Success hasn’t clouded director Steven Soderbergh’s casting ability. Even though hiring Julia Roberts has given him his biggest opening ever ($28.1 million) — which would make her seem like a very lucrative coworker to hold on to — he turned her down for a role in an upcoming movie. Soderbergh, who will next direct ”Traffic,” a gritty epic about today’s drug trade, says that while on the set of ”Brockovich,” Roberts asked if she could have a part that would call for her to be dark and emotionless. But the director, who in ”Erin” steered her through a dramatic turn that still allowed her to exhibit her trademark vivacity, would have none of it. ”I said, ‘It would require you to extinguish everything that I find compelling about you,’ ” remembers Soderbergh. ”It’s unimaginable to me to cast her [in a somber] role, when her gift is her life force that really makes you want to watch.”
Roberts owes her $20 million salary to the blockbuster successes of her recent romantic comedies ”Notting Hill” and ”Runaway Bride.” And while her ”Brockovich” role is something of a dramatic stretch (in one standout scene she weeps silently as she hears about missing her child’s first words), her character is still brash and comically outspoken enough to remind her fans they’re seeing their favorite superstar. But when she tried to repress her buoyancy in the past (think ”Mary Reilly” and ”Michael Collins”), audiences haven’t wanted any part of it. ”One of the reasons [Erin is] such a good part for her is it plays to all of her strengths,” says Soderbergh. ”Yet there is something a little heavier at the center than she normally plays.”
For her part, Roberts says she isn’t necessarily looking at ”Brockovich” as a first step toward permanently fleeing fluffy comedies for brooding drama — a good sign that she’ll continue to play to her strengths. ”I just do the movies that are good,” she says. ”If [all the good scripts I got] were romantic comedies, that’s all I would do.” Sounds like someone who’ll be getting a raise soon.