Julia Roberts has returned to acting with a vengeance this fall on both the big screen, with Ben Is Back, and small screen in Amazon’s much-acclaimed Homecoming, which should be an Emmy juggernaut come summer and has already earned Roberts nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama Series at both the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards. There is a reason for that. Roberts, who won an Oscar nearly two decades ago for Erin Brockovich, again demonstrates there is no one better once she decides to sink her teeth into some heavy drama. Of course, as the mother of three and a dedicated family person that isn’t as often as her fans might wish, so consider this season’s double-dose of Roberts an early holiday gift.
You can tell in talking with her, as I did last week in a CAA conference room while an industry screening of Ben Is Back was taking place just below us, that this movie, written and directed by Peter Hedges and co-starring his son Lucas Hedges, was something she felt strongly could have an impact, particularly as the story of a mother trying to save her drug-addicted son from a tragic end over the course of 24 hours one Christmas holiday. It’s a Wonderful Life this isn’t. “If someone were to say here’s what the idea is: It’s the opioid epidemic, it’s this family, it’s this boy — I mean, it just sounds so like big and intense,” she said. “And Peter wrote this really small, fragile story which takes on this monster, and I thought that was extraordinary, that it’s just this delicate. … It’s just this one house, this one day, and this family inside.”
She knew she had to do it the minute she read it. “As I read it the first time, I was just so knocked out by it; it’s unexpected. The whole of it is unexpected from start to finish,” she said. “You open in this church and it’s this one sweet thing, and it immediately becomes something else and then something else and something else again, so I do think that is quite unique.”
Roberts is hoping that instead of just seeing the sad statistics surrounding the ever-expanding opioid crisis in the country that Ben Is Back, which is continuing to widen to 25 more markets this weekend, will spark and reignite the “human conversation” about all of this and actually contribute more than just another movie might. For her research she kept going on a daily and nightly basis of endless stories that can easily be found online. After a while it became too much — too many tragic stories of addiction and family loss. “And I really just got to a tipping point where I thought, OK, I now have a new understanding and I just have to rely on my text and my person in Lucas, and I couldn’t keep returning to that place because it became too heartbreaking, and so I had to turn that then into just my creative ideas of how to show my character Holly to everybody else,” she said.
Roberts was actually largely responsible for Lucas Hedges being cast in the lead even though his father was writing and directing. Dad gives her full credit. “Yes. I will take it. Well, you know it’s sweet because listening to Lucas talk about it as I have in the last weeks, you know it has to be an interesting conundrum to say, ‘Shall I work for my father?’ I mean in any business, but to say shall I work for my father who will be my boss and tell me what to do, because that’s what an actor does. So I think that Peter was very, very sweet and genuine in saying to me in our initial meeting, well, it’s not fait accompli that Lucas will play this part, like he wasn’t assuming that he wrote this incredible story, and he wrote this great part for a young man his son’s age,” she said. “And I think Lucas just wanted to be able to come to it on his own, and I certainly did my version of nudging, and I think it did help him overcome some of his hesitations. But I will take full credit, but I think they both did an incredible job of coming together in their own decisions instead of just having assumptions of one another, which I think speaks to the greatness of their relationship.”
On top of Ben Is Back, Roberts chose this time to make a rare foray into television, her first since the HBO film The Normal Heart, and her first continuing role in a series ever. Roberts doesn’t separate big and small screen, at least not at this point in her 30-year career. “Well, you know, unfortunately it’s just the same internal equation. I just have a feeling when I read something. I just have always, when I was 20, when I was 30, when I was 45, when I’m 50. I just have the same feeling where I think, yeah, this is something for me, or I don’t have that feeling,” she said, adding that she cannot sing the praises of Homecoming creator-producer Sam Esmail enough, especially since even though it is the rare 30-minute drama series, it contains a lot of dialogue. She also has great things to say about co-star Stephan James, currently on screen as well in If Beale Street Could Talk.
“I mean he is word perfect in rehearsal, he is ready, he is on time, he is incomparable, so that to me, we were all rising to each other’s occasion every day for months, so it was incredible in that regard,” she said of James. “And it really was one of the most technically challenging jobs, but also a dream job. Yeah.” And it is going to continue: Amazon picked it up for a second season right from the start, and she is excited about figuring out exactly what that is going to be. “I don’t really pursue things. I have always, always felt, even when I needed to pay my bills, I’ve always felt that things find you, you know, at that time when they’re sort of perfect for you to understand and to be able to execute. I’ve just always had that feeling, and so I just wait. It’s like bumping into someone when you come out of an elevator, I just sort of wait for that to happen,” she said.
So there’s movies, TV, and actually even Broadway where Roberts’ star is being felt these days. No, she’s not onstage herself at the moment, although she has been in the past. It’s more the way we associate her with a certain role, the one that won her the second of four Oscar nominations in 1990’s Pretty Woman. It is now a musical, and she was there for its opening where she sat with Barbara Marshall, widow of Garry Marshall, the film’s director and this stage incarnation’s driving force before he died in 2016. I was wondering what she thought of it, watching Andy Karl in the Richard Gere role of Edward Lewis, and Samantha Barks playing Vivian Ward. “Oh it’s so sweet. It’s so sweet. I mean it really is like a trip down memory lane. They’re all so terrific, and it was Garry’s dream,” Roberts said. “And I wasn’t counting on the overwhelming sense of how much I missed Garry watching it, and how much I was just remembering like when we made up a scene, or other things. It was kind of like watching a home video. It was extraordinary. But they were terrific. They did a beautiful job, and the show is terrific, and all the cast are really, really great.”
So there’s the Broadway review that really counts.