For most of the ’80s and ’90s, Julia Roberts was Hollywood’s “it girl,” the one actress that every studio and producer could go to in order to bring in an influx of moviegoers to their movies. It even got to the point where Robert Altman made fun of that very phenomenon with numerous references to Ms. Roberts in his 1992 movie The Player.
Things have quieted down in recent years as Roberts raised her family, but Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity certainly seems like a return to form for the actress, as she’s once again teamed with Clive Owen, playing Claire Stenwick, a former CIA operative who is working undercover at a cosmetics firm as part of an elaborate plan to steal inventions that might give them an advantage over their competition.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to participate in an uncharacteristically low-key roundtable interview with Ms. Roberts, along with seven or eight other online journalists.
ComingSoon.net: Can you read a script like this and immediately understand what’s going on?
Julia Roberts: No.
CS: Did you really have to get into it a bit to first get that understanding?
Roberts: Yeah, you really have to surrender. It’s not the kind of thing that you can really put down and pick up and put down and pick up. You’ve got to sit down in a quiet room and sort it out.
CS: At what page did you start understanding what was going on?
Roberts: I don’t remember. I had read about half of it when I realized that I was not keeping up and I was not going to do the movie anyway because I was going to have a baby, so I just said, “Okay. I just need to call and say that I can’t do it anyway.” So I was already kind of half up to speed. I’d seen “Michael Clayton” and I’d previously read half of this script, so when I sat down to read it again after my son was born it was a little bit easier for me to just pick it up and go with it.
CS: What was the banter like with Clive Owen because you two are just shooting lines off each other in all your scenes together?
Roberts: I just love that kind of stuff though. Those are the kinds of movies that I grew up on, that sort of Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, “His Girl Friday,” that rata-tat-tat, that rhythm, that cadence. I love that kind of thing and it comes really natural to Tony’s style of writing this. It just is inherently there. You almost can’t do anything else with the language then speak it that way. I really enjoyed doing that.
CS: Does it come natural to you?
Roberts: It does. I’m Southern so I can talk really fast.
CS: Clive talks pretty fast, too. Maybe he’s from the south of England.
Roberts: (laughs) Yes, he can. He’s a skilled talker.
CS: What is it about you and Clive that makes your chemistry so strong?
Roberts: I think it’s just our friendship. I think we’re really fortunate that we came into this movie with years already as opposed to coming in with some stranger and you meet and you’re expected to kind of have this ability to fall into that which you can sometimes, but it definitely lends itself to more sort of creative ease when it’s someone that you already have an understanding of.
CS: How would you say this collaboration was different from the previous movie you two did together?
Roberts: Well, I mean, “Closer” is pretty ferocious at times, but the great thing about that is that we came from a piece led by the master, Mike Nichols, and he really forced us to get in there and play those scenes, no matter how raw or ugly. I think that within that kind of acting you either become good friends and really have a trust for each other or you never talk to each other again. You just kind of always feel uncomfortable around that person. Fortunately, we were the former, so I think that idea of safety and trust with a person allows you to just be more fun and playful which a lot of these scenes called for, just that little bit of sparkle of subtext.
CS: What about your two personalities make you click?
Roberts: I think that we have a similar sense of humor.
CS: That’s what he said.
Roberts: Oh, is it? Good [laughs]. We do have a similar sense of humor and I think our list of personal priorities, in our personal lives, are not different. We’re both happily married and with families and lead a pretty normal, unaffected existence within this odd universe of show business that we’ve both chosen to go into. So we’re similar in that way, too, I think.
CS: Is it a sarcastic humor a dirty humor?
Roberts: It’s not dirty humor. It can be sarcastic. And Tony is similar also because he’s so smart. I don’t know. I think it’s just knowing enough to know that we should be enjoying ourselves, really, because what is the point of dragging yourself all the way to wherever to be with this group of people if you’re not going to somehow share a joy in that experience.
CS: Were there any pranks on this set with Clive, you having worked with Clooney and Pitt and some of the great pranksters?
Roberts: No, and what a relief. You don’t have to check the toilet for anything or the light bulbs or the phone. Just good old-fashioned friendship.
CS: Was there anyone you were excited to work with on this set?
Roberts: Well, it was really a thrill for me to occupy space with Tom Wilkinson in this. I mean, this is man who is tall and has the broadest shoulders of any man. You think, “Wow, the weight of the world could balance there and be secure.” He’s a really interesting, sweet guy and I just think that his work is so continually a revelation in whatever he chooses to portray. It’s really quite impressive.
