Julia Stiles gets Shakespearean again: On murder, betrayal and the powerful women of "Riviera"

Salon talks to the "Riviera" star about what has and hasn't changed for her since "10 Things I Hate About You"

Published June 20, 2019 4:11PM (EDT)

 (AP/Grant Pollard)
(AP/Grant Pollard)

Julia Stiles became a breakout star in the well-regarded teen movies "Save the Last Dance" and "10 Things I Hate About You," transitioning to adult roles in films like the acclaimed "Silver Lining Playbook" and the Jason Bourne movie series. Now she's moved to the small screen in the glamorous Sundance Now series "Riviera," playing Georgina, the rich widow of a Greek billionaire with a deadly mystery on her hands. The second season of "Riviera" premieres June 20.

Stiles sat down in Salon's studio last week to talk about French lessons, raising a boy to be a good man, and why she gravitates toward strong roles.

"Riviera" is so much fun. You get to live in the South of France like half the year to film this thing. It's not a sham.

Yeah, it's not a bad gig. But it's great. We're lucky that, you know, the title character of the show, which is the French Riviera, we get to actually film on location. So, it looks expensive, hopefully.

It looks very expensive. So there's a lot of drama. It's in its second season, is renewed for a third. So congrats on that. I guess you get to spend a lot more time [there]. How's your French?

It's terrible. No, I'm working —

Maybe it's getting better.

I'm working on it. We go back to do the third season at the end of the summer, which I'm very excited about. My French, I didn't speak any before the first season. I was fluent in Spanish, and I thought, "Oh, I'll just get there, and I'll pick it up," because I fancy myself good at languages.

No, no, no.

I did. I picked up enough to communicate. I can order in a restaurant, I can get in a taxi, I can make small talk with people, but it's usually just present tense. Also, I end up sticking my foot in my mouth a lot. Because pronunciation in French is so specific, and doesn't really come easily to me.

But I'm still really bold and I want to practice. I refuse just to just speak English.

Good for you.

So I remember marching up to the sound guy on our show and I was like . . . oh, the word for slip, like a woman wears a slip under her dress, is nuisette, and the word for hazelnut is noisette. So I marched up to him and I said, what translates to, "Jean, I can't wear a microphone today, because I'm wearing a hazelnut." I happened to be filming a scene where I was wearing a slip. But anyway, he looked at me quite confused.

But maybe he was appreciative, because, you know what they say about the French. You have to really be showing an effort, and clearly.

I do. I try, and then everybody speaks English back to me.

Riviera has something for everyone, especially in today's sort of short attention span audience world. Beautiful people, gorgeous scenery, deceit, an unsolved murder, crime, high fashion. So what drew you to this role?

Part of me was like, "Oh, the South of France and fancy dresses, you know, high heels, sign me up. Glamour."

The concept behind the show was, behind every great fortune is a great crime, and I thought that was interesting. I was struck by this character, because she's the only American in the show, she doesn't come from wealth. So, she starts out as kind of the window into this world and the eyes of the audience, who can't really relate to people that have yachts, and helicopters, and drivers, and fancy mansions.

She's sort of passing in this world. Then what's intriguing to me is that she becomes corrupted by her surroundings. Yeah, there's a bit of the fantasy that we like with this glittery world, but, I think that the crime and the drama behind it is still sophisticated, and hopefully not too soapy.

For folks who have not seen the first season of the show, and now we've gotten a little bit of the backdrop, and I liked that you describe France as a character, as the main character. Could you summarize the story?

The first season is basically, my character is married to this billionaire, as you mentioned, and she comes back to the Riviera to find out that he's been murdered, or he's dead, and then she discovers it's a murder, and she's now hellbent on finding out what happened. She uncovers that, not only was he murdered, but there was fraud in their marriage, and the art collection that she had been helping him accumulate, he was forging a lot of paintings and selling them on the black market. So there was deceit in her marriage. Her world basically falls apart.

