NEW YORK (AP) -- Julia Stiles first played the role of life-wrecker Carol in "Oleanna" when she was in college, and the play, about a confused student who accuses her professor of sexual impropriety, stuck with her well beyond the final curtain.
She never felt that she had gotten the part quite right. Now she has a do-over, in a Broadway revival with Bill Pullman.
"I love this play," says Stiles, who took time off from Columbia University to perform the role on London's West End in 2004. "But I always felt I didn't quite get it right, and I really welcomed the chance to get back into it."
Five years later, she is reprising the role in the David Mamet play opposite Pullman who plays John, the object of Carol's ire. The play runs 80 minutes with no intermission, and the story makes the audience twist and squirm with confusion as the heat and intensity rise until the final most shocking moment.
Now 28 and no longer a student — she graduated from Columbia in 2005 — Stiles has a different perspective on both the two-character drama and her role.
"I had so politicized the play. I had so worried about representing women, I kind of wanted to compensate for all Carol's vengefulness and aggressiveness by showing she's really nice and just so vulnerable and innocent," Stiles recalls of her first try at the role. "But why? Why back away from what the play really calls for? Some of the most interesting characters are the ones that are totally upfront about who they are."
The other sticking point was an argument John makes in the first act, that higher education is something forced upon the middle class and maybe it's not really worth anything. Carol disagrees, loudly, and so did Stiles, because she was a student in English literature at the time and thought, as most students do, that higher education is a noble pursuit.
Since graduation, she can see the other side of the argument. Born and raised in New York City, Stiles has been something of a star since high school with her first movie: "10 Things I Hate About You," co-starring Heath Ledger. She followed it up with roles in several other Shakespearean films, such as "Hamlet," where she played Ophelia, and "O," a modern take on Othello in which she played the equivalent of Desdemona. She has also done the Bard's work as Viola in a production of "Twelfth Night" for the Public Theater.
She started acting as a child, appearing in productions at The Kitchen and La MaMa, a venerable experimental theater in Manhattan's East Village. She also appeared in the "Bourne" action films with Matt Damon, played a 1960s Wellesley College girl in "Mona Lisa Smile" and starred in the remake of "The Omen."
She's done Habitat for Humanity work in Central America. She recently wrote and directed a short film "Raving," starring Zooey Deschanel and Bill Irwin, and writes a blog where she discusses everything from the Mets crap baseball season to how the media perceived a witty satire she did on eco-friendly clothing. Her public Facebook page has more than 8,000 fans who proclaim their love and devotion to the blond actress.
But right now, Stiles is focused on "Oleanna."
"I love theater," she says, sitting in a modest dressing room at the Golden Theatre. "There is something so thrilling about getting in front of an audience, the depth of the work that you do. You get so deeply into the emotions of the character."
Director Doug Hughes said he finds Stiles courageous and exploratory.
"I'd always thought she was just a fascinating and really compelling on film, but most compelling to me was the spirit she had," Hughes said. "She was so eager to delve into the role, saying, 'This moment is crucial,' and, 'There's something mysterious here,' and, 'I think there's more to be mined there.'
"That certainly reassured me that it wasn't going to be a case of 'this is how I do it.' Quite the opposite."
Stiles is also no stranger to Mamet's work. Beside the London stage, she performed in two Mamet films — "State and Main" and "Edmond."
Pullman, a veteran of both film and stage (Edward Albee's "The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?"), made his Mamet debut with "Oleanna."
The two actors first did the play in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum, where it was dubbed "an 80-minute prize fight." They took a month off before starting rehearsals again for the Broadway version, reworking some things and rethinking others.
"It's a very intense setup," said Hughes. "I'm doing a play at the same time, 'The Royal Family,' two blocks away. That has 16 people, a very elaborate set, two dogs. Directing that is like being a battlefield commander, and directing 'Oleanna' is like being a therapist."
"Oleanna" is known as Mamet's most controversial play, which is saying a lot given the playwright's cannon. The title is an ambiguous allusion to a 19th-century utopian society by the same name in Pennsylvania.
It was first performed in 1992, starring William H. Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon as professor and student, respectively. The timing was near perfect: It was barely a year after the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas sexual harassment saga, and the middle of the culture wars.
After each performance is a moderated discussion with audience participation that Stiles really likes. Often, the talks wind up in screaming matches along gender lines.
"Part of the intention of the play is to provoke. The conflict is very real," she says. "A lot of people feel very wronged or wounded and feel very angry about that; others swallow their anger.
"I think it's uncomfortable for people to see that kind of anger coming from a young woman. I think that's still true, and it's interesting to see how the audience reacts to it."