CS: Is it hard to keep track of where you are in a movie that takes such a non-linear approach?
Roberts: Yeah, we were in so many hotels that it got to the point where I was like, “OK, where are we? Have we ever been to this place before? Have we not gone there before?” So for me I definitely had to get up to speed as far as what had come before or not. You just have to go with it. The script supervisor, that’s her job. She will break it down in terms of days. This is a long period of time. So she has it mapped out in terms of time and what has come before, what’s come before that we know, what’s come before that we don’t know. Tony knows it inside and out so he would really just have the answers right then and there if in a moment you think, “Wait, now did we have margaritas or not?” So Tony always had those answers. I think for these guys, so much of it is face value of what we’re saying. “I’ve never met you before.” So I have nothing else to consider because I’m going to play the scene like I’ve never met you before and that has to be, hopefully, authentically portrayed so that people think we’re in that department store. I’ve never seen this person in my life and you really want people to think that. Then that makes it the thing and everything else falls away.
CS: You get so endeared to your character even though she’s not warm and fuzzy. Is it intimidating to play that type of character and why do we start to warm up to her?
Roberts: Well, I think the thing about Claire as the movie unravels is that she has her armor starting to fall away or her drive shifts a little bit unexpectedly for her because the great thing about her, like her or not or whatever her motivation is, she’s perfectly happy with who she is and what she’s doing and how she’s accomplishing it. She’s kind of ruthless that way. So as things go on and as this relationship unfolds with Ray for better or worse it really does change her focus. I just love that scene in the airport in the end, playing that scene was just masterful. Tony is really, really a smart guy because to watch these two people try to put their cards on the table and no one believes anyone, it’s just great. How do you convince the best liar you know that you’re not lying? It’s kind of a really super idea.
CS: You’ve not done a lot of movies in the past few years and someone is inevitably going to call this a comeback movie. Do you consider it that?
Roberts: Well, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that “Charlie Wilson’s War” came out. I had kids then and then I have a movie coming out on Father’s Day, so I feel as busy as… look, you guys can turn it into whatever you want. I think that someone said that I made thirteen movies in the last six years. Work is work. If I leave my house to go to work it’s work. Listen, if someone wanted to say that I was not being attentive to my children and “Look, she’s made all these movies in the last six years and her kids aren’t even five…” you can make whatever case you want. I feel that I have always been pretty methodical in the amount of work that I’ve done especially in the last like twelve or fifteen years. It just seems like I don’t really do two or three movies a year. It’s never been my capability.
CS: There were a few years there though that you did.
Roberts: Yeah, early on because I mean I would take any job that someone gave me… (laughter) not really. But yeah, I’ve never quite had that kind of momentum in work that some people do. I admire it. I think I’m lazier than that.
CS: Clive works a lot.
Roberts: Clive does work a lot. I don’t know how he keeps it going like that. It’s impressive.
CS: What do you look for in a film when you know you’re going to have to leave your home and your family?
Roberts: It just is really an instinct. I have to feel like, “Okay, yeah. I want to be a part of this.” It’s the whole package. This is certainly a well-crafted script and then Tony is so alluring, that brainiac. He came over to my apartment and sat in my kitchen and we had a long conversation and I just remember saying to him, “If you tell me that you’re going to be the guy who’s been sitting in my kitchen for the last three hours on set for the next six months then I’m in. If you’re going to be this guy.” He absolutely was the guy who sat in my kitchen. To this day he’s the same person.
CS: Are all the meetings you take in your kitchen?
Roberts: No, not everybody gets to come to the kitchen. It was great to be re-teamed with Clive, too. That was a nice opportunity.
CS: Have you seen a big change today in how you read scripts from when you first started?
Roberts: It’s all the same. If it’s not broken… no. Again, it’s the simplest sense of finishing a script and just knowing that you’ll do that or not.
CS: Having produced “Kit Kittredge,” are you looking to produce other projects?
Roberts: Well, we’re working on another “American Girl” story. We had done two that were on television and so “Kit” was our first feature, which was so exciting for us. So we’re going to keep on doing those because I think they’re just such great stories and they lend themselves I think perfectly to features. So we’ll keep doing that.
CS: You have a niece who’s already deep into acting. What advice would you give her or your kids if they wanted to get involved in acting?