By the end of season one, she's been dealing with so much grief, when she discovers who's responsible, she ends up deliberately stabbing him and murdering somebody. So season two, we pick up right where we left off, and Georgina is going to have to figure out how she's going to get away with murder. Not only in terms of not getting caught, but in terms of her own conscience. Because she goes back to this family, back to the house that they live in, and has to watch every family member slowly start to grieve for the loss of their son or brother, and Georgina knows that she's the one that's responsible for it. So her conscience really eats away at her.

There's some pathos there, right? Your character, and a lot of the characters that we see, all have demons and secrets, right? That's what keeps this moving, keeps it interesting. They don't always make the best decisions, right? So, there's a humanity to Georgina, and I think that keeps fans rooting for her. So what parts of Georgina do you connect to?

She's doing the best that she can.

She is an otherwise good person, who does something that she's not proud of, but now is trying to figure out what she's going to do about it. What do I relate to with her? Well, I mean, for me it's more, is she compelling? Is she interesting? Oddly enough, I often go ask myself when we're in the middle of a scene, like, "Why does this girl stay here? Why does she stay right in the Riviera?"

Obviously, we wouldn't really have a TV show without that or, it would not include her. Because [me], I would get on a plane back to New York and get out of this family. What appeals to me about her is that she's kind of reckless in her determination to keep things together, and keep her life in order the way that she remembers it.

Absolutely. Now, when I think back to Kat in "10 Things I Hate About You," and Sara in "Save the Last Dance," these are characters that you've played almost, is it 20 years ago? I think 20 years ago.

Yeah, yeah.

They were feisty though, like Georgina. And she has a lot of these characteristics. So does playing her feel at all like a homecoming to some of your past work and those strengths?

I think the writers of "Riviera" respond to that strength, and so they enjoyed writing scenes for me and situations for me where that could be showcased. But it's nice to hear you say that. You know, I don't know how much of that was intentional, but I'm glad that that would be the way that you could characterize my work.

Absolutely. You as an actor probably choose roles based on things that you're drawn to, and your abilities, and also maybe something in yourself that you can pull out and emphasize, right?

The one thing that is challenging about "Riviera" is showing Georgina's vulnerability and her inner emotional world, because she's not a sociopath, and she's not a stone cold emotionless woman. But the thing is, she has no friends in this world, she doesn't trust anybody. We've set up a show where the love of her life has been killed. So she's grieving intensely, but she has to keep up this public face. So, for us, the challenge was how do we get in inside of her heart and her inner world?

Speaking to her strengths, and how perhaps uncommon it is to have a lead female role in a drama series, not so common. So is it hard to find a role like this?

I am so pleased, and it wasn't necessarily predicted that this show could so easily be about the male businessmen and moguls in Monaco, and in the French Riviera. It's actually become really largely about the women who are driving this. There's my character, and then Lena Olin plays the ex-wife of my late husband.

Now this season, Juliet Stevenson, a wonderful British actress, joins us, and she plays another wealthy woman in this world that has some secrets in her past. They're all powerhouses, you know? I mean, a show about wealthy people in the South of France doesn't have to be that.

No, and it was great to see Lena Olin again.

She's so good in this.

So amazing, right?

Julia Stiles: She's really talented.

So, let's bring it back to our location . . . We are in New York. And it's just about summer. So, as long as you don't trip on any rats in the streets, I feel like you're good. But you and I are both New York City born and raised kids. I learned to walk fast, and never look strangers in the eye, right?


Also not to take any shit, right? Here we come back to your characters. What about your upbringing here, have you used in your acting career?

I think with "Riviera," particularly, maybe not even intentionally, that directness has come out. So that Georgina, whether it's because of what the writers have written, or it's because of what I bring to the part, Georgina has this directness that the other characters don't have. You know how sometimes people speak in this sort of way that you have to read between the lines? That's the world that she's in, and Georgina's the one who just cuts to the chase.

