WARNING: Major Jason Bourne spoilers ahead.
During a period spanning four Bourne films, 14 years and countless fistfights, Julia Stiles has played Nicky Parsons, a former Operation Treadstone agent and BFF of superspy Jason Bourne. No matter what the threat or looming terror, Nicky — stoic, whip-smart, and present — has been there for Bourne, through thick and thin.
But moments into just-released outing Jason Bourne, Nicky met her demise after years of dodging bullets and outsized bad guys. It’s a bittersweet moment for Stiles, who — originally known for teen hits like Save the Last Dance — snagged the role in a savvy move, launching her into the grown-up world of action films. Here, Stiles reflects on landing the role, learning from Matt Damon, and escaping on-location collisions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Bourne Identity came in out in 2002, you were 21 years old. Looking back, what was your original audition like?
JULIA STILES: It was one of the rare situations where I didn’t have to audition for it, because the part was originally very small and I had just a bit of success with 10 Things I Hate About You and Save the Last Dance. [Bourne Identity director] Doug Liman sent me the pages for my character, and I remember I was sitting in my dorm room reading it and thinking, “Oh, this was really cool. I want to do it, but am I going to miss too much school?” Luckily, I decided to ignore that. Originally my character was supposed to die too, so the fact that I made it this far I feel pretty lucky.
Do you remember what kind of conversations occurred around your role being extended through Bourne Identity and for three subsequent films?
With Bourne Identity, I don’t really know. I don’t really know the exact reason behind keeping Nikki alive. They called me back for ADR — which is when you record sound — and they told that it made more sense for me to stay alive. From my perspective, the part seemed to evolve with each installment. The producers and the studio behind Bourne are such intelligent, creative people that I’m sure there was some forethought there.
The Bourne Identity was released 14 years ago. How did the role change your career?
I think because the movies are sophisticated it helped me be considered as a more of a grown-up. I even remember that with Bourne Identity, I said to Doug Liman, “I think I’m too young to be in the CIA.” The producers were kind of scrambling to make me look older. But I feel like the character has kind of evolved along with me in terms of age and maturity.
What do you remember about the first time you met Matt Damon?
They flew me to France, where they were in the middle of shooting The Bourne Identity. I think I said a quick “hello” because they were in the thick of it already. I barely remember!
How soon after you heard that Matt Damon was doing another Bourne film did you find out you were coming back as well?
I had sort of given up listening to rumors about the next installment and there’s no guarantees, so I wasn’t going to hold my breath for the part. But I was walking through Union Square in New York City, and I got a phone call telling me that [director Paul Greengrass] was sending a script and I had a part in Jason Bourne.
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What’s one thing you’ve come to know about Matt that we probably don’t know?
I’ve worked with him now for 14 years and in that time I’ve watch his career grow so much. I mean, he was an Academy Award winner and a successful actor at the time of The Bourne Identity, since then, he’s become an action star. His family has grown. His security team has grown, but he’s still stayed very humble and hard-working. Even though he has a lot of people around him, he never seems unreachable.
So much has been made of the fact that Matt and Paul wanted to create a film that speaks to many contemporary issues: privacy, foreign policy, political involvement. Were those topics ever the subject of off-camera conversations?
Definitely. Paul sent me a book early on called Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions by Paul Mason, who’s a friend of his who has a column for The Guardian. And they were a lot of conversations about Snowden. I was also dying to pick his brain about Brexit when we saw each other at the London premiere, but there wasn’t really time for that.
Did you know before signing on for Jason Bourne that your character would be killed off?
I didn’t know before I signed on, but I when I read the script, I actually told Paul, “That’s exciting.” I think he was tentative or worried that I was not going to be happy with dying in the film. I was just so excited about Nikki’s turn in this one that to me, as long as her ending was dramatic and deliberate, I thought that was worth it and exciting.
Was Nicki’s death always going to be caused by a gun shooting?
It was always going to by a bullet. There were a lot of discussions about how to make it clear that she was doing it on purpose; that her death wasn’t accidental. It was her sacrificing herself.
What kind of conversations did you have with Matt and Paul about that scene?
I had a few conversations with Matt and Paul over lunch at the hotel that we were shooting at in Tenerife. You know, death scenes are very hard to pull off, especially one that’s drawn out. I remember sort of asking permission, almost like in terms of the thought process that I was having about having to do the scene, but then on the day of, things can change. We blocked it, and tried a few different versions of choreography for that scene, and then yeah that was it.
I heard you nearly had a fatal accident yourself – that you were hit by a motorcycle during filming in London. What happened?
I had come back to London to do a reshoot or special effects, and I was walking home from a play I had gone to see that night. I guess there was a truck blocking an intersection, so the motorcycle didn’t see me when I crossed the street, and I woke up lying the street not knowing why or what had happened. I blacked out basically, but the paramedics came. Witnesses said the motorcyclist had zipped around a car quickly and saw me at the last minute and kind of skidded out the way. He didn’t hit me full on, but I did have a concussion so I did black out. I didn’t see him coming towards me so it was all very bizarre, and luckily no one was severely hurt. It made me even more wary of motorcycles.