Small-screen sweet­heart

Ahead of her tran­si­tion to TV, Ju­lia Roberts re­flects on her 30-year ca­reer and mov­ing on from rom-coms.

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Cotents - Home­com­ing is stream­ing now on Ama­zon Prime Video.

ulia Roberts’s fa­mously wide smile was too big for tele­vi­sion screens. Bet­ter suited to megawatt mul­ti­plexes, she be­came Hol­ly­wood’s big­gest movie star in the 1990s with a string of win­ning ro­man­tic come­dies and thrillers.

When she did slum it on TV, in those days a much less revered medium, the small screen could barely con­tain her. Her guest per­for­mance in a Friends episode in 1996 aired af­ter the big­gest TV event of the US year, the Su­per Bowl. And in Mur­phy Brown, she played her­self.

So Roberts’s very first re­cur­ring role in a tele­vi­sion series is a big move. “No, it was a mis­take!” she jokes when asked by Stel­lar about the de­ci­sion. “I was just think­ing: ‘What to do now?’”

The an­swer? Be ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and star of the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller series Home­com­ing, a TV adap­ta­tion of the fic­tional pod­cast of the same name. She plays two ver­sions of Heidi Bergman, a case worker at the Home­com­ing Tran­si­tional Sup­port Cen­ter, a fa­cil­ity help­ing soldiers re­turn to civil­ian life. The se­cond Heidi is a bro­ken woman seen four years later, work­ing as a wait­ress coming to terms with the mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances around her pre­vi­ous job and life.

In­stead of us­ing her comic tim­ing and ex­cep­tional charm, Home­com­ing calls for depth and vul­ner­a­bil­ity from Roberts. The fact that she was will­ing to em­brace the tense drama speaks to the artis­tic cred­i­bil­ity of mod­ern tele­vi­sion.

Di­rec­tor Sam Es­mail has de­liv­ered in­spired cast­ing, in­tro­duc­ing Der­mot Mul­roney – Roberts’s My Best Friend’s Wed­ding co-star – as Heidi’s boyfriend.

“It’s so fun be­cause peo­ple don’t re­ally ex­pect to see him turn up and when he does, peo­ple go all ba­nana cakes,” she ex­claims with that un­mis­tak­able hearty laugh. “But that was Sam’s idea. Der­mot is ex­cep­tional in the part and it was very chal­leng­ing for me not to laugh for most of his per­for­mance. We just had a spec­tac­u­lar time film­ing those scenes.”

For Roberts, the move into tele­vi­sion is not a big deal. She agrees with a cast­mate who asked rhetor­i­cally, “What is TV any­more? What does it mean be­yond sto­ry­telling?” And, she adds, “There’s so much great con­tent on tele­vi­sion now. So for me the con­sid­er­a­tion isn’t whether it’s TV or a movie, it’s whether there’s a good story. And where is a di­rec­tor I feel com­plete trust and con­fi­dence in their vi­sion, and want to par­tic­i­pate fully in that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

That di­rec­tor is Es­mail, the cre­ator of the con­spir­acy TV drama Mr. Robot, which con­cludes with its fourth sea­son next year.

Roberts’s agent sent her a link to the Home­com­ing pod­cast be­fore it was re­leased. She was de­lighted by its feel­ing of an “old­fash­ioned ra­dio play”. Then Es­mail called the 51-year-old Os­car win­ner. “The story was so great and meet­ing Sam, he felt the same way I did about the piece,” she says.

Es­mail di­rected all 10 episodes of the first series, a rare thing in tele­vi­sion. That was Roberts’s “big ask”, to en­sure con­sis­tency and fa­mil­iar­ity. “Be­cause that’s what I know, that’s what I’ve based a 30-year ca­reer on and it was re­ally im­por­tant to me,” she says. Con­se­quently, the series be­came a TV pro­duc­tion made like a film, as Es­mail prefers too. “To me, it felt like a fea­ture film pro­duc­tion and that’s how my brain works,” he says.

And TV might be­come more fa­mil­iar if au­di­ences em­brace the small-screen ver­sion of Roberts. Cer­tainly, she feels she’s grown out of ro­man­tic come­dies, de­spite her love of the genre. “Some­times they don’t work for you at a cer­tain point of life ex­pe­ri­ence,” says the mother of three, who has been mar­ried to hus­band Daniel Moder for 16 years.

Right now, life is big­ger than a Hol­ly­wood back­lot – and even Aus­tralia could be get­ting a look in. “My youngest son’s best pal has moved to Aus­tralia, so I think there’s a trip in the mak­ing,” she says. “I’ll keep you posted.”

It’s been al­most three decades since she first con­quered the box of­fice — so can Ju­lia Roberts bring the same Mi­das touch to tele­vi­sion? In­ter­view by MICHAEL BODEY

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