“If Shakespeare and the Greeks had a love child, it would be season two of Riviera,” says Julia Stiles. Sky Atlantic’s hit takes the playground of the rich as its backdrop, oozes glitz and glamour alongside intrigue, mystery and betrayal – and generated over 20 million downloads of its first season in 2017.
“When I first had sight of the script, I thought to myself, ‘they’re on to something with this’,” says the 38-year-old New Yorker. “I hadn’t seen anything like it on TV recently. It was the opposite of what was trendy: gritty, hyper-realistic, dark shows.
“These are not ideal human beings but the luxury lifestyle that we’re showing off, that gilded surface – it’s entertaining for people to watch. It’s an escape. Like the shine of a sun lamp when you’re in the middle of the rainy, cold winter.”
‘It could so easily be about the wealthy businessmen. But the movers and shakers in our show, and the powerhouses behind this world, are the female characters’
It wasn’t the gilded surface – or the lavish clothes and Ferraris – that drew Stiles to the part of widow and art collector Georgina Clios: “It could so easily be about the wealthy businessmen. But the movers and shakers in our show, and the powerhouses behind this world, are the female characters.”
When her billionaire husband, Constantine, is killed suddenly in a yacht explosion, Georgina finds herself in constant territorial struggle with his ex-wife, Irina, played brilliantly by Lena Olin. Added to the ranks for this second run are a deliciously posh Poppy Delevingne and Juliet Stevenson, as members of the newly arrived Eltham dynasty.
Part of the allure of the family drama cum crime series is not only its glimpse into the excessive world of the super-rich but that we see it through Georgina’s outsider eyes. Her journey to discover the truth about her husband’s death exposes her to the Riviera’s shady underbelly and, in turn, leads her to become implicated in a web of deceit and crime herself.
“I wasn’t interested in playing a character that was just going to have all this tragedy heaped on her and not do anything about it,” she explains. “She is the window into this world and she is the reality check. But then you see her get corrupted by it.”
It was an element of the role Stiles relished but also one she was able to have a hand in shaping with the writers: “It was definitely an ongoing conversation of how sympathetic or likeable Georgina would be, especially given what she does at the end of season one.”
The series ended on a cliffhanger after Georgina murders Constantine’s son Adam, who had tried to rape and blackmail her.“What I care more about is: is she compelling? Do we understand why she’s doing what she does, whether it’s right or wrong? Grief and anger are real emotions – and people do crazy things.”
And if that’s the tone that got audiences hooked in season one, the dialled-up second certainly promises to push it further as Georgina must find a way to keep her secret and deal with her guilt or confess and atone for her crime. In some respects, we see Stiles herself come into her own by embracing Georgia’s flaws, complexity and tenacity, not least in weathering an “operatic” storm in its opening moments. “I actually wonder if that’s more my comfort zone than all the glamour,” she says.
Stiles’s determination to forge her character in such a way should come as no surprise. At the time of her turn in Mona Lisa Smile (2003) opposite Julia Roberts, she wrote a compelling piece for The Guardian, defending the 1950s-set film’s feminist credentials when taken within the context of its era.
‘We don’t really want stories that are medicinal. Nobody wants to watch an after-school special telling you what good behaviour is’
“We don’t really want stories that are medicinal. Nobody wants to watch an after-school special telling you what good behaviour is’“What I was saying then, similar to when I talk about likeability and whether Georgina is good or bad in Riviera, is that we don’t really want stories that are medicinal. Nobody wants to watch an after-school special telling you what good behaviour is. You can’t rewrite history and show that women had all these options back then.”
There are also clear parallels to be drawn with her breakout role as Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), a modern twist on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. “She had a bite to her and was feisty in a way that I hadn’t seen other teenage girls be on screen. I think that’s what resonated with people and why this question of ‘is a character likeable or not?’ isn’t interesting to me.”
Stiles’s face lights up reminiscing about the making of the film and working alongside the late, much-loved Heath Ledger. “It was a thrill for me to be a part of that movie. I look back on it so fondly because it was my big break. And it was a really special time in all of our careers where we were open hearted and open minded and not jaded. And 20 years later, to have people still talking about it, is really special.”
There’s one moment in particular that sticks with her. “That scene where I get drunk and dance on the table? I would not have the confidence to do that now.” At 17, she’d never been drunk before, so the performance was informed predominately by Ledger’s explanation of what it felt like. And as it turns out, it’s what earned her a spot in 2001’s Save the Last Dance. “The director told me that he had seen the scene and knew that I had ‘rhythm for a white girl’.”
Returning to these moments, Stiles reveals a surprising level of self-criticism: “There are many things that I look back on my career and kind of wish I had a do-over. From hosting Saturday Night Live to playing Ophelia in the movie version of Hamlet to Save the Last Dance and doing all that dancing – I never think I got it quite right. But it was really, really fun.”
Despite extensive screen credits that include the Bourne franchise, the profile playing Georgina has given her seems to have opened new doors. She beams about her upcoming role in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, as a straight-laced New York Times journalist who covers the story of a group of strippers who conned their Wall Street clientele. She appears alongside Jennifer Lopez, whom she admiringly calls “a renaissance woman” – “it took every ounce of my being acting opposite her not to have my jaw drop”.
She also stars in God’s Committee, about the shortage of organ donors in the US, with Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer. “He was practising his songs for Man of La Mancha so I got to hear him sing all day long.”
I wonder if this fresh confidence could persuade her to take the directing reins herself – she has already made a few of her own shorts? “I think I could do it. I’ve been on enough film sets where I know what directors are dealing with. It’s just a question of finding the time and the right story. It’s on the bucket list.”
She became a mother a year and a half ago – maybe she offers some proof that women can have it all.’I love being a mother. It’s exhilarating. I also love my job. I’m lucky that I get to do both’
‘I love being a mother. It’s exhilarating. I also love my job. I’m lucky that I get to do both’
“I love being a mother. It’s exhilarating. I also love my job. I’m lucky that I get to do both – I have a wonderful husband, who helps me out a lot. But when he goes to work, nobody asks, who’s going to take care of the kid?”
Do-overs or none, Stiles says her 20-year-old self would never have predicted she’d be playing the roles she is today. “I think now I’m excited more and more about the opportunities that I have as a woman, and in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated when I was first starting out.”
‘Riviera’ season 2 is on Sky Atlantic from tomorrow