On the set of her latest film, August: Osage County, in Oklahoma, Julia Roberts spent the best part of a day laying into Meryl Streep, pummelling her so convincingly that the screen legend ended up covered in bruises.
‘I felt terrible every time, I was so worried about hurting her, and she was such an incredible trouper,’ says Roberts. ‘We were both hurt and I would say, “Look at me, oh my God,” but she never said a word about her bruises. And yet there she was, icing her swelling wrist. She has a lot more endurance than I do!’
Streep stars as Violet, Roberts’s bitter and twisted, cancer-stricken, drug-addicted mother in the hugely engrossing and darkly funny new drama, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts.
The pair, at loggerheads throughout the story, finally come to blows in the climactic, jaw-dropping family dinner scene, in which Roberts knocks Streep to the floor and pounds her repeatedly, trying to retrieve a bottle of pills.
‘I was honestly afraid that I might hurt her because once I mustered up the courage to actually jump out of the chair on top of her, I could only control so much of what happened. We were going at it because I could not get the pills out of her hand. There I was on top of her. But she was tough as nails. This is the first time we’ve been down in the trenches together – and what trenches we decided to get into!’
Roberts, 46, was enticed to take the role specifically to work with Streep.
These days, there isn’t much that can lure the world’s most successful actress from her home with cinematographer Danny Moder and their three children.
‘I am lazy,’ she says. ‘I like to be at home with the family.’
But the opportunity of tackling Streep proved irresistible, even though it meant spending three months on location in the Oklahoma Plains.
‘I couldn’t say no. I said, “Where do I go? What do I sign to be there fast enough?” Working with Meryl was a dream. She is the best there is.’
The film explores the lives and emotions of a shockingly dysfunctional family, as Barbara Weston (Roberts), her siblings and her remote husband (Ewan McGregor) gather to comfort Violet (Streep) after the death of their father (Sam Shepard).
‘It’s about secrets and how silence can be as damaging as telling a lie,’ says Roberts. ‘These are all really damaged people.’
She says the cast and director John Wells (The West Wing/ER) discussed the theme while preparing for the film.
‘That’s the fun stuff, when everybody tells their secrets. You sit with nice, sane, reasonable people – and find out that everybody has some nutcase in their closet.’
Does her latest film offer any psychological insights into families?
‘One of the things I’ve discovered, in partnership with my husband, is how to move forward and leave the suffering in its proper place. Having a happy family life is critical.’
She and Moder have nine-year-old twins, Hazel and Phinnaeus, and a six-year-old, Henry.
‘We spoil our kids but we are also very strict parents. In some ways they have it easier than other kids, but we just try to show them all points of view about the world and how everybody is doing the best they can.’
Roberts has been staggeringly successful.
She was the first actress to command $20 million pay checks and her films have grossed around $5 billion.
She has collected Oscar nominations for Steel Magnolias (1989) and Pretty Woman (1990) and won in 2000 with Erin Brockovich.
She went on to star in crowd-pleasers ranging from The Pelican Brief and Notting Hill to Runaway Bride and My Best Friend’s Wedding, as well as taut dramas such as Closer and Duplicity.
But she has become choosier about taking on films over the past few years while focusing on her family.
‘People like to say that I’m super picky, but as an actor I pride myself on the fact that I’ve always been that way. And I’m 46 years old, so falling out of chairs isn’t so funny. I could break a hip. Certain scenarios that worked ten years ago aren’t as appealing.’
However, her performance in August: Osage County, which also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper and Juliette Lewis, is something of a return to form; this week Roberts was nominated Best Supporting Actress at the Baftas – and she’s a hot favorite for an Oscar.
She infuses the troubled Barbara with vulnerability and a very credible rage, spending one scene swearing incessantly at her depressed screen mother, trying to persuade her to eat lunch. Was it liberating?
‘Well, you have to get over that initial hump and then in a way it becomes how you express everything. Can I get a f****** cup of coffee?’ she yells, with convincing vitriol, pointing at an imaginary waiter. It’s like Erin Brockovich all over again. What’s happened to me? I am a decent person! I remember Steven Soderbergh [Erin Brockovich’s director] saying, “You would be more convincing if your face didn’t turn bright red every time you curse.” I said, “I am trying.” I am so nauseatingly optimistic in my real life, and pretty happy, so I had to figure out what makes Barbara behave and have this kind of access to bitterness,’ says Roberts.
