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Julia Stiles Interview: Star Talks New TV Series 'Blue', Playing an Escort and Filming Sex Scenes With Her Ex

23/02/2015 10:39 GMT | Updated 22/04/2015 10:59 BST

Julia Stiles took two major gambles when she took on the role of Blue. First was the challenge of the part itself: an escort and working mother with a troubled past. Second was the method of delivery, with Blue initially released on YouTube by pioneering online production company WIGS (standing for 'Where It Gets...'). WIGS founder and creator of both Blue and HBO's psychotherapy drama In Treatment, Rodrigo Garcia, described her to me as "a very good actress who projects a lot of inner life and complication." His delight at the casting is clearly shared by the 10 Things I Hate About You star. As Stiles joined me in the library of a central London hotel, it quickly became clear that she relished the opportunities the role presented, both in performance and research.

Blue seems a very intimate and exposing role, both emotionally and physically. Did you have any reservations about getting involved?

No creative reservations. I had questions about the platform itself - three years ago, when they approached me to be in it, YouTube was still largely a place to watch amateur videos and I was concerned about the way people can comment immediately and anonymously. But I really wanted to work with Rodrigo. As soon as I read his script, I was hooked. His characters are often either lying to themselves or to other people, and talking about something completely different to what's actually going on. In network television, everything has to be explained to the audience. Blue is a great part for a young woman and I thought it would be very rewarding.

Are women underserved in traditional media? Is this something that needed to happen?

Not necessarily on cable, but I think on network television women are underserved. There's a lot more reluctance to have female characters who are flawed or complicated or don't always make the right decisions.

Why?

Decisions for network television shows are largely made out of fear of losing ratings, so they want to appeal to the broadest possible audience. On cable and WIGS, storytelling comes first. The producers have the patience to let a show build an audience.

What did Blue offer that you hadn't had with previous roles?

You see this woman in so many different aspects of her life: as a mother, as a co-worker in her daytime job, and as an escort at night. She's incredibly flawed and troubled, which is rare for female characters. I really like that she has this secret life she's desperately trying to keep secret. There's a lot of intrigue there, but she's also not really dealing with the repercussions of the abuse she suffered in her childhood. Her relationships with men are complicated and confusing.

Did you talk to escorts as part of your research?

I did, yeah. I went into a lot of those conversations trying not to make assumptions. It was interesting that a lot of them had the goal of getting repeat clients - I was surprised by how strategic the women I spoke to could be. There was a woman who was my age [33] who had been an escort for a while and was planning on becoming a madam, working her way up through this company and taking on more responsibility. There was another woman I spoke to who had her fiancé drop her off at the coffee shop where we met, and he didn't know that's what she did at night.

Has it changed your views on sex work and the idea of paying for sex?

It's cultivated the absence of judgment. Over the second and third seasons, the drama becomes more harrowing. I find some of the subject matter gets pretty dark and upsetting, but those scenes should be difficult to film. We show Blue in more dangerous situations, and for good reason - those situations exist and are real. There's a countdown to when something's going to get dangerous. And working on Blue has afforded me the liberty to ask people if they've slept with prostitutes [laughs]. Under the guise of research!

Do you find sex scenes difficult to film?

Absolutely. When we first started shooting, I thought I was a lot bolder than I actually am. The first episodes we shot were very manageable, then as we came back to do more and Rodrigo had of course written more sex scenes, the amount of time it took me to get out of my dressing room on those mornings was a lot longer. I'm pretty modest in that way. But these scenes are central to the story, not titillating. You can't have a story about a sex worker without showing some sex.

Your first onscreen client was with your boyfriend, David Harbour...

Ex-boyfriend. We were together at the time.

Was that weird?

I thought it would make it easier, but at times it was really awkward. I remember in one rehearsal, he and Rodrigo were both directing me and I thought, this is ridiculous, you have to both shut up right now. But it's always weird, by its very nature.

Does the subject matter of Blue still feel taboo?

Having a character who is trying and sometimes failing to be a good mother, while also remaining a sexual being, makes people uncomfortable. You can't categorise her as good or bad. Oftentimes, seeing a woman who's a mother in sexual situations, I feel like a lot of times that woman has to be punished in traditional media. We don't do that.

Blue starts on 2 March at 10pm on Lifetime