Double dose of Julia Roberts
2 new projects, up close. Interview and review.
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.
Julia Roberts’ son (Lucas Hedges) returns home from drug rehab in “Ben Is Back.”
Heidi (Roberts) forms a particularly strong bond with patient Walter Cruz (Stephan James) in “Homecoming.”