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Julia Stiles on Closed Circuit, Ditching Her Cell, and Wanting to Direct a Movie

Julia Stiles. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Julia Stiles plays an intrepid New York Times reporter in Closed Circuit, a legal thriller in which the British government has deemed some of the evidence in a terrorist bombing case to be so classified that it can’t even be shared with the defendant or his defense attorney. (Instead, a special advocate who has access to the secret material is designated, but she is not allowed to share or discuss the information except in closed sessions of the court.) One defense attorney dies, after digging too deep into the case, so Eric Bana steps in to replace him. Enter Stiles’s character Johanna Reese, who hunts Bana down at a brunch to help him connect the dots. Stiles chatted with Vulture about surveillance issues, spontaneous moments in her films, and getting more women in the director’s chair.

Your character in Closed Circuit reminds me of Paddy Considine of the Bourne movies, the journalist who uncovers a spy conspiracy and is under surveillance, under threat, as a result. It’s dangerous to be the person who discloses or is about to disclose the information that the government wants to be kept secret, or the methods used to fight terrorism.
Right, right! And also, especially in The Bourne Supremacy, I felt like there was a similarity in that my character provides a lot of information, but there’s still some suspense surrounding her, and there’s a heightened level of tension because she’s in a dangerous situation, or getting closer to a dangerous situation. One of the things that I love about this movie [is] that as much as it’s an entertaining thriller, it’s very timely, in terms of surveillance over the Internet and telephones, with everything that’s going on with Edward Snowden. I think the average person doesn’t really worry about “Is the government going to think I’m linked to a terrorist bombing?” but it’s still a bigger question of when do we draw the line and say, “How much privacy are we giving up, and at what cost?” You know? Our e-mails are being recorded. Our phone conversations are being monitored. It could be minor infringements, but we don’t have privacy anymore with the companies that sell things to us. It seems innocuous that Facebook would give away information to companies that want to use it for market research, but that’s still a violation of privacy!

You were reluctant to join Facebook and Twitter at first, right?
Oh, yeah. I mean, not because I didn’t want my information to be recorded, but I guess initially with Facebook … It seems like so long ago, and it wasn’t! These things grow and become a part of your life in such a fast way, once you sign up. I actually have this fantasy of giving up my cell phone. [Laughs] It’s probably really impractical, but it would be really interesting, if you just tried it for a week or a month? To say to your friends, “If you want to contact me, e-mail me,” or if you have a landline with an answering machine, say, “Call and leave a message if I’m not home.” Just to like end an addiction — get rid of your cell phone and not be able to text-message impulsively, you know? I wonder what would happen. It would be an interesting experiment.

In addition to starring in Blue, you recently wrote and directed some of the WIGS series, the Paloma episodes with Grace Gummer. Are you inching toward directing a film yourself?
Yeah! I would love to direct a film. For me, what’s wonderful about directing the web series is that it’s a shorter format, which I really appreciate. It’s great practice. In terms of directing a feature, I’d want the story to be right — you know, it’s a year of your life, and you have to be focused on one thing, so I want it to be a story that I really, really care about and will enjoy making. And experiencing being in an editing room has been immensely helpful for me in terms of acting. For some actors, that can be dangerous, because it could make you self-conscious. But if I trust my director, it helps me to surrender to the fact that you can’t really control your performance. If they want to discover something spontaneous that could happen on set, versus having a preconceived idea of the results they want? The best working experiences I’ve had are with directors who want to create with you while you’re on set. I prefer a much freer environment. That’s why I’m always trying to mess things up, just to know that I can!

Okay, then what are some of the unexpected moments you’ve had on your past films?
On Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell is the master at getting his actors to give him something that he doesn’t expect. He loves to keep things spontaneous. He talks to the actors throughout a take, because in real life, you don’t know what the next person is going to say, you don’t know when you’re going to get interrupted. That dinner scene, there were about five different ways that the scene played out. There was one version where we all started screaming at each other. There was one version where I burst into tears.

You were thinking about how there should be more women directors after you presented at the Director’s Guild Awards. How do we rectify that?
It’s changing, more and more. I recently saw Lake Bell’s movie that she directed, In a World, and Sarah Polley just had her third film come out that she directed. I think the more I see other women directing, the more inspired I am to pursue that, and to believe that I can do that. Paul Greengrass said to me, years ago, that the first step in directing is to just do it. It’s almost similar to what Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In: No one is going to come and wave a magic wand and say, “I want you to direct something.” I’m not saying women expect that, but from my perspective as an actress, you go on auditions and you’re trying to launch a career and you want someone to come along and say, “I pick you.” You have to pick you.

Julia Stiles Wants to Direct a Movie Too