Are you still a Mets fan?

I am. I am definitely a baseball fan, and especially the New York Mets. But I spend so much time not in the United States that, and now baseball, they don't care about baseball there, so it's hard for me to keep up so much.

You shifted to European sports, soccer?

I mean, yeah, I like soccer. I used to play soccer. We were filming in Nice when the World Cup happened, and we have a British and French crew. So when England and France were playing each other, there literally were mobs in the street. I did not go out. I did not leave the house.

Wow. Was it hard to get them to focus on work?

Well, I was really hoping that England and France would play in the, I think it was the final, but England didn't make it that far, because I just wanted to see what would happen on set.

Ah yes, rivalries, right? OK. So in your career, aside the films and the earlier TV work, I understand Shakespeare was a big influence for you, and something early on that you took on. Everything from inspirations of his modern day adaptations and early work. "Riviera" has a lot of these sort of Shakespearian elements, right? You know, the deceit, the murder, love, you know, all these family dramas. So did you draw on any of that training for this?

It is very funny that you say that, because I literally turned to the rest of the cast after the table read of episode six, and I was like, "If Shakespeare and the Greeks had a love child, it would be season two of 'Riviera.'" I meant that in a good way, because the drama is so heightened, and the world is heightened, and it's this tangled web of deceit and lies that affects all these characters. But I think you're along for the ride, you know, in the way that was so epic and it only really worked with Shakespeare and Greek tragedies.

We've seen you work prolifically for a long time, which is great. A lot of folks remember you probably as a child actress, and you're a mom now to a little boy. So, I have to ask the parenthood question, being a parent myself, and, you know, seeing all these evolutions and iterations of yourself, and all the things that we project coming from our own families. How has parenthood changed you?

Oh, it's wonderful. It's just so wonderful. It's a delight. Even in the most frustrating sleep-deprived moments, it's an absolute joy. He's the light of my life, I learn something new every day. I'm walking through life almost with new eyes, and my priorities have shifted. So I find that, you know, when I come home from a day at work, I'm not obsessing over every little line that I said, or what I looked like, you know? It's just a shift and it's been fantastic. I'm really happy.

What has he taught you? Because I know for myself, I've had to really work on my patience, and developing more of that in these challenging sleepless moments.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I hate to tell you, but my kids are literally almost eight and 11 and a half, and I'm still not getting a lot of sleep.

Oh, really?

One of mine still wakes up with nightmares. So, you're in for the long haul, right?

Right, right.

But, you know, patience.

I imagine it must be interesting to have him — is he on set? When you're in France, where is he when you're filming the show?

Yeah, he comes with me. We haven't spent a night apart. I'm kind of sensitive to when he's going to start missing Mommy, and getting worried that Mommy is going away at work, which gets to be more as they get older. So, I would often just have him come to set at lunchtime, so that I could fully focus on him, and also, I wasn't constantly being pulled away.

I've learned how to laugh a lot more with him. He's really funny, and makes me look at the world in a funny way. It brings out all this silly playfulness that I think maybe was missing for a second.

Definitely as we get grown, things tend to get more serious.

Then a lot of times, just kids are funny. Yeah. My daughter's funny too. They make me laugh all the time. Just the way that they look at things.

Because everything's new, and the enthusiasm and excitement for everything that's new in the world comes back, and I think that's really refreshing.

It is refreshing. So he's just little. But giving your upcoming in Hollywood and living through Me Too and Time's Up, what will you teach your son about being a good man?

That is also a really interesting question, and I talk about this and think about it all the time, because I'm raising a white boy, you know?

At his core he's really good and kind. But it's interesting, because I even talked about this with my husband. Right now we're dealing with how to let him be aggressive in certain ways, because he's going to have the boy thing, dare I say, where he wants to wrestle or fight or rough house. Yet, how do you keep that directed in a positive way?

