For the next 10 days, Hollywood will shift to the slopes of Park City, Utah as scores of independent filmmakers will exhibit their work at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, hoping the festival serves as their coveted “breakout”. Twenty-six years ago, breakouts included Darren Aronofsky (for his debut feature Pi) and Todd Philips (for his infamous documentary Frat House). Lesser known is that Sundance 1998 was the breakout for Julia Stiles, whose turn as the sinister Ellie Christianson in Wicked made her “the darling” of the festival.
Wicked, directed by Michael Steinberg and produced by Frank Beddor, is a genre-bending thriller which Ain’t it Cool News called a “gem of the macabre,” blends noir and camp in telling the story of the twisted Christianson family. Living in the seemingly idyllic upper middle class gated community of Casa Del Norte, it might seem like the Christianson’s live a charmed life, but that facade is in constant danger of crumbling. Karen and Ben are in a loveless marriage, each involved in their own affairs. Karen with the next-door neighbor Lawson and Ben with the family’s nanny, Lena. Stiles dazzles as fourteen-year-old Ellie, an intense teen who despises her mother but is obsessed her father. The story turns sinister when Karen is brutally murdered. Ellie relishes stepping into the void left by her mother as she prepares the family’s meals, wears Karen’s clothes, and deepens her relationship with Ben in a shocking twist. All while the grizzled veteran Detective Boland begins to suspect the teenage Electra may not be so innocent in the death of her mother.
Wicked took the festival circuit by storm, earning rave reviews for its bold take on suburban dysfunction and the blended tone. John Cooper in the Sundance 1998 program called the film “an exhilarating hybrid that continuously surprises and amuses,” while Sandy Gow wrote in their description for the Vancouver International Film Festival that “Wicked is one of those films that sucks you into its twisted realm so subtly you don’t realize how far your mind has been bent until you leave the theater.” But the most ardent praise was reserved for Stiles, who took home the Best Actress award at the 1998 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Brendan Peterson writing for Film/Tape World said she was “destined for greatness” while Michael Hogan in Vanity Fair wrote, “Stiles gives a smoldering performance of Wicked.” The stage was set for a career-defining reception at the country’s biggest film festival.
Although only sixteen-years-old, Julia Stiles was not a rookie when she stepped into the warped mind of Ellie Christianson. Growing up in the artistic enclave of SoHo, Stiles began acting in avant-garde theater at 11 after sending a letter to the director of the La MaMa Theatre Company asking to audition. Film and television roles quickly followed, including the David E. Kelley medical drama Chicago Hope and a turn as Harrison Ford’s daughter in the 1997 action thriller The Devil’s Own also starring Brad Pitt.
That tenacity Stiles displayed early in her career would serve her well during the casting process for Wicked. Director Michael Steinberg (The Waterdance, Bodies, Rest & Motion) said, “The only condition Frank (producer Frank Beddor) and I set in advance of making the picture was that we had to find the right Ellie.” Beddor credited a little luck in finding their star: “I was helping to produce a short film for acting coach Larry Moses and his Director of Photography recommended a young actress. This was the first I heard of Julia Stiles.”
Beddor and Steinberg sent the script to Stiles’ manager and quickly received a hand-written letter from the teenager expressing her interest in the role. In an interview with MovieMaker, Stiles recounted what drew her to the role: “It’s a fantastic character…I constantly want to shock people. I’d much rather do a risky, groundbreaking movie than one that’s ambivalent. The key is to first shock people, then make them like it.” Beddor flew Stiles out to Los Angeles for an audition with Steinberg. “Julia and I started improvising scenes for Michael,” remembered Beddor, “and we knew…she was Ellie. She had IT. I sensed I had an opportunity to help launch…a real movie star.”
The key to Stiles’ breakthrough performance was her nuanced understanding of Ellie and her ability to inhabit her character’s mind. In an interview with Mark Ebner for Black Book, Stiles said, “I understood Ellie. Everything she feels in the story, I have felt in some form in my life…it’s obvious on the surface that I wouldn’t carry on in my life the way Ellie feels about her father. I love my dad, but not the way she did. I couldn’t see it from the outside and look in and say, ‘Well, she’s a psycho who’s in love with her father and wants to kill her mother.’ I had to be her. I was just thinking, I’m just in love. And being angry with my mother was just anger. It just took the bare, raw emotions of love, anger, jealousy, deceit, and betrayal.”
That rare combination of acting chops and understanding of human psychology at only sixteen resulted in a powerhouse performance, one in which Stiles imbues Ellie with rage, danger, and vulnerability. It was the type of brave, daring turn that Sundance embraces. Jose Martinez of SOMA Magazine wrote that it was a “hell bent breakthrough performance…destined to grab an audience’s attention.” That line turned out to be prophetic after a line of teens crowded outside the theater clamoring for Stiles’ autograph after the film’s Sundance screening.
Stiles’ Sundance success wasn’t just limited to her on-camera work, however. She also earned the distinction of being the youngest writer invited to the prestigious Sundance Writers Lab for her co-written screenplay, The Anarchist’s Daughter, which follows a Lower East side “punk” who tries to figure out what insanity is by tripping on acid. Oscar winning scribe Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible, and Top Gun: Maverick) served as a mentor for the program and said that Julia “has the one essential thing that you need to succeed with any hope of keeping your soul: she knows exactly what she wants.”
Stiles’ breakthrough at Sundance proved to be a launch pad for the rest of her career. Off the strength of her performance as Ellie, Stiles was cast as the headstrong Kat Stratford in Gil Junger’s teen classic 10 Things I Hate About You opposite Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Kat’s tough exterior and vulnerable core parallel Ellie’s character in a lot of ways and it’s easy to see why the filmmakers tapped Stiles for the role after seeing her work in Wicked. The Shakespeare update became a pop culture hit and Stiles was feted as one of the new faces in Hollywood and was featured in a Seventeen Magazine profile and graced the cover of Vanity Fair alongside other rising stars Adrien Brody, Reese Witherspoon, and Kate Hudson.
But the outpouring of positive press didn’t affect Stiles’ seriousness about her profession. “What I wanna do is be like a chameleon,” she said, “a Laurence Olivier playing different roles.” It’s safe to say she’s done just that. Stiles’ credit list includes O, The Bourne films opposite Matt Damon, Mona Lisa Smile alongside Julia Roberts, and Silver Linings Playbook as Jennifer Lawrence’s sister. Stiles has also taken her talents to TV with a 10 episode run on Dexter and a starring role in the Amazon comedy The Lake. Stiles has also undertaken important charity work including working for Habitat for Humanity and Amnesty International. She has produced a body of excellent work in a long and diverse career, one that was jump started on the Sundance slopes due to a daring indie titled Wicked.
An itinerant storyteller, John Drain attended the University of Edinburgh before studying film at DePaul University in Chicago and later earned an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. John focuses on writing mysteries and thrillers featuring characters who are thrown into the deep end of the pool and struggle to just keep their heads above water. His work has been recognized by the Academy Nicholls Fellowship, the Austin Film Festival, ScreenCraft, Cinestory, and the Montreal Independent Film Festival. In a previous life, John created and produced theme park attractions across the globe for a wide variety of audiences. John keeps busy in his spare time with three Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and a seemingly never-ending stack of medieval history books.