Julia Roberts's Interview in Wall Street Journal (Talks Fame, Normal Heart, Her Sister's Death, Etc)
Julia Roberts on Her Family and Fame
The Academy Award winning actress, thankful for the life she shares out of the spotlight with her family, brings her star power to the small screen in HBO's film adaptation of 'The Normal Heart'
THE CONCEPT OF FATE comes up a lot in conversation with Julia Roberts. "I don't want to toy with the gods," she'll say. Or, "I don't want to tempt the fates." This is understandable since by any accounting she has been phenomenally lucky: a career that has lasted more than 25 years and includes a best-actress Oscar, legs that are still coltish at 46 and a marriage that has sailed past the decade mark and given her three kids. But these days, she's trying to live a life more ordinary, admittedly a difficult proposition for someone who found superstardom at 22 with 1990's Pretty Woman and to date has brought in $2.6 billion in box office receipts—almost twice the annual GDP of Belize. So tinkering is not something that Roberts is keen to do.
Nor is she eager to scrutinize the inner workings of her life, as though doing so might destroy the fine balance between being an acclaimed actress director Mike Nichols compares to Greta Garbo and her quiet existence in Malibu, where she has lived since 2007. "We're just grateful for the sense we have of being like any other family down the street. I don't question it, frankly," says Roberts, who the morning of WSJ.'s photo shoot is settling in with a plate of scrambled eggs and toast that she offers to her tousle-haired children, 9-year-old twins Hazel and Finn and 6-year-old Henry. (She tries to instill sibling harmony as much as the next mother, handling a skirmish over toys with a quick "Guess what? We are sharing everything.")
This is the life that Roberts, in her own Garbo-esque way, is trying to protect—a relative rarity in today's Hollywood, where so many stars mine their personal lives to generate self-branded mini-industries. But that would go against another cornerstone of Roberts's philosophy: that of deep gratitude for "having found your 'people,'" as she calls the family she created with cinematographer husband Danny Moder, whom she married in 2002. So although last night she made an appearance at a party thrown by one of her agents, CAA's Kevin Huvane, and tomorrow she will walk the Academy Awards' red carpet in a custom Givenchy gown, she seems content right where she is—dressed in a sweater and jeans, newly blond hair pulled back, her delicately lined face free of makeup, with her children climbing into her lap to collect hugs.
Almost all of her acting work is shot around their schedule, even her most recent: an adaptation of The Normal Heart, a play about the early fight against AIDS, airing on HBO this month. "By the time we had kids, I had accomplished things and felt secure about that part of my life," says Roberts. "I was so joyful moving into the family phase of my life in a sincere way." When the twins arrived in 2004, she had been working for 18 years, and she'd been a marquee name since the release of her second film, 1988's Mystic Pizza. From 1997 to 2001, a Julia Roberts vehicle pretty much guaranteed an average opening weekend of $25 million, and most went on to earn well over $100 million. She had become so famous by the time she was expecting Hazel and Finn, her part in 2004's Ocean's Twelve was rewritten so that her character could pretend to be a pregnant Julia Roberts. But from then on, Roberts seems to have tried to slow things down, and after Henry was born in 2007, the family moved full time to a relatively modest, secluded house that Roberts and Moder built on a sprawling lot in Malibu.
As a result, "for a long time," she says of her children, "they weren't even aware I had a job because I was home so much.
Now they get it." Still, they have never seen the best-actress Oscar she received for 2000's Erin Brockovich, the film for which she became the first Hollywood actress to be paid $20 million. (Her Oscar ended up at her older sister Lisa's New York apartment, Roberts says, breaking into a gleeful smile. "They were doing this photo album where everyone who visited the apartment would pose with it.")
"That's what Julia has been best at, maintaining their real life," says Nichols, who has been a constant reassuring presence for Roberts since directing her in 2004's Closer. "It's the little things that tell the tale. When you visit them, there is nobody working at their house, sweeping their hall. There are toys all over, and it's just Julia and Danny and the kids. She always slips away from the center."
It's a life she's hard-pressed to give up, so she filmed The Normal Heart during the children's summer and Thanksgiving vacations, with them in tow. The project is not from the typical Julia Roberts playbook: There are no big laughs, no fairy-tale romance and certainly no big hair, which is coiled into a low bun as Roberts plays the tightly wound, wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner, a polio victim who has become an AIDS doctor. It's a small but pivotal role in an ensemble piece, an unflinching movie about the 1980s AIDS crisis in New York City, adapted by activist playwright Larry Kramer and director Ryan Murphy (the creator of Glee) from Kramer's original 1985 play. The character of Dr. Brookner—based on the real-life Dr. Linda Laubenstein, also a polio survivor and New York City physician who treated early AIDS cases—is a vociferous campaigner for AIDS research funding and a proponent of the wildly unpopular, and at the time scientifically unsupported, recommendation of abstinence.
The material is difficult and, according to Murphy, who also directed her in 2010's Eat Pray Love, calls upon Roberts to evoke the same sort of "emotional advocacy" she displayed in Erin Brockovich. Roberts deflects his theory with a grin. "Ryan just likes it when I'm yelling," she says, laughing and switching into a deep drawl. "He's like, 'I love it when Lady gets mad, cheeks get red.'"
"I selfishly wanted to see Julia do this role," Murphy admits. "There is a famous scene where her character just explodes. Julia has said her heart is directly connected to her brain, so when she has an explosion you believe it and you feel it. She is someone who has been able to harness not just anger but passion."
