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“It’s incredible to have a 30-year career and to stand next to it and to say, ‘Yeah, that is the sum of all of my decisions,'” says Julia Roberts, the biggest female movie star of the last 30 years, as we sit down at CAA to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “It’s all me,” she adds. Her films collectively have grossed just under $3 billion domestically and just over $6 billion worldwide, and no fewer than 11 topped the domestic box office charts in their opening weekend.
Roberts has a long list of hugely popular and/or massively acclaimed films behind her — among them, 1988’s Mystic Pizza; 1989’s Steel Magnolias (for which she won a Golden Globe); 1990’s Pretty Woman (for which she won another Golden Globe) and Flatliners; 1991’s Sleeping With the Enemy and Hook; 1993’s The Pelican Brief; 1997’s Conspiracy Theory and My Best Friend’s Wedding; 1999’s Notting Hill and Runaway Bride; 2000’s Erin Brockovich (for which she won best actress Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice awards); 2001’s The Mexican and Ocean’s Eleven; 2004’s Ocean’s Twelve; 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War; 2009’s Duplicity; 2010’s Valentine’s Day and Eat Pray Love; 2013’s August: Osage County; and the 2014 TV movie The Normal Heart.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking “America’s Sweetheart” — with her instantly recognizable toothy smile, effusive laugh, voluminous hair and charming personality — is resting on her laurels. Rather, at 51, she is having one of her busiest and best years yet, garnering rave reviews for her portrayal of a mother desperately trying to save her son (Manchester by the Sea Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges) from the grips of addiction one dark Christmas Eve in Peter Hedges‘ Ben Is Back, and also picking up a Golden Globe nomination for her first-ever role as a TV series regular on Sam Esmail‘s acclaimed Amazon Prime half-hour drama Homecoming, on which she plays a caseworker at a center that helps combat veterans transition back into civilian life.
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Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, JJ Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Alicia Vikander, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Timothee Chalamet and Carol Burnett.
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Roberts was born and raised in Smyrna, Georgia, the youngest of three children. Her parents, who were heavily involved in the arts, split up when she was very young, and her father died of cancer when she was just 9. All three of the Roberts kids wound up in the arts, too — Roberts’ older brother Eric Roberts began appearing in the movies in the late 1970s, and her older sister Lisa Roberts headed to New York to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse. When Julia graduated from high school, she, too, moved to the Big Apple, where she worked odd jobs and posed for some modeling photographs before being introduced to “the man who really, truly, kind of changed my life,” the manager Bob McGowan. McGowan helped her to lay the foundation for her career, and soon she shot her first film, Blood Red, opposite her brother, and Satisfaction, her first released film. Still, it wasn’t until the end of the ’80s, with Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias, that she ceased being “Eric Roberts’ kid sister.”
Pretty Woman, a 1990 rom-com that is as much about the conspicuous consumption of the ’80s as it is about a prostitute and a john who fall in love, is the movie that catapulted Roberts to the top of Hollywood’s A-list — but, when she first became attached to it, it was a very different film. Originally titled 3,000, as in, the amount that the john would pay the prostitute for a week of service, it was a “very dark” drama — the prostitute, at the time, was a drug addict, as well — and Roberts won the part of the female lead. Then, the production company behind the film went bankrupt and the property was acquired by, of all possible parties, Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, at which point Garry Marshall signed on as the director and it became a much more comedic enterprise. Roberts met with Marshall and, she says, “We just kind of fell into this incredible relationship that I am so beholden to.” She “got the job again,” reading opposite the likes of Al Pacino, Bill Pullman, Christopher Lambert and Charles Grodin before Marshall decided to cast Richard Gere, and the rest is movie history.
Roberts was already at work on Joseph Ruben‘s Sleeping With the Enemy when Pretty Woman became a blockbuster. She subsequently signed on to Steven Spielberg‘s Hook, which proved a less than wonderful experience, and then took two years off from acting before returning in what she describes as “a dream job,” working for one of her “heroes,” Alan J. Pakula, on The Pelican Brief, which confirmed that she still was box office catnip. Throughout the rest of the ’90s, Roberts starred in all sorts of films, including period pieces such as Stephen Frears‘ Mary Reilly and Neil Jordan‘s Michael Collins, both released in 1996. But she became most closely associated with the rom-com genre through which she had first become a star, charming audiences in a series of summer hits including My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill and Runaway Bride, the last of which reunited her with Marshall and Gere under “super-different” circumstances from which they had first collaborated nine years earlier.
With the turn of the century came major changes in Roberts’ life and career. She starred as an indomitable working-class lawyer in Steven Soderbergh‘s Erin Brockovich, which brought her the best notices of her career and her Oscar. Soderbergh, in turn, introduced her to director Mike Nichols, “the greatest of all time,” with whom she teamed up on Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War, and who became a surrogate father to her. And, in 2002, she married cinematographer Danny Moder (she had previously been married to the singer Lyle Lovett from 1993-1995), after which she gave birth to a twin son and daughter in 2004 and another son in 2007. Over the years since, her professional output has slowed, but not weakened, and has included two successful collaborations with Ryan Murphy, Eat Pray Love and The Normal Heart.
But, critics and audiences seem to agree, Roberts’ work on Homecoming and in Ben Is Back represents a deeper commitment and more impressive execution than anything she has done in years, maybe since Erin Brockovich. Peter Hedges, an Oscar nominee for his script About a Boy, wrote Ben Is Back with Roberts in mind for the female lead, having been struck by her work as a mother in the 2017 breakout hit Wonder, and when she signed on to the film, it was the actress who helped to convince Hedges’ son, Lucas, to play her son in the film. Lucas had been reluctant to appear in a project directed by his dad, but, Roberts says, “They did an incredible job bringing out the best in each other.” The same is true of Roberts and Lucas, who rehearsed together at her home, where he also spent Thanksgiving with her family, and they ultimately had a number of gut-wrenching scenes together, including, perhaps most memorably, one in a mall and one in a cemetery. “I really feel so close to him,” says Roberts, who also has solo moments to shine in scenes at a drive-thru pharmacy window and a police station, to name just a few, as she portrays a mother refusing to give up on her child.
Ben Is Back had its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, and began rolling out in theaters on Dec. 7. Amazon Prime dropped all 10 episodes of the first season of Homecoming on Nov. 2; the show will return for a second season, but it is not yet clear if Roberts will be part of it.
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