Even for a self-assured Hollywood star with a string of critically acclaimed performances on her résumé, treading the boards in London's West End can be a scary experience. And it doesn't help when a member of the audience is urging her co-star to kill her. For Julia Stiles, that unnerving moment came at the dramatic climax of the first preview show of the David Mamet play Oleanna, her London debut. She plays the student protagonist, who tenuously accuses her teacher of sexual harassment, and torments him until he snaps. As Stiles lay on the stage and her co-star, fellow Hollywood denizen Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich, Paycheck) raised a chair as if to strike her, a woman in the front row of the Garrick Theatre shouted: "Do it!"
Stiles, 23, was shaken. "It was so frightening," Eckhart says, speaking to TIME the day after the incident. "She was in such close proximity to me and you have to take it personally. It was the most traumatic thing!" It happened again during the third preview show: this time, it was a man in the audience who encouraged Eckhart to slam the chair down on the supine actress. But by the time the show had opened commercially last Thursday, Stiles had learned to take advantage of the audience's hatred. "It made me feel some of my character's fear, and the scene suddenly worked. It taught me that you have to believe in what you're doing onstage in a way that you don't quite on film. The audience will feel viscerally whether I'm faking or not."
That's what she's come to London to do: learn. Theater, says Stiles, "is like going to acting gym, exercising your muscles." In recent years, a galaxy of Hollywood stars from Nicole Kidman and Kevin Spacey to Matthew Perry and Kyle MacLachlan have signed up for the West End workout. This season is no exception. Gillian Anderson, the ex-X-Files star, is winning raves as a psychiatric patient in Rebecca Gilman's The Sweetest Swing in Baseball at the Royal Court. American Pie alum Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Beverly Hills 90210) are earning sneers in When Harry Met Sally at the Theatre Royal. Coming this summer: Matthew Lillard (Scream, the Scooby Doo films) in David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers at the Arts Theatre; Alicia Witt (Vanilla Sky) in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things at the New Ambassadors; Holly Hunter in Marina Carr's By the Bog of Cats; and Dianne Wiest in Kathleen Tolan's The Memory House. Oh, and Spacey begins his directorship of the Old Vic in the fall with Dutch playwright Maria Goos' Cloaca.
As that checkered list suggests, some stars use a stint in London in hopes of reviving their flagging movie careers; others hope to earn serious acting cred. Stiles needs neither. Her career has been on a steep climb since her riveting turn as the formidable but deeply pained student Kat in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You, a loose reworking of The Taming of the Shrew. In her current release, Mona Lisa Smile, Stiles makes an impression despite the film's obsessive devotion to Julia Roberts' toothy grin. But it is Stiles' ability to channel dangerous, damaged characters that has won her a reputation as one of her generation's most promising performers. Let Reese Witherspoon do the cutesy-blonde thing and Anna Paquin play the angst-y ingenue. Stiles excels at playing the man-eater, like the calculating teenager who sets out to seduce Alec Baldwin's movie star in 2000's State And Main, another Mamet script. It looks a natural, but Stiles says it's anything but. "You have to really work to find the humanity of characters in films," she says, "because they're removed from the audience."
Her breakout performance came the following year in the critically acclaimed (if commercially unspectacular) The Business of Strangers, playing a businesswoman who sets out to revenge herself on all men by shades of Oleanna accusing one of rape. Her malevolent turn earned Stiles comparisons with Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Stiles, raved the New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden, "brings a focused intelligence and vocal command to her portrayal that suggest she is the actress of her generation most likely to inherit the kind of powerhouse roles associated with Close and [Jane] Fonda in their 30s and 40s."
Those qualities, it turns out, transfer easily onto the stage, making Stiles blaze with hate and pain. She and Eckhart chew into Mamet's fiendishly difficult staccato half-lines with evident relish. Their slow-burning antagonism ignites in the devastating finale. As Stiles gives full vent to her talent for malice, you too feel compelled to scream at Eckhart: "Do it!"