So, I don't know, it's a challenge. But I think largely it's by example, and my husband is wonderful. We were at the park a while ago, and our son was playing with a fire truck, and this woman said, "Oh, are you going to be a fireman when you grow up? Are you going to be a doctor? You know, what are you going to be?" In a very pressured kind of way. My husband said to him, not to her, he said, "I just want you to be kind." Which I thought was a really good lesson, you know? So I think I have a good partner to help me.

Yes, absolutely. 

I chose wisely.

We have a question from Thomas, who writes, "Do you specifically seek out strong characters? Or do you sense others see you that way, and so that is what you are offered?" Is it a vicious circle, I guess, is he saying?

I'm not sure, but I think that it's both, honestly. I mean, I know that the producers and writers of "Riviera" had mentioned that one of the reasons that they thought of me for this part was for what you said, a strength that I have shown. But I think I also, you know, when I look at certain roles, I like playing characters that show vulnerability and show weaknesses, and don't always make the right decisions. But I tend to choose the stronger choice.

Also, because a lot of times we're playing pretend in this world where we get to act out the things that we don't really get to do in real life. So, you can have the monologue, the tirade where you got to stick up for yourself and be really forceful and articulate, and make the demands that you wanted that you don't get to do in real life, or you wish you could.

You know, like when you had that thing where if only you'd thought quick enough, you would've told the person off?

I have some French.

L'esprit d'escalier? Do you know what that is? You know that this is a good expression for you in France.

It's the spirit of the stairs.  Like what you would have said, if only you had thought of the great retort in the moment.

I love that.

The spirit of the staircase. Yeah. Yeah, that's it, yeah.

That's beautiful. I'm definitely gonna use that.

Use it. I wonder how much of an idiom that is. I don't know how many French people, modern French people use that, but I can look it up.

I'm going to test it out when we can go back to season three. But yes, it's when you had that retort that you wished that you could have said. We get to script it and actually say it, so that may be what I gravitate towards.

You just wrapped, as I understand, filming with Cardi B and J Lo on "Hustlers."

I think it's coming out in September. But we did just finish it. I'm so excited. It's a fascinating story, really cool cast. But it's a true story based on a New York Magazine article about these strippers at Scores here in New York, who when they stopped bringing in as much money, they came up with this hustle to drug the men that would come in there and just run up huge credit card tabs. They ended up making millions and eventually getting caught.

Luckily nobody, you know, died in the process. But I just think it's fascinating. I told the director, I was like, "I don't care, I will sweep the floors, I will make coffee for everybody, I just want to be a part of this movie." I do not a play stripper. I play the journalist who covered the story and interviews all these women, and hopefully makes the audience understand kind of why they did what they did.

I always found the practice of exotic dancing like a big sociology experiment for the women who do it. It's an income, you know? They don't call themselves strippers, I think they call themselves adult dancers.

I remember when that story came out. You know, and how smart that was. Illegal, but very smart.

I mean, it's dangerous, but they're kind of entrepreneurs, or at least, it was a hustle, you know? Then, and my character says to one of them in the interview, you know, "I know I'm supposed to feel bad for these guys, but I honestly don't." It's because, you know, we see what the treatment was on the other side.

It's a business transaction. So they were just adding a little danger into it.

As you mentioned, you're not an exotic dancer in this [film]. But did you, I assume to just get a sense of place, you don't go to the New York Magazine offices, you go to Scores or Tens, or whatever the clubs are now. That's what they were when I was growing up.

I am such a nerd. I got to meet and have lunch with, at her home, Jessica Pressler, the journalist that I play. So I got to ask her a million questions, but I was too timid or nerdy to actually go a club. But you know what? Actually, I don't think that that really mattered, in terms of what I had to do for the movie.

For me it was more about, I guess how to, you know, do I take notes? Do I use a tape recorder? Or what kind of questions do I ask? How do I get these women to open up and confide in me and not feel judged?


By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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