Julia Roberts finds life (and her roles) get better with age
“This is what I say to Finn,” Roberts says, referencing one of her three children as she instructs her 21-year-old 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 Roberts has, quite contentedly, largely withdrawn from the limelight.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 fourtime Oscar nominee and one-time 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 industry-wide 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.