This is an edited reprint of our interview from the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival. "It's a Disaster" opens on in New York and LA on April 12th. It's currently available on VOD.
Julia Stiles has had a long and varied career since her breakout role opposite Heath Ledger in "10 Things I Hate About You," the '90s high school adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." Since then she's been a Jason Bourne accomplice, danced with death on TV's "Dexter," delivered David Mamet dialogue on stage, and currently has a spate of new high profile film roles coming up. We caught up with the New Yorker on the phone on the eve of the world premiere of her latest flick, "It's a Disaster."
"It's a Disaster" is the creative project of comedy troupe The Vacationeers (director Todd Berger and cast members/producers Kevin M. Brennan, Jeff Grace and Blaise Miller, whose previous efforts include many web videos and the feature film "The Scenesters"). Stiles appeared in the viral video "Julia Stiles Styles" helmed by the group, and she described getting involved with them a few years ago and the genesis of her involvement in the film: "I was in LA working on a play, a David Mamet play that ended up going to New York, but I met them through a mutual friend, and we were hanging out, and I had seen the videos they had done spoofing Google, and I thought that they were very clever. We were just hanging out and talking about how it would be fun to do a viral video. I am actually a little afraid of the Internet, but I was just impressed that instead of sitting around talking about what they want to do, they actually just go out and make videos and movies. They showed me their first movie, 'The Scenesters,' that I really liked, and about a year later, Todd sent me the script for 'It's a Disaster,' and I thought it was really clever, I was laughing as I was reading it, so I thought why not? America Ferrera signed on and then David Cross as they got their financing in place, and we were able to go and shoot it."
We asked Stiles about working with David Cross, who plays her onscreen counterpart in the story of a couples' brunch that is interrupted by a world-ending incident of chemical warfare. She said, "it was delightful. I was a fan before I had met him, and he's incredibly intelligent, his humor and especially his standup, there's a lot of wit and intelligence behind that." In one of the climactic scenes, Stiles confessed that she "had a really hard time not laughing, I ended up messing up a lot of takes, because of the look on his face." All of the characters in the film bounce off and interact with each other in various ways to increasingly weird results, so we asked Stiles to expound on her understanding of her character, the tightly wound Tracy. "Todd said to me when he sent me the script that every character represented a different stage of mourning, acceptance, anger, denial, and Tracy was denial. The thing that interested me the most about her, is that she's the one who has the most delayed reaction, and then finally when she does accept the reality of this imminent apocalypse, she's still so focused on the guy that she's with. Instead of actually thinking about what's going on outside, she's up until the very last moment, concerned about the date that she's brought, which to me is hilarious,"she said. "Her very last words are about how she wants the last word and she wants everyone to validate that her perception of this guy was right. Which is ridiculously unimportant if the world's about to end." The entire film manages to balance that tension between problems both trivial and epic, as these eight characters attempt to deal with them all during one afternoon.
"It's a Disaster" isn't a straight comedy, it's a delicate balance of tone between serious relationship and life issues with more absurdist situational, character-driven comedic moments. But it's definitely a step in a new direction for Stiles, and she is rewarded with some of the best lines in the film. She referred to this new direction saying, "one of the reasons I really liked this comedy is because it's a different style of comedy, it's not very broad, there are characters that are broad, but I thought it was the perfect set up for a situation. It was very character based, so each character is responding in their own weird way." With a varied career crossing mutiple genres, she described her process in choosing films as "it doesn't really matter the medium, it doesn't really matter the size of the movie, if it's a studio movie or an independent film, it doesn't matter if it's a web series or a play, for me my focus is on the material and working with the directors. I feel like a lot of the work that I've done, may seem, dare I say, eclectic, or all over the place, but that's only a reflection of my mood, one minute I'm interested in playing a girl who is brutally raped and then exacting revenge in 'Dexter' and it's very dark and serious, and then the next minute I want to do something lighter. One minute I really am in awe of filmmakers and I want to be working in film, and then the next minute I get the itch to get back on stage."
Speaking of choices in projects, Stiles recently did the web series "Blue" and of course featured among the ensemble in David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" and has the new John Crowley thriller "Closed Circuit" with Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall, which she shot in London last year ("It's a political thriller about a bomb that goes off in London and I play a journalist"). Of course, with "The Bourne Legacy" hitting theaters last summer, we had to ask about her character's role (or lack of) in that reboot of the franchise in which she starred in three installments. Stiles said, "Once Tony Gilroy ended up writing and directing it, I think that really changed the whole scope of the story. I was at a screening of the movie and Tony came up to me and was very apologetic, but also explained to me that he wanted to find a way to fit in my character, but it didn't work and it's largely because she's so tied to Matt Damon's character."