Locating that passion is crucial for Roberts. "Part of the attraction [to a role] is to something that aligns within you to that person," she says. In fact, she had already turned down the role of Dr. Brookner twice (the film option had previously been held by Barbra Streisand ) because she saw only the character's hostility and rage. But when Murphy brought this version to her, Roberts thought, "This is getting ridiculous. I need to pay attention to why this keeps coming back to me." Watching a documentary about polio provided an epiphany. "I suddenly understood who she was in terms of this scary, inexplicable plague—what originally seemed [to me] to be anger was actually her determined pursuit to be part of a solution that she wasn't part of with the first plague that she experienced. Everything fell into place for me after that. I could see these are just really scared people who won't give up on finding the answers."
Roberts prepared extensively for the role, interviewing a doctor who worked with the late Dr. Laubenstein and bringing a 1980s-era wheelchair home for practice. "It was the most actor-y I've ever been," she says. "But you don't want to be bumping into walls and doorjambs and scraping your knuckles on things. I thought being in a wheelchair would be so easy and quiet, but it was actually quite tiring."
Despite being shot mostly from the waist up, she wore a heavy orthotic shoe with a significant lift to mimic a polio survivor's leg. "It was really just for me," she says. Roberts also studied the effect a slightly paralyzed lung would have on her breathing pattern. "I think I drove Ryan crazy."
"I've never seen her work harder," says Murphy. Her efforts also earned her the respect of her co-stars, including Mark Ruffalo, who plays Ned Weeks, a writer and activist who joins forces with Dr. Brookner in the fight against AIDS. "My first couple days I was terrified—she is part of the royalty of Hollywood," he says. "But it was like butter. She was so easy and accommodating and ego-less. You had this person who is the star of all their movies be an ensemble player in a humble, timid, reflective way."
"My preference would forever be ensemble," says Roberts. "It's where I started, and it's what I love. It's just fun and interesting to see what your fellow actors are coming up with. Mystic Pizza was like that, Steel Magnolias was like that. It's like being in a big family."
THIS LATEST FILM was literally a family affair, as Moder was the director of photography. He and Roberts have collaborated on six films, starting with The Mexican in 2001, where they first met on set. "I find it nerve-wracking in the best schoolgirl kind of way, and he knows that and is a good sport," she says. "I am usually hoping he's not looking into the camera and thinking, 'What is she doing?' We have worked together a lot and whenever we get there, I think, 'Why are we doing this again?' But it's great, and it allows us to travel together."
"Her family is a major part of what she does," adds Bradley Cooper, her co-star in 2010's Valentine's Day and the 2006 Broadway play Three Days of Rain, during which, he recalls, a dressing room was turned into a playroom for the 1½–year-old twins. "Her children are always around."
And as several hapless paparazzi have found, she is willing to go into lioness mode to protect her cubs. "I think there is a dehumanization that goes with fame, especially in the present culture of it, which isn't the culture I started off in," she says. "There wasn't this analysis of every iota of every moment of every day," she continues. "Nobody cared about what you wore, nobody cared what haircut you had, if you had on makeup or didn't—it's become this sort of sport."
Roberts is nostalgic for the Hollywood of her early career, where having arrived meant a dinner invitation to agent Sue Mengers's house and "there seemed to be a method to it," she says. "You had your job and you got paid $1, and you got your next job and got paid $2. It made sense to me." Today, when the only surefire hits are star-packed blockbusters like The Avengers or tentpole franchises starring relatively unknown actors, it's unclear who can reliably open a movie anymore. (It's telling that both Roberts's current film and her most recent one, August: Osage County, were adapted from plays that have a more narrow, focused appeal. Meanwhile, Pretty Woman is currently being transformed into a splashy Broadway musical.) "It used to be that you could build from weekend to weekend and people talked," says Roberts, who also has a production company. "Now, if there have been two showtimes and it hasn't sold 10 bazillion tickets, you're dead in the water.
"I don't consider myself a celebrity, [at least not] how it is fostered in our culture today," she adds. "I don't know if I'm old and slow, but there seems to be a frenzy to it."
Recently that frenzy caught up to Roberts when her half-sister Nancy Motes died at 37 from a possible drug overdose in early February. Motes, who had worked on Glee as a production assistant, allegedly left a suicide note reportedly alluding to her estrangement from her family. Interviews with Motes's friends and acquaintances fed daily headlines. Meanwhile, Roberts maintained her silence, choosing to grieve privately.
When asked about her sister's death, Roberts's face tightens as she pauses and looks toward the ocean. "It's just heartbreak," she says, tearing up. "It's only been 20 days. There aren't words to explain what any of us have been through in these last 20 days. It's hour by hour some days, but you just keep looking ahead.
"You don't want anything bad to happen to anyone, but there are so many tragic, painful, inexplicable things in the world. But [as with] any situation of challenge and despair, we must find a way, as a family," she continues before straightening up in her chair. "It's so hard to formulate a sentence about it outside the weepy huddle of my family."
One of the things that surely has helped Roberts through this time is her near-daily meditation. "Meditation or chanting or any of those things can be so joyous and also very quieting," says Roberts, who has introduced the practice to her children. "We share and just say, 'This is a way I comfort myself.'"
Perhaps this too is why she has a very Zen-like calm about not having any other movies lined up after The Normal Heart, something that would have been unthinkable for Roberts a few years ago. But, she says, she's been content to "find new creative outlets at home, with my family, as I get older and work as an actress less." It's a commonplace luxury she has worked hard to attain. "As odd as it is to say," says Cooper, "I feel that she is coming into her own."
How does she feel about not having another role in the pipeline? "It's nice. We have the rest of the school year," she says, brightening at the thought. "The thing about being a parent is that as your kids get older, Fridays start to get super exciting again, and Sundays start to get melancholic. Spring break is exciting again."