After more than two decades as one of cinema’s highest-paid stars, Julia Roberts has finally made her debut on the small screen. So what took her so long?
Julia Roberts makes the move onto the small screen
Julia Roberts: the consummate pretty woman; queen of the silver screen; ecology advocate; mother; and new to her repertoire is the role of a TV actor. While most of her peers like Kiefer Sutherland, Christian Slater and Winona Ryder have already sidestepped to TV, it’s only with Homecoming, a psychological thriller about her character’s time as a caseworker in a shadowy government facility for veterans, that she’s made the move (bar a cameo on Friends and the like). It begs the question why only now? She replies, in front of a handful of people during a promotional day in London, that she isn’t quite sure.
“The lack of being offered a TV show probably. Have I been offered a TV show before?” she asks Homecoming director Sam Esmail next to her, as if he might know more (he doesn’t).
As one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors – no surprise given her films have together grossed ¤2.4 billion – she can pick and choose her projects, and the attraction of this was the story rather than the medium.
“This was such a great piece of material. I wasn’t making a choice to do TV, I was just making yet another choice to go where the work was interesting,” she says. “I didn’t even know what [format] we were talking about, the first time we talked. I just was thinking of it in terms of the material, because that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be on the stage or for television. He just had such great ideas for the visual style of it, and taking it to the next level. That’s what I said yes to.”
Unlike the structure of many TV shows, from Game of Thrones to Mad Men, Esmail, the man behind Mr Robot, was the sole director throughout the 10-part series, allowing her a consistency that mirrored the experience of filming a movie. “I didn’t want to have a different person every week trying to understand how my brain worked, it felt unfair to society,” she says, self-effacingly.
In real life, Roberts can turn the charm up to 11; whether dressed up talking to an auditorium full of the world’s media as she did earlier in the day, or in a loose trouser suit, T-shirt and pumps in this more intimate setting. She tells an anecdote about she and the crew fangirled over Sissy Spacek, who plays her mother in the series, as if she’s not Julia Roberts. And when a rebel audience member takes a photo of Roberts, the star stops to firmly explain why it puts her off, replicating the unflattering freeze-frame a pic would catch of her talking.
She’s effortlessly magnetic, even more than one would expect from an actor who’s been impressing red carpets and causing media frenzies since she won her first Golden Globe in Steel Magnolias, aged 22.
Now 51, her recent work, the tearjeaker of Wonder and the ensemble pieces of Money Monster and Mother’s Day, are a move away from dramas that defined her acting prowess such as Erin Brockovich, Sleeping with the Enemy and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, in which she starred at the height of her fame in 1996.
Homecoming picks up where they left off. Created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, the Amazon Prime Video series is based on the podcast that popularised audio plays in the US, aided by a cast including David Schwimmer, Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac.
“I heard the podcast and loved it, because it harked back to everyone listening to a story together, whether it be a book out loud or something on the radio, and you’re imagining everything,” she says. “That’s where inspiration as an artist starts: imagining what it would look like, what it would sound like. I was really attracted to that. When Sam came on [board] and called me it seemed really clear that this was going to be a match.”
It helps that her role of Heidi is a complex one to play. The series is “the tale of two Heidis” she explains, with two timelines spliced together. The first is when her boss (Bobby Cannavale) moves her work at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center programme in a nefarious direction as she takes on the case of Walter Cruz (Stephan James); the second is four years later when she’s working in a diner with a hazy memory of why she left the now-defunct programme. As the series progresses, the mystery of why she left and what happened to the programme unravels.
This interwoven narrative makes for a production challenge, especially given the high standards of the show. Keep an eye out for elaborate tracking shots, well-timed splices and a change in aspect ratio between the two timelines – a representation of Heidi-the-waitress not seeing the full picture, Esmail explains.
Returning to the TV versus movie comparisons, Roberts notes that it was filmed as one overarching story than episodically.
“I can’t say that I’ve worked in television because Sam really made an effort on my behalf to [shoot] as a movie would be. We didn’t film it one episode at a time, we filmed it in blocks and we filmed it on locations,” she says. “Our first assistant director, Peter Kohn, who’s the best in the game, was also on The Pelican Brief. And I knew a lot of our crew from movies.”
But the quantity of filming meant Roberts, who was producer as well as lead actor, had her work cut out for her during its filming run.
“TV is not for the faint of heart for sure,” Roberts recalls. “There were no easy days on the show. Everything was so specific and we had targets we were aiming for every day. It was exciting to go to work and see how high Sam [Esmail] was going to make the diving board that day. Though the page count was very high, the days were very efficient and we had a great momentum all the time.”
The schedule corresponds with the intensity of the series, which sometimes harks back to Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and the stylised thrillers of the past. But at the end of a productive day, Roberts says she was able to shake it off and return to her family, cinematographer Daniel Moder and their three children, aged 11-14.
“Part of why it was so great making this [is] we worked so hard and we accomplished so much in a day that you just wanted to say, okay there’s that day. And you go home and just have your life.”
Does having kids make it easier to switch off?
“You know, it does, but at the same time, for this the workload expanded every day. So instead of making dinner while my kids were doing homework, I was probably doing my homework while they were doing their homework.”
While stepping into the big wide world of TV, she has not abandoned film. Before the end of the year, her new movie Ben is Back will be released, in which she plays a mother whose opioid-addicted son (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges) returns home from rehab on Christmas Eve.
Her production and acting partnership with Amazon Studios continues with Little Bee ,a movie based on Chris Cleave’s novel The Other
Hand about the friendship between Little Bee, a Nigerian asylum-seeker, and Sarah O’Rourke, a British magazine editor to be played by Roberts. There’s also a second series of
Homecoming to look forward to. Perhaps it marks the start of a more fluid era in Roberts’s long-standing career; certainly she insists that she’s receptive to all forms of acting.
“I have never called myself a film actor. I’m just an actor,” she says. “I go where the parts compel me, and I don’t know that a lot of creative people that would compartmentalise their places to be creative. We’re all just looking for the thing that we think we can bring something of value to.”
Homecoming is available on Amazon Prime fromFriday,November2nd
Far left: Julia Roberts and Stephan James in the Amazon Prime series Homecoming.