Home­com­ing queen

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?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY SHILPA GANATRA

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.

Com­plex role

“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.”

More films

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

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: AMA­ZON; BRINSON+BANKS/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Far left: Ju­lia Roberts and Stephan James in the Ama­zon Prime se­ries Home­com­ing.

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