‘There is remarkable cruelty at the Westons’ dinner table. I was relieved that it wasn’t my real life. At the end of these days when we would beat the hell out of each other, emotionally, I would go home and feel so happy that none of these people were in my house.’
There were lighter moments in Oklahoma, too: dinners at Meryl Streep’s rented apartment.
We would bring soup or a chicken dish and socialise and try to prepare for the next day’s work.
'Meryl is a magician, I don’t know how, but she would get home faster than everybody else, then put together a casserole.’
And unlike the on-screen dinners at the Westons’ house, ‘there was no smashing plates. But if Obama had not won the election [they were making the film during the 2012 Presidential campaign] there would have been some smashing!’
There’s a peal of laughter from Roberts, a staunch Democrat and a friend of Hillary Clinton.
‘She’s a personal hero; a great example of tenacity and brilliance. She makes me feel like an amateur at everything.’
Would she be pleased if Clinton ran for President in 2016?
‘I’d be happy if she was doing what she felt strongly about,’ she says evasively. ‘She hasn’t really said yet... but I do think she’s a remarkable woman.’
Roberts was born and raised in Smyrna, Georgia with her older siblings, Eric and Lisa. Her parents, Betty Lou and Walter, ran an acting school together, before they divorced.
Her early ambition was to become a vet, but she soon abandoned that plan and instead followed her older siblings into acting.
‘My parents were actors and then my big brother and big sister were actors, so really it was a lack of imagination that led me into showbusiness,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to be like everybody in my family.’
There is another loud laugh. Her first film success came with the cult hit Mystic Pizza in 1988, which was followed by Steel Magnolias and then in 1990 Pretty Woman.
'People say “How did your life change when Pretty Woman came out?” My joke is, well, when that happened in LA, I was on location filming Sleeping With The Enemy and the little town in South Carolina where we were filming was playing some movie that LA had seen six months earlier. One of the guys on the crew had a newspaper. He said, “Hey, it says here that Pretty Woman made blabbedy blah amount of money [it made $463 million].” I didn’t know if that was really good or normal.’
Today, Roberts is one of the most recognisable faces in the world, yet she appears genuinely grounded: ‘I don’t confuse the specialness of the job with myself – they’re two different things,’ she says.
Nevertheless, her life sounds pretty glamorous. The family owns an apartment in New York, a ranch in Taos, New Mexico and an eco-friendly solar-powered house in Malibu.
She counts George Clooney among her closest friends.
‘He is such a treasure to me,’ she says. ‘When we did the second Ocean’s movie I was pregnant and they really mollycoddled me. You would have thought I was made of porcelain. I couldn’t walk up the steps at George’s house without, “No, you’ll be on the first floor in this little bedroom here, don’t take the stairs.” It was so sweet.’
She has also visits his famously fabulous villa on Lake Como in Italy.
‘Danny and I have been out there with the kids. It’s a great house. The bath tubs are massive, the bathrooms are huge and he’s very generous.’
Clooney would make a great father, I suggest.
‘I talk to him about that sometimes,’ says Roberts. ‘He would be a great dad but you know what, he takes care of a lot of people in a lot of ways.’
Her next film is The Normal Heart, based on the play by Larry Kramer about the start of the Aids crisis in the States.
Roberts says she knows when a role is right ‘by the butterflies in my stomach when I read a script’.
She is also a creature of habit, however, and reveals that she’d like to work again with Mike Nichols (who directed her in Closer) and Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich), ‘who I have probably worked with more than anybody. I love the comfort and the shorthand and the understanding of working with people you trust, and I think that you can be more brave sometimes in those circumstances.’
Returning to London, where she filmed Notting Hill with Richard Curtis, isn’t out of the question.
‘I think he is a genius and [his wife] Emma Freud is right up there with him; the brainpower and the funny power in that house is unsurpassed. I love working in London. I’ve done a lot of movies there. Everybody is so fancy. I’m just a girl from Georgia. I love the tea and the accents, it’s fun.’
But as much as she loves working, it’s family that is her priority.
‘I never had a ferocious ambition, even early on. I didn’t make a movie for two years before Pelican Brief,’ she says. To take that time out was very important and informative to me, to examine what it was I was looking for and what about my job was important to me.’
How, I wonder, does she feel when young actresses such as British star Carey Mulligan and last year’s Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence are described as ‘the new Julia Roberts’?
The actress flashes that $20 million smile: ‘Like the old Julia Roberts!’
And that’s just fine by her.