Roberts’ roles get bet­ter with age

Moth­erly in­stincts play big part in ‘Ben is Back’


JBy Jake Coyle

ulia Roberts is sit­ting on a couch in a Soho ho­tel when Lu­cas Hedges bursts in and be­gins fran­ti­cally search­ing for his phone, send­ing pil­lows fly­ing.

“This is what I say to Finn,” Roberts says, ref­er­enc­ing one of her three chil­dren as she in­structs her 21-yearold co-star. “Where did you go from here, honey?”

Roberts’ moth­erly in­stincts play a big part of her lat­est film, “Ben Is Back”. Writ­ten and di­rected by Peter Hedges (“Dan in Real Life”, and the fa­ther of Lu­cas), “Ben Is Back” is about a son (Lu­cas) home from re­hab for Christ­mas. The short visit res­ur­rects past demons and present temp­ta­tions for Ben, test­ing his mother’s anx­ious bal­ance of trust and sus­pi­cion.

It’s the sec­ond stand­out per­for­mance this fall for Roberts, who also stars in Ama­zon’s ac­claimed con­spir­acy thriller “Home­com­ing” as a gov­ern­ment-spon­sored case­worker coax­ing sol­diers back into civil­ian life. It’s a more dra­matic chap­ter for Roberts, the most quin­tes­sen­tial of movie stars, who at 51 is stretch­ing in new di­rec­tions that are in­creas­ingly fur­ther afield from the froth­ier ro­man­tic come­dies she built her ca­reer on.

“With age comes more com­plex­ity of pos­si­ble parts,” Roberts said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “You know, I’m happy and I have fun at home, so it would take a lot for some­one to say: ‘Look, you can play this part where you’re happy and have fun’. Well, I just do that at home!”

It can take a lot to get Roberts away from home. Hedges at one point jok­ingly sug­gested shoot­ing “Ben Is Back” in her back­yard. She’s no­to­ri­ously picky, gen­er­ally act­ing in one film a year, and that’s be­come iffier con­sid­er­ing, as she says, there’s “a whole lot of math” that needs to fac­tor her kids’ school sched­ule and that of her hus­band, cine­matog­ra­pher Danny Moder. Roberts has, quite con­tent­edly, largely with­drawn from the lime­light. She knits. She plays Mahjong with girl­friends once a week. She will watch “Point Break” any­time it’s on TV.

But she still wears the role of movie star about as com­fort­ably as any­one ever has, and in per­son she is – to an al­most dis­arm­ing de­gree – pre­cisely as you’d ex­pect. She re­mains gen­uinely, breezily, un­af­fect­edly her­self, a qual­ity that has made count­less feel as if they know – re­ally know – her. Roberts grants that the pub­lic’s im­pres­sion of her is “prob­a­bly rel­a­tively ac­cu­rate”, some­thing few who have graced so many tabloid cov­ers in their life­time can do. “I mean, I’m not in­ter­ested in try­ing to seem cooler than I am or some­thing,” she says.

Still, Roberts, a four-time Os­car nom­i­nee and one­time win­ner (“Erin Brock­ovich”), is also in­deli­bly linked to the ‘90s and ‘00s pre-dig­i­tal movie era when stars, not su­per­heroes, still ruled the box of­fice. Times have changed; her break­through film, 1990’s “Pretty Woman”, is now a Broad­way mu­si­cal. Roberts re­cently had the out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence at­tend­ing it along­side Bar­bara Mar­shall, wife of the film’s late di­rec­tor Garry Mar­shall.

“I wasn’t pre­pared for how pro­foundly it made me miss Garry,” she said, chok­ing up.

“I wasn’t pre­pared for how all of the im­provs that I cre­ated are in a Broad­way book now,” she says. “Peo­ple are say­ing things that I was just mak­ing up, just vamp­ing.”


And long be­fore pay equal­ity be­came an in­dus­try­wide con­cern, Roberts was among Hol­ly­wood’s high­est paid stars. Asked about the #MeToo move­ment and Hol­ly­wood gen­der par­ity, Roberts replied, “You can never rest.”

“You think that’s sorted and you come around a cor­ner and then how is it not sorted sud­denly? How is it not fair?” she says, not­ing a few ad­vance­ments that hit home for her and her fam­ily: equal pay for women surfers and Manch­ester United launch­ing a women’s team. “Things like this give me hope that our busi­ness can keep mak­ing strides, be­cause ev­ery year that it’s ‘the year of the woman’, you kind of go: Again? Let’s just have it al­ways be the year of the artists. If we have to keep spot­light­ing the gen­der of this and the gen­der of that, we’re kind of blow­ing it.”

Lately, Roberts has been try­ing some new things. She joined In­sta­gram in June. “Home­com­ing” is her first foray into a TV se­ries. Roberts in­sisted Sam Es­mail (“Mr. Ro­bot”) di­rect all the episodes and that all the scripts be com­pleted be­fore shoot­ing be­gan.

She sim­i­larly helped shape “Ben Is Back”, push­ing for Peter Hedges to cast his son, the in-de­mand break­out star of “Manch­ester by the Sea”, a tall task be­cause Lu­cas has de­lib­er­ately sought to es­tab­lish him­self out­side of his fa­ther’s shadow.

“When Ju­lia read the script and met with me, I came with a list of ac­tors that I thought would be good for the part, and Lu­cas wasn’t on that list,” Peter Hedges said by phone. “Be­fore I could even share that list with her she said: ‘Lu­cas needs to play this part’. I said, ‘One, I don’t think he’s avail­able, and, two, I don’t think he would ever want to do a film with me.’ Once she signed on, she be­gan a very per­sua­sive and I think classy cam­paign. She made ef­fort to let him know that she thought he should do the film with her.”

It is, alas, hard to say no to Ju­lia Roberts. The ac­tress later in­vited Lu­cas to her Mal­ibu home where she says he be­came part of the fam­ily, hang­ing out and tak­ing her kids to the beach. Mak­ing “Ben Is Back” was for her less about chan­nel­ing her own parental night­mares than fos­ter­ing a re­la­tion­ship with her fic­tional son.

“Spend­ing time with Lu­cas meant that I had heartspace with him, and that is what I called upon and re­lied upon for the movie,” says Roberts. “Sep­a­ra­tion is im­por­tant. Es­pe­cially in the mid­dle of the night when you’re play­ing a scene over and over again, you just have to have so much clar­ity about that jump­ing off point. I think that helps it be su­per clear and fair. I don’t want to drag my kids through this crap.”

Like much of Roberts’ best re­cent work, in­clud­ing “Won­der” and “Au­gust: Osage County” (for which she re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion), “Ben Is Back” re­volves around fam­ily, both on and off screen. While her next film, “Lit­tle Bee”, is a drama, too, Roberts hasn’t turned away from ro­man­tic come­dies for good.

“It’s just two de­li­cious things put to­gether,” says Roberts. “It’s like spend­ing months wrap­ping a present for peo­ple. They’re re­ally hard to make well, so I don’t be­grudge their ab­sence be­cause I’d rather not see a bunch of re­ally bad ones.” (AP)

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