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John Sayles says Julia Roberts will never work in his movies

The ”Limbo” director can’t get money without stars, but he tells EW Online he doesn’t want them

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David Strathairn, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
©Screen Gem

In his new film, ”Limbo,” John Sayles explores the fear people have of taking any kind of life-changing risk. It’s a concept the writer-director knows firsthand: He’s had to scrabble for 20 years to find financing for his 12 movies because the major studios don’t want to gamble on his films’ usual low grosses. ”We always start off going to the people with the most money,” Sayles says about how he shops a new script. ”After they say no we go to someone else.” But for someone who spends much of his time being rejected, he’s surprisingly understanding about the big-money folks’ worries. ”There are very few other industries,” he tells EW Online, ”where the final product could be worth $20 million, $200 million, or nothing.”

Sayles knows he would get more attention if he cast superstars. ”(Studios) will say, if you get Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, and Tom Hanks, you can make any f—ing thing you want, and we’ll give you $80 million to make it,” he says. ”Otherwise, maybe you should make it for $2 million with whomever you want.” ”Limbo,” which stars the talented but lesser-known Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn, had the backing of a major studio: Sony. It only cost $8 million, however, which may be Sayles’ largest budget to date, but a sum that would barely cover John Travolta’s entourage. (In theaters for 17 days, ”Limbo” has earned a lackluster $724,520.)

Still, the lack of marquee names can be a blessing, because big stars can hurt a movie, in Sayles’ opinion. ”Very well-known actors may have built up a strong persona. Even if they have the talent to (break out of it), the audience may not accept them,” he says. ”If you’ve got Julia Roberts, and you don’t have a famous actor opposite her, she’s gonna overpower him, just by her star presence. People will think, ‘Why isn’t this guy asking for her autograph?”’

While Sayles may prefer to hire lower-profile leads, it’s not always his choice. He’s been told by stars that they’d love to work with him, and he has to tell them that he approached their agents three years before and was rejected — apparently without them consulting their clients. ”Ten percent of scale is not what an agent wants his client to be doing,” says Sayles, ”even if it’s only for six weeks.”