Toys covered the floor, and Mary Poppins sang softly on the TV when director Tony Gilroy arrived at Julia Roberts‘ New York City apartment in the fall of 2007. The actress, who has three kids with husband Danny Moder, seemed to have relegated herself to ensemble work, but Gilroy was determined to woo her back to the screen in a major way. They sat in her kitchen, sizing each other up. He told her why she’d be perfect in Duplicity, as a slick corporate spy who trades kisses and quips with an equally smooth Clive Owen. Then Roberts’ new baby, Henry, started burbling for his mama, 3-year-old twins Finn and Hazel woke from their naps, and the meeting took a G-rated turn. ”It started off, I thought, with me seeming very chic,” says Roberts, ”because it was just me and Tony sitting having a cup of tea. Then one by one they all woke up and came in until I looked like Mother Hubbard.”
Today, Roberts is tucked away in a suite at midtown Manhattan’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. Her kids are safely ensconced in another room, always near their mother, but shielded from the rigors of her public life. Roberts is in game spirits, and she takes a crack at writing the headlines that will inevitably trumpet her return to the spotlight — and question her relevance going forward. ”The Pretty Woman Is Back!” she teases. ”The Working Woman! Everybody’s talking about ‘Oh, this is her comeback’ and ‘Ooh, she’s 41 and she’s working and not a lot of girls in their 40s are working.”’ She shakes her head, her face sliding into that famous grin. ”Well, I’m baaaa-aaaack,” she says in a patient voice, free of any urgency. We might have missed her more than she missed us.
Give the woman credit for holding out for a grown-up role. With Duplicity (out March 20), Roberts had the chance to fall in love on screen without first having to fret over a biological clock or whine for her man to propose. ”There are no issues about what to wear,” she says gratefully. ”Nobody’s drunk or tripping in a hallway.” Best of all, she could get back in the ring with Owen, who, as her boorish husband in the 2004 drama Closer, ripped Roberts open in what has to rank as one of film’s most brutal breakup scenes. (”You f—ed-up slag,” he spat into America’s Sweetheart’s face.) So Gilroy didn’t worry that his actor would shrivel in the presence of Roberts’ star wattage. ”I didn’t have to spend a lot of time saying ‘Hey, Clive, you better butch up for this scene,”’ the director laughs. ”He brings that [masculinity] with him.”
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