Dou­ble dose of Ju­lia Roberts

2 new pro­jects, up close. In­ter­view and re­view.

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Patrick Ryan

Spoiler alert! Con­tains ma­jor de­tails about the end of “Home­com­ing” Sea­son 1 on Ama­zon Prime.

NEW YORK – You won’t see much of Ju­lia Roberts’ fa­mous megawatt smile in her lat­est on­screen out­ings.

In Peter Hedges’ drama “Ben Is Back” (in the­aters Fri­day in New York and Los An­ge­les, ex­pands to ad­di­tional cities through De­cem­ber), the Os­car-win­ning ac­tress de­liv­ers one of her most mov­ing per­for­mances yet as the so­lic­i­tous Holly, whose son Ben (Lu­cas Hedges), a re­cov­er­ing opi­oid ad­dict, shows up on the fam­ily doorstep on Christ­mas Eve and asks to spend the hol­i­day to­gether.

It’s a 180-de­gree turn from her role in Ama­zon Prime’s twisty, 10-episode “Home­com­ing” (now stream­ing) as the ret­i­cent and at times ter­ri­fy­ing Heidi Bergman, who is hired as the lead ad­min­is­tra­tor of a mys­te­ri­ous oper­a­tion for re­turn­ing vet­er­ans. But when she learns the gov­ern­ment-spon­sored Home­com­ing pro­gram’s true in­ten­tions – to wipe sol­diers’ trau­matic mem­o­ries us­ing ex­per­i­men­tal drugs and re­de­ploy them – she rebels by ad­min­is­ter­ing the med­i­ca­tion to her­self and her fa­vorite pa­tient Wal­ter Cruz (Stephan James), who be­comes un­re­spon­sive and re­turns home after she gives him an over­dose.

Roberts, 51, chats with USA TO­DAY about both pro­jects.

Ques­tion: What drew you to “Ben Is Back,” read­ing the script for the first time?

Ju­lia Roberts: Peter did an in­cred­i­ble thing in (tack­ling) some­thing that’s so big and preva­lent (such as ad­dic­tion) and writ­ing about it in a way that’s so con­tained and frag­ile and com­plex and hu­man­iz­ing.

Q: Is there an as­pect of par­ent­ing or ad­dic­tion that you think this film re­ally gets right?

Roberts: That you just can­not know what peo­ple are truly go­ing through. As a par­ent, I say that to my chil­dren very of­ten. Just as an ob­ser­va­tion, they’ll say, “Oh, this per­son be­haves this way,” so we try to have those fam­ily con­ver­sa­tions where you say: “You just don’t know (why). That might be the re­sult of some­thing re­ally sad or a real in­se­cu­rity.” So I sat in a place of con­stant non­judg­ment of what Holly or Ben, for that mat­ter, were do­ing for a lot of the film.

Q: “Home­com­ing” al­ter­nates be­tween two time­lines: Heidi’s work in the pro­gram in 2018 and as a wait­ress in 2022 as she be­gins to re­cover her mem­o­ries. How did you ap­proach those dis­tinct ver­sions of the char­ac­ter?

Roberts: Ul­ti­mately, I just played them both with ab­so­lute earnest­ness. Heidi at the fa­cil­ity is like a Girl Scout: She re­ally be­lieves that she can ef­fect change and that on paper, this is a re­ally beau­ti­ful idea that would ac­tu­ally take care of those who have made the great­est sac­ri­fice for us. The sol­diers would come back and we would take them into this space, help them catch their breath and put their com­pass back to­ward home. ... Then this sin­is­ter el­e­ment comes into it and makes it dystopian.

The later Heidi is a shell of a per­son, and only a very small amount of her re­al­izes what a shell she is. (But) that’s the part that latches on.

Q: I wanted to talk about the last scene of the sea­son. When Heidi fi­nally tracks down Wal­ter at a diner near Yosemite in 2022, she chooses not to show him the old map he gave her and tell him who she is. Was it merely enough to see he was do­ing OK?

Roberts: We talked about this scene prob­a­bly more than any other. We’ve just gone through so much, so how do we (wrap) this up with­out a rib­bon, but with clar­ity and with what we all felt was re­ally hap­pen­ing? For me, it was im­por­tant to work out the whole thing with the map. If (Wal­ter) was go­ing to re­mem­ber – or if he even could re­mem­ber – I wanted it to be more on his terms. I wanted it to be gen­tle and kind, as op­posed to “This will make you re­mem­ber!” For Heidi, when she sees that he is happy and seems so well, mak­ing that self­less choice of putting the map away was pretty im­por­tant.

Q: Sto­ry­wise, “Home­com­ing” di­verged from the pod­cast’s two sea­sons. Have you spo­ken to Sam about

whether Heidi and Wal­ter will be back or where the se­ries goes from here? (Roberts, an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the se­ries, has not con­firmed whether she will re­turn.)

Roberts: I have to lis­ten to the sec­ond sea­son of the pod­cast now, be­cause I didn’t want to be in­flu­enced in any way (shoot­ing Sea­son 1). ... We just want to try to fig­ure out what’s the most in­ter­est­ing thing to do, be­cause the story turned out so well that you just want the next step to be in­cred­i­bly thought­ful of where it goes.

MARK SCHAFER

MARK SCHAFER/AP

Ju­lia Roberts’ son (Lu­cas Hedges) re­turns home from drug re­hab in “Ben Is Back.”

JES­SICA BROOKS/AMA­ZON

Heidi (Roberts) forms a par­tic­u­larly strong bond with pa­tient Wal­ter Cruz (Stephan James) in “Home­com­ing.”

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