hair/makeup/clothes/boys as every other teenage girl on-screen. And though Stiles was just an actress playing a part, her career from there seemed to bear out that she was that kind of girl too-- in everything from Save the Last Dance to The Bourne Identity to Dexter, she's been self-possessed and smart, like someone who knew all the steps before anyone else did.
Which is why it's kind of fun, in It's A Disaster, to watch her fall apart. In her defense she's got a good excuse-- in the middle of the traditional "couples brunch" with her friends, where she's brought new boyfriend Glenn (David Cross) as a date, Stiles's character Tracy is faced with the end of the world. Well, that's what they think it is at least, as word comes through that dirty bombs have gone off in downtown Los Angeles, and it's only a matter of time before the fallout makes its way to them. The awkward brunch transforms into a lot of panicked people trying to save themselves and cope with their imminent death, and Tracy finds herself regretting everything she never got to do in life, while also muddling through history's most awkward third date.
I spoke to Stiles a few weeks ago at the offices of Oscilloscope Laboratories, who are distributing It's A Disaster and are testing some inventive strategies to promote it. I talked to her about testing the waters of onscreen comedy, her ongoing web series, and how she finally learned to only take the parts that actually spoke to her-- not what other people thought she should do.
It's A Disaster is currently available on VOD and is opening in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend. If you're in either city, you can catch Q&As after this weekend's screenings. At New York City's Village East, Stiles and co-star David Cross will be speaking after the 7:50 pm screening tonight, and Cross and America Ferrera will be answering questions after Saturday's 7:50 pm show. At Los Angeles's Los Feliz 3, catch director Todd Berger, star Erinn Hayes and other cast and crew member at Q&As held throughout the weekend. For more on It's A Disaster you can also listen to this week's Operation Kino, with Todd Berger as the special guest host.
David Cross is a lot older than you . Were you offended when the director was like "Yes, of course you guys should be on a date."
Of course not! Are you kidding me, I'm a huge David Cross fan. First of all, his wife is my age. I was so excited when he responded.
When did you know that you two would be the pair at the center of the story. I know that I signed on before he did-- [laughs] "I did it first!" Todd [Berger, the director] and the three other guys, they're all in The Vacationeers. I knew them from their comedy in LA, and we had done a couple of shorts together. Todd sent me the script and I loved it and I signed on, but sometimes you attach yourself to a movie and it never gets made. But these guys are determined. They were trying to cast Glenn, at which point America signed on, and I think she was friendly with David Cross and she said she'd send him the script. And he was like, sure, I'll do it. When Todd gave me the script he said 'Which female part do you want to play?' and I said Tracy. But also, America and David and I had also met before. A lot of times New York actors, you run in the same circles. We had done readings together and benefits.
Was that the role you picked because it was how you thought you'd react in a disaster situation?
Because I liked that she was so in denial of the whole thing. I liked that she was the only single on in the group, and she had a problem settling down. It was that first scene, and then the scene where she won't let the neighbors come inside.
The genius of this I think is that you feel the sense that everyone has had that terrible brunch.
Just the name "couples brunch" is horrible. This is why I object to Tracy's choices here. Why would you bring someone here on a date? It's like she's deliberately trying to sabotage the relationship or stop it from having a future.
With these guys, the Vacationeers, being an established comedic group, do you have to work your way into a previously established group dynamic?
We all gravitated toward the way that Todd had written the script, and we were all like-minded, so you already have that going for you. Todd has a very specific sense of humor that, if you got it, you wanted to be involved. We all make an effort to get along. It was surprising how it wasn't just for the sake of "oh, we're making a movie, so we have to pretend to be friends." It was actually easy and seamless. We wanted to hang out with each other. Our downtime, and where we'd change, was a house across the street from the one we were shooting in, instead of using trailers. We all wanted to be around each other all day long.
The vibe has to be similar to theater, which you're familiar with. Was that a way to cross over film with theater more so than ever?
Yeah, because we did do a lot of Steadicam shots, where the takes would be really long and the scenes would be really long. There wasn't an audience-- that was the weirdest thing. You're making a comedy and there isn't an audience to tell you if you're being funny or not. In fact everybody around you is trying not to laugh.
How do you get used to that?
I surrounded myself with people like David Cross who could be funny for me.
But what about in terms of even knowing if your jokes are working?
I think I largely just trusted Todd, and I had an instinct-- I think he's really intelligent and really funny, and that he would put together something good.
Had you ever aimed to mix film and theater in that way before?
Not really. Sometimes I feel like I can be on a movie set and miss the theater. When a play is really good and surprising every night, it's like the way your muscles ache to go to the gym. But then, there's also a beauty in moviemaking too. I don't really care so much about the medium or the platform, it's more about the story we're telling. I feel like I want to watch it myself.
You have a second season of your web series coming too. It seems like you're on this edge that people don't know is there yet. They're not paying attention to web series. Why is that something you're passionate about?
It's the kind of thing that in retrospect was an edgy thing to do. It was a leap of faith. Part of me really wanted to work with Rodrigo Garcia, and when he sent me the script, I was like "I don't know, what is this web series thing… it's the Internet, does that cheapen it somehow?" But when I read the script I really loved the writing, and the fact that people, that we made a second season and that it was a good decision for me to do that, or that people are responding to Blue, is such an affirmation of my instincts, which is that if the script is good and the execution is good, that's the only thing that you can control and that's how you should make your decisions.
When you see something like House of Cards on Netflix, do you say "Yeah, we've been doing this for years!" Are people catching up?
I feel like I'm catching up too. I do think that's the way that people watch programming now, and this is sort of a new frontier so why not see where it goes and be a part of it instead of being averse to it. What I like about it is, instead of regular movies or TV, you spend so much time trying to get it financed and get out of the public. But it's nice to just make something and have it come out immediately.
It feels like you choose your projects really careful. Do you feel that way?
I definitely don't have as much control over my career as I would like to pretend I do, but I'm very thoughtful about the roles I take. I can't fake enthusiasm about something I', working on. It's like a romance in a weird way. The opposite ends of the magnet find each other-- does that sound really hokey? If I can't get my mojo up for a part, I don't think the director's going to get their mojo up for me. And if I don't gravitate toward certain material, it's going to show. But I'm working with what I"m offered.
Did you always know that you couldn't work yourself up for something you didn't want to do, or did it take a lot of time to learn that?
Yeah, there was a little period of time where I feel like I was wandering a little bit.
Do you know what made the difference for you?
Like, late 20s. Probably like a year ago. [Laughs] No, but much later was when I started to feel like I was owning my own career and able to communicate what I wanted. It's part of just growing up.
So it wasn't a role in particular?
No, I think it was a period of time. Maybe around Dexter, but also-- It's A Disaster, it's such a nice affirmation to have it out now, and people responding well to it too. I remember saying to my agents, "I really believe in these guys."