Roberts: She’s not under my rule. (laughs) I don’t really give Emma [Roberts] any advice about show business. Our conversations tend to be on a more personal family level. My first instinct is that I would prefer if my children wanted to be artists that they wait, that they just wait as long as they can.
CS: Do you think it’s easier or harder for women and girls to succeed in this industry now?
Roberts: Well, it depends on what your measure of success is. It’s just left to the individual as to what they think is succeeding in this business now. I liked the way the business was when I started, so I’m glad that I had that experience when I started.
CS: What do you think has changed?
Roberts: Well, media coverage and the amount of scrutiny that’s heaped on everyday and on everything that a person does in their day to day life. It’s just so insidious and pointless, so I think that takes away from getting to have this special moment where you go see someone in a movie. That magic gets diluted because you see these people every hour of everyday in some machination of something that’s bound together and called a publication.
CS: You’ve been able to avoid that a little bit though, right? Do you have a secret for that?
Roberts: I mean, I think there’s a good balance in my life. If I could avoid it all together I think that I probably would, but I also love my job and in a situation like this, here’s this movie that I really, really enjoyed making and I’m happy to talk about it. I just think it would be nice if there were some clearer divisions of what people think is interesting.
CS: But surely you’re a consumer of media, too.
Roberts: I’m not really a consumer because… I used to be. It got so kind of sickening. It’s like eating a giant cheeseburger. You think you want to eat the whole thing and then halfway in you go, “What the f*ck am I doing? This is going to make me sick!” Like anyone, I want to see some nice picture of Clive in a magazine, but I don’t need to see a picture of Clive in his boxer shorts taking out his garbage. So I think that’s where people think they want so much coverage, they think they want those private moments stolen away but they don’t really because it does kind of make you sick and you do end up looking at it and thinking, “I really shouldn’t be seeing this. I really shouldn’t be voting on the popularity of who has the cutest baby. Doesn’t that kind of make me a small person?” I just think that we need some relief and some reprogramming.
CS: Many people look up to you on and off the screen. Who are some of your role models in Hollywood or in your life?
Roberts: Well, I have some very good neighbors that I admire and turn to in times of need and when my husband is out of town. Who do I admire? There are a lot of people. Sean Penn is a person that I really admire. He’s been a friend for a long time. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon I think are great examples of people who have evolved through a Hollywood system as creative people and normal people. There’s so many. That’s the thing, too. I just feel like our focus, our attention goes so much to the negative of what people have done wrong and what they can do better and everyone is so critical. It’s so easy to be critical and it just takes that slightest shift of thought to make it supportive and positive. I think it would be so great to get back to that. Everyone is having such a hard time right now with the recession and I think the president is doing such a great job of trying to keep us inspired and keep us moving forward and keep us looking towards a better day. If as a culture we really got on board with that I think it would really feel so good.
CS: What’s the movie you have coming out in June?
Roberts: “Fireflies in the Garden.” It’s a small movie that I did with Ryan Reynolds. Willem Dafoe plays my husband. Emily Watson. A great family drama written and directed by a man named Dennis Lee who I just had a really great experience with.
CS: Who’s directing that?
Roberts: Ryan Murphy.
CS: Is there anything else that you’re excited about being in or producing?
Roberts: Well, I’m doing a movie later in the year called “Eat, Pray, Love,” so I’m looking forward to that. That was a book that I like and a part that I think will be good. It’s a great book. It’s a really well thought out story. I think we start that in the fall.
CS: It’s been a while since you’ve done a romantic comedy. Is that genre dead to you?
Roberts: Well, it’s not dead to me. I’ve read a couple of really funny romantic comedy scripts in the last year which is unusual, but it hasn’t been something that I can sort of apply myself to in the circumstances that were presented in the script because I just think that you kind of have to change the game a little bit for it to work the older you get and the more that you look like you know. You kind of have to change the circumstances to accommodate that. Sometimes the math doesn’t work for me, but it’s certainly not dead and I certainly enjoy having a laugh reading it.
CS: Any movies that you’re excited to see that you’re not involved in?
Roberts: I’m only excited about mine. What’s coming out? I don’t even know.
CS: “Star Trek”?
Roberts: Oh, J.J. Abrams. I think that’ll be good. I’m not a “Star Trek” fan but I’m interested in seeing what J.J. Abrams has done to the “Star Trek” universe.
Duplicity opens nationwide on Friday, March 20.