08/23/2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
Besides well-wishers Jennifer Esposito, Macaulay Culkin, and "Fargo" Oscar winner Frances McDormand, both Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles turned out for this week's Manhattan premiere of their much delayed "O," a modern interpretation of Shakespeare's tragic -- and bloody -- play "Othello," reports PEOPLE. The film was finished and set for a 1999 release but after the shooting at Columbine and similar high school tragedies, the film's release was consistently pushed back. "It's very jarring but very realistic," Stiles, 20, who plays D (the Desdemona character), said of the film. "I thought that people would overlook that and the studios would be afraid to release it. When the release date kept getting pushed and pushed, I started to get worried." Harlem-native Phifer, 25, plays a high school basketball prodigy (the film's Othello) who is manipulated by Hugo (Josh Hartnett) to murder both his best friend and girlfriend (Stiles). Besides the emotional stretch for the role ("anger, love, jealousy and vulnerability," says Phifer), he also performed his own basketball stunts. "I dunked everything," he said. Even the scene when he smashed the glass backboard? "Well," he admitted modestly, "they had a little explosive on the backboard, but I could've done it myself."