The two were shooting a crucial scene: It’s the only time we see Stiles’s journalist character, Elizabeth, interview Lopez’s Ramona, a stripper turned con artist. Ramona gives a moving speech about her friendship with Destiny (Constance Wu) that Stiles says was added at the eleventh hour.
It seems director and writer Lorene Scafaria had a burst of inspiration, and the late-minute change didn’t faze Lopez. “Jennifer learned it in like two minutes,” Stiles says. “She closed her eyes and said, ‘Okay, let’s go.’”
When Julia Stiles walked onto the Hustlers set for her first day of filming, she says she almost didn’t recognize her costar Jennifer Lopez. “She had the hair, makeup, and nails and the thick Bronx accent,” Stiles tells me. “She had this body language – this toughness, but also a complete, charming, captivating way about her that seduced you into wanting to listen to everything she had to say. I didn’t feel like it was a performance.”
It was Stiles‘s first time seeing Lopez in the role. “My jaw was dropping the whole time. That got me really excited about being a part of the movie.”
Stiles‘s place in the Hustlers canon is an interesting one. The movie, now in theaters, has earned critical and public praise for its nuanced depiction of a group of strippers who con their wealthy clients using a potent combo of drugs, booze, and sex appeal. It’s a world of excess and schemes, but the audience is brought into it by the one character most outside of the action: Stiles‘s Elizabeth. As the reporter interviewing the women about their experiences, Elizabeth serves as a framing device – learning about the complicated club politics as we do, reacting as we might when Destiny describes spiking the men’s drinks in order to rob them.
It’s a role that’s more function than flash. Maybe that would turn off some actors seeking a buzzier part, but Stiles saw it as an opportunity to be a part of the bigger story. “Lorene didn’t have to frame the film with me as the eyes and ears for the audience,” Stiles explains. “It could have easily just been a voiceover. I think she stuck with having me as a catalyst to hopefully get the audience to open up and try to understand what these women were going through.”
In fact, Stiles says, her agents warned her the part wasn’t flashy when they sent over the script. But she loved Scafaria’s vision – and the article that inspired the film, written by Jessica Pressler – and wanted to be a part of the movie in whatever way she could. She met with Scafaria for two hours, telling her “all the reasons I was fascinated by the story.” Toward the end of their conversation, Scafaria asked if she had any lingering questions. Stiles‘s response: “My question is, what do I have to do to be in this movie?”
Besides, not playing a dancer isn‘t a big loss for Stiles. “I don’t want to say that I’d be too shy [to play a stripper], because I feel like that’s shaming the women that do it,” she says. “But it would’ve taken a lot for me to have the guts to do that – and balance on those stiletto platform heels. It would have taken a lot of training.”
“I haven’t seen a film that I’ve been in in a long time where I was still thinking about it weeks afterwards.”
That doesn’t mean she didn‘t prep for the movie, of course. Stiles met with Pressler ahead of filming after reaching out to her on Instagram. Both women were working in New York at the time, but they had young kids and finding childcare was difficult. So, they arranged a play date. “I brought my son over to her apartment, and he proceeded to destroy her living room while we talked about everything that led to this point.” Stiles asked Pressler every question she could think of – how she found out about the story, how she got in touch with the women, the process of turning it all into a film.
“There were so many interesting anecdotes I took away from our meeting,” Stiles says, “but I also really learned that she’s got a lot of compassion for the people she writes about. She showed up at Rosie’s – the woman the Constance Wu character is based on – with a box of cannoli as a sort of peace offering to say, ‘I’m not here to trash you, and I’m not here to take advantage of you. I want to know more about you, the person. I’m on your side.’” Stiles says she’d also text Pressler during filming with questions like, “How much do you use a notepad?”
The goal was to not do an imitation of Pressler but rather learn about her process. “I told her we were going to take liberties,” Stiles says. “We took a lot of them, with my wardrobe in particular. I think Lorene wanted me to wear a Chanel jacket to represent privilege, that Elizabeth is somebody who had a lot more options growing up than probably Ramona or Destiny did.”
Stiles found other ways to channel Pressler. “I thought there was something so great about being the only person that has compassion for these women,” she explains. “The dancers run in a world where they’re constantly being exploited and taken advantage of. My character develops a close relationship to them, and it’s the only person who’s not trying to get something from them. She’s actually looking at them going, ‘Who are you, and what’s your version of the story?’”
This did, of course, mean she wasn’t in the movie’s biggest set pieces. “I wasn’t at the club, which looked like it’s a lot of fun to film,” she says. “My scenes were a lot quieter.” Because of that, Stiles didn’t have a full view of how Scafaria’s vision would come together. “Once I saw the movie, I was happy to be the character in the film that grounds it and brings it back to a bit more of a serious note.”
She continues, “You could have told this story five different ways, but [Scafaria] really said something refreshing and surprising. I haven’t seen a film that I’ve been in in a long time where I was still thinking about it weeks afterwards. I think she wrote and filmed a really layered story, and she capped it with this amazing group of women.”