'Homecoming': How Julia Roberts Became the Amazon Thriller's Heartbreaking Hero

There's no shortage of things to chew on in Homecoming, the Amazon drama based on the Gimlet Media podcast of the same name — and yes, that includes food, with prominent menu items featured on the show including pineapple cobbler and gnocchi primavera … a little too much gnocchi, in fact, if you ask one Julia Roberts.

The potato-based pasta dish plays a prominent role late in the season as Heidi Bergman, the down-on-her-luck therapist played by the erstwhile Erin Brockovich award-winner, annihilates a huge plate of the stuff. Without getting into the details of what the gnocchi represents for the plot, know this: it's a true mountain of food, covered in so much primavera sauce. It's delicious, according to Heidi's testimony, but it is also copious in quantity — and it required Roberts to dig deep in order to make a dent in the meal.

"It was so crazy," Roberts recalls with a big laugh, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about the scene. "I've never had that experience where I'm bringing work food to my mouth, and everything inside my body is saying: 'No, you cannot do that.'"

For Heidi Bergman and for Homecoming at large, it's instructive to look at the narrative in two distinct eras: pre-gnocchi and post-gnocchi. The series, directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, twists and turns across a great stretch of time, with two years firmly in the spotlight: 2018 and 2022. In these two different moments, two different versions of Roberts' character emerge. The Oscar-winning star identifies them as "pre-gnocchi" Heidi, a therapist driven by purpose who is slowly but surely tested by her own participation in the titular Homecoming project, and "post-gnocchi" Heidi, a waitress who is lost and confused as she tries to puzzle out the nature of her old, enigmatic life.

"This was really two parts for me," says Roberts, discussing why Homecoming as a series and Heidi as a character were compelling enough to draw her into her first-ever series regular commitment. "I see her very much as two different people. There's the beautiful, therapist version of Heidi who is just so sincere, almost like a girl scout. She knows she can help. She believes in what she's doing and saying and in that, it's thrilling to play someone who is so sure of herself, someone who is so sweet."

As for the "post-gnocchi" Heidi, Roberts describes her as "complacent and lacking a full understanding. There's no point in really going over [what had happened to her]. She's got a robotic life: she goes to work at the diner and then she goes home. There's something so heartbreaking about that."

In the podcast on which the TV series is based, Catherine Keener voiced the role of Heidi, imbuing the Homecoming hero with warmth, empathy and eventually a healthy amount of defiance. Across the two periods of time, Heidi acts as both collaborator and detective, responsible for monstrousness and remorseful over those same acts in alternating measure. 

"With Heidi, as with any other character, you start off with an interesting situation that the person's in, and then you start working on the scenes, and then you hear how they talk, and then you start applying plot pressure to them," says Micah Bloomberg, the co-creator of both the Homecoming podcast as well as the Amazon series. "What do they need to do? What do they need to accomplish? And then you hear how they respond to that, and then the drafts go forward, and then you get an actor to do it and you hear it and you're like, 'Wow, that's not at all what I thought — but that's incredible.'" 

In casting the TV adaptation, Bloomberg and co-creator Eli Horowitz did not consider Keener and the rest of the original voice cast (including Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer), but still focused on a wide range of possible actors — relative unknowns and decisive superstars alike.

"When it came time for the TV show, we needed to make it new and make it its own thing," says Bloomberg. "When you bring in one of the best actors ever [in Roberts], and their ideas about how to do it are really unexpected but also way better than you ever thought, it becomes totally its own thing."

In casting the role, Bloomberg and Horowitz say that Heidi's transformation from quiet collaborator to heartbreaking (and heartbroken) hero worked especially well with someone as recognizable as Roberts, largely because of the way the character is treated by her boss, Colin Belfast, the morally dubious smooth-talker played by Bobby Cannavale.

"Julia being Julia was an interesting fit with Heidi," says Bloomberg, "because Heidi is someone who is often being bullied. She's often indecisive, and she makes mistakes, in a very human way. I think there's a special zing to seeing Julia Roberts get bullied or make a mistake or be indecisive. You get angry when you see Colin stepping all over her."

One such rage-inducing moment comes midway through the season, once again centered on food: Heidi and Colin meet in a Chinese restaurant, their stomachs coated in grease and beer, much as the scene itself is coated in lies and tension. It was the final scene shot for the season, according to Esmail, and one that perfectly summarizes why Roberts was the right choice to bring Heidi to life.

"It's the last day of shooting, so it's the 64th day," he remembers. "We're all pretty exhausted, and she's delivering this insane performance, and I just didn't know what to do. We're doing this long tracking shot — it's a long lens, and it's just so hard to keep it focused … and it all just worked. As a director, it was one of those moments where you sit back and say, 'God, I'm so fucking lucky right now.'"

The Homecoming audience will be luckier still if they see Roberts as Heidi beyond the show's first year. In 2017, Amazon gave Homecoming a two-season straight-to-series order, and while it's clear that both Horowitz and Bloomberg have designs on continuing the story, it's less clear as to whether Roberts will return for the second season. 

When pressed on the matter, Roberts tells THR she's not prepared to confirm or deny one way or the other. For now, she's content with the work she delivered in the first season of the Hitchcockian thriller — just as she's content to stay away from gnocchi forever, or at least for "a couple of years."

Homecoming arrives Nov. 2 on Amazon Prime. Follow THR.com/LiveFeed for full coverage.