Julia Stiles talks role in Off-Broadway play ‘Phoenix’

Julia Stiles has a fondness for the unexpected. Or so it would seem glancing at her wide-ranging resume, which includes teen romance films (“Save the Last Dance”), blockbusters (Matt Damon’s “Bourne” franchise), plus stints onstage (Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” David Mamet’s “Oleanna”), on the small screen (she played a serial killer on “Dexter,” earning Golden Globe and Emmy nominations) and the computer screen (starring in the popular WIGS Web series “Blue” and writing and directing “Paloma”).

This summer, Stiles stars Off-Broadway with up-and-comer James Wirt in “Phoenix,” a two-person dark romantic comedy by Scott Organ now in previews at the Cherry Lane Theatre (it opens Thursday and runs through Aug. 23).

The play explores the ups and downs — and the tempting yet terrifying more-than-one-nightness potential — of a one-night stand. Stiles, 33, who lives in Manhattan, recently sat down with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio before a rehearsal.

I gather “Phoenix” all began with a phone call.

I knew the director — she called and said, “I had a dream we should do a play together.” Coincidentally, I was itching to get back onstage.

Why?

To get back to all the reasons why I wanted to be an actress in the first place. Compared to film or television, theater is more interactive, collaborative. And I loved the script. I actually have a very short attention span when it comes to reading. But I wasn’t fidgeting with this. It’s not cynical. It has a sense of humor — which is nice for summer. I’d read other plays about incest and … dark, dark things, and I thought, I don’t want to do that every day.

The slogan for this play is something like “Don’t think a one-night stand only lasts one night.” Which seems optimistic … or a nightmare.

I know. The play’s about our fight or flight instinct with relationships. My character’s nomadic and avoids intimacy. The guy’s thinking, “Maybe there’s potential here,” but she just runs away from it. James is funny. He’s obviously very attractive, a handsome guy, but he’s really goofy and you wouldn’t expect that. Or at least I didn’t.

You, your co-star and director are all working on a film together, too — about silent-screen star Mary Pickford.

It’s called “The First,” and deals with the way actors became celebrities back in the golden age of cinema. Lily Rabe plays Mary Pickford, I play a screenwriter, Frances Marion, and James is Charlie Chaplin.

You’re a writer yourself. You wrote and directed a short film and the Web series “Paloma.”

I really, really love getting behind a camera. Eventually I’d like to tackle a feature. I’ve been looking at screenplays others have written, and I’ve been trying to write one with a friend. At my heart, I’m a performer but the two pursuits complement each other.

Must be nice working in your hometown for the summer. You grew up in New York, didn’t you?

In SoHo.

Before it turned into a big Galleria mall.

Totally. It was industrial. Artists had taken over loft spaces. It was a new frontier.

My favorite street in New York was always Greene Street.

I grew up on Greene Street. Between Grand and Canal.

You’re kidding! I love the cobblestones, and it used to have a cool assortment of funky, eclectic shops.

I remember as a preteen, they dug up the asphalt to reveal the original cobblestones, and they replaced the ugly aluminum lampposts with ones that seem more old-fashioned.

So you’re a New Yorker. And a Mets fan.

I love baseball. As a teenager, I was a contrarian, and picked the underdog instead of just rooting for the Yankees. It’s a hard team to root for, but there’s something that always keeps me hopeful. I actually love listening to baseball. I really get into the announcers. It’s almost like Valium. It totally relaxes me. I like listening to the radio more than going to the games, although I love the old stadiums, like Fenway and Wrigley Field. They’re beautiful and simple — they sell hot dogs, pretzels, beer — that’s it.

I was reading your Twitter feed, and one of your posts begins, “People!”

[She immediately starts laughing, knowing the tweet in question.]

“The spitting in New York has got to stop!” I thought, this must come from the heart.

It really did. I was reluctant to join Twitter. My biggest concern was, I don’t want these thoughts that pop into my brain to be immediately broadcast. There’s a danger in that. And also — who cares? But that tweet was a moment when I was kind of laughing at the absurdity of New York and how crowded it is. And I think somebody had just spit right in front of me. I thought, “Aaaah, I’ll tweet about it.”

Julia Stiles Interview 2014

Moving to a new home is said to be one of the most stressful events you can endure — up there with death and divorce — but Julia Stiles has just done it and looks radiant.

The Emmy Award- and Golden Globe-nominee sat down before rehearsals of her new play only hours after moving from her longtime three-bedroom apartment on 15th Street to a new one-bedroom East Village space.

“I feel great about it. Downsizing. Simplifying. I gave away lots of stuff. It feels like shedding your skin,” she says. “It was time for a change.”

Gone were books she’d already read. Gone was most of her furniture she’d accumulated over a decade. She even donated her piano to a music school. A lot of stuff went out on the street. “I had to be brutal,” she says.

Change is not something Stiles is uncomfortable with, having jumped into projects as diverse as William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” to being a serial killer on “Dexter,” to her own scripted show on YouTube.

“I’m such a child that I just want to show up and play dress up. I’m not very good at the long term plans,” she says. “I’ve kind of embraced that my work is always in flux.”

This summer, the flux has put Stiles at the intimate Cherry Lane Theatre for a production of the one-act dark romantic comedy “Phoenix” by Scott Organ, which the actress calls “really charming and really romantic.”

Stiles and co-star James Wirt play one-time lovers who meet several weeks after a one-night-stand to discuss the consequences. “I thought it was refreshing that it’s not cynical,” she says.

Stiles, 33, had been looking for a play that she and director Jennifer DeLia could work on together. They wanted something small and something downtown — where the actress began her career with the tiny Ridge Theater company.

“For me, it makes sense because it’s getting back to my roots and also why I wanted to be an actress in the first place,” Stiles says. “At its core, it’s very simply what I find delightful.”

Rising star Wirt, who was a fan of Stiles from “Dexter,” soon rented “10 Things I Hate About You” to learn more about his co-star. He says her love of acting is clear in her decision to pick a 180-seat theater to showcase a new playwright.

“You see it just to do this play. This little play, in the summer, in the West Village, for the love of the game,” says Wirt, who also stars in DeLia’s film “Billy Bates.” ”That’s what it is: For the love of the game. Period. That’s a joy to be around.”

Stiles’ credits also include being in the “Bourne” franchise with Matt Damon, David Mamet’s play “Oleanna” in the West End and Broadway and the films “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Mona Lisa Smile.”

More recently, Stiles has been among the first A-list actresses to embrace online storytelling, starring in the hit WIGS web series “Blue” as a mother juggling raising her son with being a high-end escort, and writing and directing “Paloma,” another WIGS series which stars Grace Gummer navigating modern life. Both are available on YouTube and Hulu.

“Years ago, it seemed like the content wouldn’t be as sophisticated as a proper TV show or proper movie, but I could feel that was changing,” said Stiles. “I feel like my decision to do that without being able to predict the future was rewarded because it was for the right reason.”

On the horizon is a movie directed by DeLia about silent film star Mary Pickford in which Wirt will play Charlie Chaplin and Stiles will star as Frances Marion, one of the top screenwriters during the early 20th Century.

“My work is a little bit of a hodgepodge,” says Stiles. “My career has been this conglomerate of all these different mediums. I’m believing more and more in that expression, ‘You don’t pick the part. The part picks you.'”