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