Julia Stiles the undoubted star of Riviera - the thriller created by three Irish men

Riviera may have been created by three Irish men, but Julia Stiles is the star of Sky’s new thriller, writes Ed Power.

Julia Stiles in Riviera, beginning on Sky Atlantic on Thursday.

AS AMERICAN progressives marched on Washington to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump in January, actress Julia Stiles was half the world away, shooting her new TV show in France. The distance brought perspective — but also an intense unease.

“There was comfort being away from it,” she says. “At the same time I didn’t have other Americans with whom to commiserate. I was very upset. Honestly, I was trying to hold it together on set. I had some interesting conversations with my co-workers. But, because they were European, they could be more emotionally removed. It was surreal — watching this train wreck.”

Stiles was in Nice shooting her new Sky Atlantic thriller Riviera. A tale of skulduggery set amidst the yacht parties and art galas of the Côte d’Azur’s one percenters, the series was the brain-child of former U2 manager Paul McGuinness, with a script by novelist John Banville and director Neil Jordan.

“Paul was on set and was a fantastic person to get to know,” says Stiles. “He opened up his home to us [McGuinness has a residence in the south of France]. I’m going to his daughter’s wedding later this summer. It’s nice to make a good friend while making a show. It’s an unusual experience.”

Stiles is best known as the co-star of the Jason Bourne movies, having initially achieved fame alongside Heath Ledger in the 1999 teen dramedy 10 Things I Hate About You.

Since then, the 36-year-old had has been a typically varied Hollywood career, with smaller projects alongside the blockbusters. The Bourne films came out of the blue. Stiles recalls reading the script for the first in her dorm at Columbia University, where she was studying English literature. She was familiar with director Doug Liman from his somewhat twee indie features. She had little inkling he was about to launch a multi-million dollar action franchise.

“I had no idea the Bourne franchise were going to be as big as they were. That those were going to be four movies for me — I never saw that coming.”

In Riviera she plays a naive art dealer whose oligarch husband died in suspicious circumstances. As Georgia investigates his death, she learns of his infidelities and nefarious financial dealings. Stiles is our surrogate as we journey through the global elite’s heart of darkness.

“I was familiar with wealth in Hollywood,” says Stiles who grew up in Manhattan’s Soho neighbourhood, the daughter of an artist and a businessman. “Wealth in Europe is different. It dates back further so it was very eye-opening to see that.”

Her character, Georgina, starts out wide-eyed and guileless. But as she stumbles upon the seamy truth behind her husband’s wealth, she grows increasingly mercurial. This is quite a departure for TV, where the cult of the anti-hero rarely extends to females.

“By the end she becomes a Michael Corleone,” says Stiles, referring to the moral decline of Al Pacino’s mafia don in The Godfather.

“There are fewer morally ambivalent female characters than male characters. One of the discussions that floats around on television is has to do with whether or not a character is sympathetic. I don’t really care if they are sympathetic — what you want is for the audience to understand who that person is. Some of the most interesting characters make poor decision or morally questionable ones. That goes all the way back to Shakespeare. The fear is that, if you do that with a female you will lose the audience. The judgement is harsher on women, perhaps.”

Stiles (36) is the latest Hollywood star to move into television. As recently as 10 years ago, this would have been seen a step down. However, in an era in which Brad Pitt is making movies with Netflix and Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey is best known for House of Cards, the old boundaries have blurred.

“TV is changing,” she says. “You’re seeing a lot of really interesting programming. Producers and studios are taking risky decisions. On television, you know you are going to be playing a character for a long time.

“You have to sustain the audience’s interest — which means the individual you are playing can’t be paper thin. About halfway through Riviera, they began to trust me to make decision with the character — because I knew her better than anyone.”

Riviera is part of Sky Atlantic’s campaign to take on American “prestige” networks such as HBO and Showtime, with a budget to match (“Designer gowns, devastatingly expensive paintings, drop-dead real estate and fast cars are the order of the day,” cooed an approving Variety review as the series debuted at Cannes).

“Everyone in the world goes to the south of France when they make a bit of money,” McGuinness explained in 2015. “U2 and myself were the same when we all acquired houses there 20 years ago.”

Stiles is resolutely unshowbizzy and has never embraced the Hollywood lifestyle. She lives in Vancouver, where she is engaged to cameraman Preston Cook, whom she met shooting indie action caper Blackway.

Still, for all her groundedness, she thought long and hard about the leap from cinema to television, a transition she made in 2010 as a recurring character on the serial killer drama Dexter.

“Dexter opened my eyes to the possibility of doing television. The network model had scared me. You do 22 episodes and really have to churn out the material, which inevitably means it isn’t very good, because so much content has to be produced. With a cable series such as Dexter, the model is 13 episodes and it really is rewarding to play the character. That changed my perspective in a big way.”

Clearly, it was one of the best decisions she ever made.

  • Riviera starts on Sky Atlantic on Thursday at 9pm


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