Julia Stiles enters the small French café a blur of apologies. She was running late, she went to the wrong address — "I'm a jackass," she says, shaking her head sheepishly. "I'm the one who suggested this place, and I can't even show up on time!"
As she makes a little pantomime of rushing to her seat, in her gray jeans, skinny purple V-neck sweater, chunky black clogs and silver thumb ring, she looks a lot like the college student that, just a year ago, she actually was. In fact, there's hardly a trace of the red carpet to this 25-year-old, whose preternaturally clear skin, huge brown eyes and unfussy blonde hair make her look more like the girl on the Swiss Miss cocoa box than Miss Hollywood. For her part, Stiles swears she's often mistaken for a Scandinavian tourist on the streets of her native New York City, especially when she wears a particular jacket with a cheery sunburst appliqué on the back. "I feel like there has to be a reason why Scandinavian people always approach me and ask me for directions," she says.
Luckily for those wayward Scandinavians, Stiles isn't one to pull a "Don't you know who I am?" But we certainly do know: She's been a working actress since age 12 — after she famously wrote a letter, in crayon, to the director of an avant-garde theater company, looking for roles. ("I was very naive," she explains, smiling.) She made a name for herself doing Shakespeare, both mass-market adaptations (10 Things I Hate About You, in 1999) and "thinky" stage performances (Twelfth Night in NYC's Shakespeare in the Park, in 2002). She's done feel-good popcorn flicks like Save the Last Dance and Mona Lisa Smile and horror-thrillers like this month's remake of The Omen. It's a movie she says she was initially "too chicken" to do, because she's prone to superstition — and even though she says she's better now than she used to be, she knocks on wood about twice every hour. While she's still in the process of learning how to let that particular quirk go, here are 10 things she's learned for sure so far:
1."'Family' are the people you call when you arrive in a foreign country."
Considering that Stiles traveled to both Prague and Dublin for The Omen, she's no stranger to the loneliness that comes with a well-stamped passport. Her family is a large part of why she lives in New York: "My whole family is here. Why would I want to leave...other than to go to the beach?" she jokes. She adds that when holding the pint-size actor who played the baby devil in The Omen, "I felt like I really didn't know how to behave around a child, because it was nothing like holding my little brother or sister [when they were babies]."
Stiles does have one secret weapon for combating homesickness: her security blanket, Blanky, which was given to her when she was a baby by her great-aunt and namesake, Julia. (Blanky for the record, is a he. "I mean, I always thought it was a little bit neutral, but it's definitely on the masculine side. Isn't that weird?" she asks. "What would Dr. Freud say?") "If I'm going away for a long time, I take it with me, but not if it's just a few nights," she explains. "It's very complicated, the blanket, because I don't want to feel homesick, so I bring him with me. But what if I lost him? What if he got put in the laundry with the hotel sheets?" She shakes her head in dismay at the mere thought. She's had to grapple with important Blanky issues at home, too: For instance, is there room enough in her bed for her male blanket and a real, live male? "Oh, I can share my blanky," she says, laughing. "I can sleep with Blanky and a man. It actually is a good test, though. Like, if he rolls over onto Blanky and I don't get mad, it's a good sign."
2. "Men are as complex and varied as women."
Stiles is understandably tight-lipped about her relationship with artist Jonathan Cramer (a name that needed to be Googled, since she didn't even come out and say it) — and not just because she believes in jinxing things. "I've learned a lot from him, because he's in a totally different creative profession. And he's a wonderful human being, and I'm madly in love," she says, smiling. "But out of respect for him, I try not to talk about him when he's not here to speak for himself. Because it would be weird to read about yourself in an article." Or, worse yet, be used as some sort of pawn in the game of showbiz publicity. "I would hate for him to think our relationship can be used to promote a film. You could see how he would hate that, right?" Then, in a playfully dismissive, really-don't-worry-about-me way, she adds, "But he's wonderful, and I'm really happy."
3. "Power tools are extremely fun to use, once you know how. So find yourself a fix-it man, quick."
Stiles came by her power-tool know-how honestly (and nobly): On two different occasions, she's spent several weeks building houses in Costa Rica with Habitat for Humanity. "It's a concrete way of making improvements," she says, grimacing. "No pun intended." The jobs Habitat had her doing were decidedly unglamorous: "On the first house, I dug ditches, I mixed cement blocks," she recalls. "On the second house, I did more finishing work, putting up drywall. It's pretty cool to learn how to do that stuff. As a girl, nobody ever teaches you construction or anything like that." It's a point that was driven home recently: Stiles felt like she was being taken for a dingbat at her local hardware store, when she was trying to rebuild a roof deck that had caved in over her apartment. "I'd go in there, and everyone assumed that I didn't know what I was talking about. So I would make a mistake, buy the wrong screws, measure the wood wrong or whatever, and then I'd have to go back and do it again," she sighs. "It took me a long time. I would call my dad and say, 'I'm trying to do this, so what do I do?' And I would hear him laughing on the other end, like 'Okay, you want to do it yourself!' But I was determined to do it. It might have been boring to anyone else, but it was a big deal for me."
4. "If women could channel all the time and energy they spend on diets and food issues into something else, we'd be running the world. Or maybe I'm crazy."
Clearly, Stiles has her passions and political concerns, but the cliché of the actress with big, worldly opinions and causes — until her 2 o'clock hair and nail appointment, anyway — makes her laugh and say, "Oh, no. Reel it back in!" Then she adds, "I have to do that, too... It's a little absurd for me to pretend to know the answers to things that are, you know, really our of my jurisdiction. So I always feel silly," she says. "As a celebrity, I'm kind of stuck. I have to accept that I'm going to get a certain amount of attention whether I deserve it or not, and maybe I want to use that for some kind of good, you know?" Her official Website, juliastiles.net, is a bare-bones affair, with just three sections: the spare home page (showing her moody art photos of Iceland), the news (mostly Playbill info from her stage work) and a direct link to the grassroots political-activism site MoveOn.org.
5. "Hollywood is a big sign by those hills in California."
Home is — and always has been — New York City. "It would probably help my career if I lived in L.A., but I think it would be all-consuming," she says. "New York has its own little rat race going on, too. But it's also really diverse and has a lot of people doing different kinds of jobs. In L.A., work would be the only thing I'd think about, and sometimes, I need a break from that." (Indeed, she's in the process of trying to coproduce her first film, an adaptation of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. But even from a distance of 3,000 miles, Stiles can find herself succumbing to the expectations of looking the part — or tipping the scales — of an actress. "It actually makes perfect sense why women in Hollywood get so skinny, because it's a way of controlling how people see you. I think the culture of the red carpet is too much like a modern-day coliseum. If you're being photographed all the time, and you don't like having a bad photograph taken, and if you're super, superthin, chances are you're never going to look fat in a picture." She admits she's not immune to it: "I get caught up in that trap in the sense that what I think is attractive is affected by it," she says. "I really just try my best to pay attention to what makes me feel good, what makes me feel strong and energetic and healthy and attractive." (Right now, that would be swimming laps at a local gym — hair color be damned — because she finds it meditative: "I sort of get high off it.")