Julia Stiles on Channeling Anonymous and Snowden for ‘Jason Bourne’
The acclaimed actress opens up about her character’s transformation into a badass CIA hacker in the fifth movie in the Bourne franchise.
Once upon a Bourne, Julia Stiles’ CIA analyst Nicolette “Nicky” Parsons was a compliant Treadstone staffer helping wrangle the rogue assassin for her agency overlords. What a difference 14 years makes. In Jason Bourne, the fourth film to star Matt Damon as the amnesiac government asset, Stiles’ Nicky also returns from hiding to fulfill a spy destiny of her own with some newly acquired Anonymous-esque hacking skills.
“I don’t think that it was premeditated,” Stiles phoned from Las Vegas, musing over the decade and a half she’s spent with the Bourne franchise playing a character that was never intended to make it this far. “It kind of happened organically as years passed and we were making sequels.”
The idealistic young CIA employee Nicky Parsons once was is dead. Long live Hacker Nicky, a poised and driven Edward Snowden-type with a pistol and a thumb drive, who jump-starts the events of Jason Bourne by stealing top secret files from her former bosses. “She has seen what it’s done to people like Jason Bourne, and also risked her life many times,” said Stiles. “She’s now evolved into somebody who is fed up and not afraid to have nothing to lose, and is not afraid of doing what she can to disrupt that.”
For all the Bourne-Nicky ’shippers who’ve read a certain shared history between the two over the last three films, Stiles fills in the gaps.
“I think we ultimately decided that it wasn’t the first time they had seen each other in eight years,” she teased. “It’s very subtle, but I think that’s where knowing what she’s done in that time applies to the story that we witness.”
“If she decided to just do that and not find Jason Bourne, there’d be no movie,” she laughed. “So she decides to track him down because she cares about him and she’s his only ally. And it’s not just the broad politics that she wants to change—she actually personally cares for him and wants to help him get over this guilt that he has about his past, which to me is a nice little piece of humanity in the middle of this.”
To prepare for Nicky’s awakening, director Paul Greengrass sent Stiles books and articles on internet-fueled revolutions of the world to study. “He’s very passionate and well-informed about the global climate,” she said. “I was just excited that my character now gets to be rebellious and ideological, and actively railing against this system.”
She imagines that Nicky, who’s been off the grid for the last nine years, has spent her time falling in with digital revolutionaries and gearing up to finally take action against the corrupt American government. She read Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere to place Nicky in the fast-changing geopolitical ecosystem, and was inspired by a book on the hacker group Anonymous.
“It was about the people that are hackers, they’re called white hat hackers, who are ideologically driven so they’re not out to rob people but are actually interested in disrupting the system,” she explained. “They’re anarchists. In some ways I think that would have fueled her, or empowered her, to feel like she could step out of hiding and try and be disruptive.”
The film’s stunningly orchestrated first set piece takes place as Nicky arranges to meet Bourne for the first time in years to give him crucial information. They set off the CIA’s watchdogs, who send agents to hunt them on the ground and from surveillance comms in the sky as the former colleagues find each other in the middle of pure chaos: under the cover of a massive, violent protest between citizens and armed police officers in Athens, Greece.
“I thought it was so interesting when I first read that sequence because it works so organically to the story. It was interesting to me that Nicky has to choose a safe meeting place to reconnect with Jason Bourne, and unexpectedly—but it makes perfect sense—she chooses the middle of this utter chaos and violence,” Stiles marveled. “But it also mimics what she’s going through. The people are rioting against their government and she’s getting ready to blow the lid on the CIA’s operations.”
To pull off the impressive sequence, Greengrass set up an immersive urban warzone (in Tenerife, filling in for Athens) with hundreds of extras facing off as protestors and militarized police, and modeled on the anti-government clashes staged by tens of thousands of Greek citizens in 2011-2012.
“The way Paul Greengrass likes to shoot is that he wants to set up 180 degrees of reality so that he can shoot details and things, the atmosphere, and not just the two people that are speaking,” said Stiles. The effect is impressive: as Bourne and Nicky weave their way through increasingly hostile streets, the camera pulls back as CIA spooks close in and Vincent Cassel’s sharpshooting assassin takes aim from a nearby rooftop.
“You have 600 extras who are shouting in Greek and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, you have cars being burned and police in riot gear spraying tear gas—and then you have to yell ‘Cut!’ and get everybody to stop. Imagine—how do you do that?” she laughed. “But everybody who works on these movies is at the top of their game. The first AD in particular was just remarkable. He had a whistle that he would blow instead of saying ‘Cut,’ so we could hear him. And it all felt very safe, but very true to the videos that I’ve seen of those riots.”
Those tense nighttime protests hit closer to home in the final film, evoking similar scenes from much more recent clashes here in the United States. “When Paul was writing this and when we were shooting it felt that that unrest had settled a little bit,” she noted. “But now we’re seeing very similar reasons, for different reasons, but similar images in different parts of the U.S.”
When you watch those eerily realistic images onscreen it’s hard not to think of Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge. Stiles, 35, admits she’s come around on discussing the real-life tragedies America has witnessed of late on social media, where she’s also vocalized her thoughts on the upcoming election.
“I previously avoided talking about political issues or current events in interviews and things like that because I’m an entertainer and I didn’t want to be misunderstood,” she said. “And so easily that can happen with the way media and the internet work. I also didn’t want anything I would say to then be used as clickbait. But it becomes impossible to stay quiet.”
“It seems like more and more every day when you turn on the news something else has happened. I’m about to go and work in Nice [on Neil Jordan’s Riviera] for the rest of the year,” she said, referring to the deadly terror attack on Bastille Day revelers that occurred just days earlier. Stiles fell momentarily silent, at a loss for words. “So… it seems that unrest is kind of unavoidable. ‘Inescapable’ is the perfect word for it. In a perfect world we would be able to avoid or pre-empt some of this violence, but we seem unable to escape it.”
In a time when Hollywood is being forced to answer for its underrepresentation of minorities onscreen and behind the camera, Stiles counts herself lucky to have had a career that’s already spanned over two decades. (Her first gig? Landing PBS’s Ghost Writer at the age of 11.)
“I do feel like things are changing,” she said of the growing ranks of women in film and television. “I work with so many powerful, fierce, intelligent women, and I also am lucky to be part of a franchise where the roles for women in it are great.” In recent years the Golden Globe nominee and stage veteran made the leap from acting to directing, helming the 2007 short Raving and the 2013 WIGS webseries Paloma, starring Grace Gummer.
“I had been on a lot of sets, and it can be very collaborative if you’re working with the right director, but ultimately the director is in charge,” she said, remembering how the directing bug bit her. “And I felt it was an opportunity for me to try that out and tell my own story. It exercises a different part of your brain, being behind a camera, because you’re managing a crew and dealing with a budget and a schedule and there’s a logical side to me that really found that rewarding. And it was the first time that I was finally able to say, ‘I think I can do this.’”
In a way, it was her work on the Bourne franchise that led her behind the camera. “It was either Bourne Supremacy or Bourne Ultimatum,” she exclaimed, bringing the memory full circle, “and I was talking about my interest in directing. Paul Greengrass said, ‘Well, you have to just do it.’ I think he said, ‘The first act of directing is just saying that you could do it.’ And it was the right time for me to step forward and say, no one’s going to hand this to you—you have to seize the opportunity.”