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Julia Roberts and ''Mary Reilly''

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The interrogation at dawn. Tomorrow, an army of television reporters will descend upon a junket in downtown Chicago to pump, probe, and grill Julia Roberts about her new movie, Mary Reilly. She will smile; she will laugh; she will answer the same questions until her famous lips feel like pulled taffy. ”There’s absolutely no way to prepare for it,” she claims. ”You just try to get a good night’s sleep so you’re on top of things tomorrow, so that you can sustain energy over a grotesque period of time.”

Actually, this is a dodge. A childhood in Georgia and a decade in show business have made Julia Roberts something of a black belt in the martial art of charm. Mary Reilly may look like Roberts’ least glamorous outing to date — the one where she trades her tank tops and Southern glow for a servant’s smock and an Edinburgh pallor — but Roberts knows how to compensate for that austerity with a little old-school sass and allure.

At the moment, in a hotel suite overlooking the frozen crust of Lake Michigan, she’s clad in tight plaid trousers that halt high above her ankles, à la Josie and the Pussycats. Perched on a pair of clunky black shoes, she looks as slender and limber as a young birch. In Mary Reilly she tucks that famous hair under a flat red wig, but right now, she’s got a long, unbound mass of chocolate-brown curls — just the kind of Julia Roberts waterfall tangle of tresses that makes America think of bumper crops and Wall Street rallies and $100 million at the box office. She would never admit it — ”I mean, I don’t put a whole lot of thought into my hair,” she demurs — but every move will remind the Chicago troops that they’re talking to a movie star.

Hard to imagine, but some need a reminder. The last six months in Roberts’ life have been teeming with activity — she wrapped films with Neil Jordan (the Irish historical drama Michael Collins) and Woody Allen (a still-untitled musical), lent her Steinway smile to the Super Bowl episode of Friends, and locked up a deal to shoot the romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding in April — but the press can’t resist reeling off a litany of misfires from the last two years.

”Let’s drrrrag everything we can from the past into the present,” Roberts sighs. ”What is the point?! Pretty Woman being a success has nothing to do with Mary Reilly. I Love Trouble not doing well has nothing to do with Mary Reilly. Something to Talk About does well” — it grossed $51 million — ”and people talk about it as if it was a failure… And it’s a movie that I’m incredibly proud of.

”I also somehow get held responsible for the disappointment of Ready to Wear,” she continues, referring to Robert Altman’s catwalk fiasco. ”A movie I’m in for seven and a half minutes! Isn’t that wacko?! The fact that people can live with themselves saying that! It makes me wonder, ‘Well, did they see the movie?! Did they even see it?”’

Still, Roberts might forgive the press for sensing a slight whiff of mildew about Mary Reilly, the chiller that skulks into theaters Feb. 23. After all, director Stephen Frears began rolling the cameras in the spring of 1994. Based on Valerie Martin’s novel, Reilly unravels the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John Malkovich) from the eyes of the meek Irish maid who tidies the linen after Hyde’s nightly benders. Roberts was drawn to the film because ”the story seemed so simple,” but it didn’t stay that way. Hexed by a sequence of script snags, reshoots, and screening-room skirmishes between director and studio, the movie wound up missing seven release dates — a fate that saddled Mary Reilly with that insidious and inevitable sobriquet: troubled.

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