Sure, most moms aren’t A-list actresses who, in the course of a day’s work, find themselves introducing their kids to their Oscar-winning friends. But it’s strangely comforting to see Julia Roberts struggle with normal parenting issues as she attempts to get her 5-year-old daughter to acknowledge Javier Bardem, the love interest in her new drama Eat Pray Love. It’s Roberts’ ability to come across as both otherworldly and accessible that makes her a good fit to embody memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert in the screen adaptation of Gilbert’s smash 2006 book by the same name. Directed by Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy, the PG-13-rated Eat Pray Love, out Aug. 13, follows a despondent New York writer as she spends a year traveling to Italy (eating), India (praying), and Indonesia (loving) in search of happiness and meaning. For Roberts, 42, it’s the first time in a decade that she’s truly carried a movie. Though she’s worked steadily since marrying cinematographer Danny Moder in 2002, she’s become known for turning down as many blockbusters (The Proposal and The Blind Side, to name two) as she’s starred in, a development that stems from her desire to spend as much time with her family as possible (Hazel has a twin brother, Finn, and there’s also 3-year-old sibling Henry).
But the appeal of Eat Pray Love (or, as Roberts calls it, EPL) was too strong for her to pass up. During the globe-trotting shoot (the movie was filmed in sequence), she served as ringleader to a band of male costars, including Billy Crudup as Gilbert’s ex-husband, James Franco as her flighty boyfriend, Richard Jenkins as a troubled Texan she meets in India, and Bardem as the Brazilian who shows her how to love again in Bali. ”She’s not one of those actresses who are stuck in the scene, who have a plan and follow that plan no matter what,” Bardem says. ”She’s the opposite. It’s like an adventure. Every take is different. She likes to be present and alive.” While picking at a fruit plate in a hotel suite in Cancún, Mexico, Roberts opens up about spit buckets, elephant costars, and how EPL changed her outlook on life.
EW Ryan Murphy says you had strong opinions about which elements from the book should be in the film, and which shouldn’t. What were you willing to lose?
Julia Roberts You do have to lose a lot. Some things just were too complicated — some of her mental conflicts. Just to briefly touch on things like that in a movie might come across as irresponsible. ”You’re depressed? [Snaps her fingers] This is all you gotta do.” If people are really struggling with depression or real mental conflicts, then eating a pizza in Naples is not going to solve those problems.
EW Speaking of pizza, did you have a spit bucket by your side for all of the food scenes?
Roberts Well, first of all, that grosses me out. But the truth of the matter is, there probably would have come a point when I would have used it. If you look at any of the scenes of eating, by the end of the scene, I’m done eating. Like in the scene with the pizza, by the time the scene is over, I’ve eaten the entire piece. When we were in Naples, we started shooting at 8 in the morning, and I think by 8:45 I’d eaten 8 or 10 pieces of pizza. Pizza was what I ate all day that day.
EW Did you want it to look like you had gained weight after the Italy portion of the film?
Roberts You know, we talked about that. Because I didn’t want people to say, ”Well, she’s supposed to go to Italy and eat all this food, but she looks the same in the whole thing.” So I talked to Ryan about it. And one of the things I love the most about Ryan is that he has a real legitimate answer for everything. There’s nothing that he hasn’t considered weeks before I’ve thought of the question. When it came to that, I said, ”What do we do?” And he said, ”By the time Liz got to Italy, she was so underweight that the weight she put on really got her back to normal and then a little bit more.” It wasn’t like she [became] a tub. So because I started at normal weight for me, by the time we left Rome and I was 7 to 10 pounds heavier, that was probably the truth of what she was dealing with. I could’ve used a bigger pair of jeans when I went off to India!
EW Your scenes with Billy Crudup are some of the most emotionally raw in the movie.
Roberts I honestly could look at him and just start crying. I don’t think he’ll appreciate me saying it like that! But there’s something about him and the part and the scenes that we played together that is just so heartbreaking and so tragic.
EW Have you ever been in such a dark and sad place as Liz finds herself in the movie?
Roberts As a younger person, [with] problems that are more unformed and immature, I’m sure. There’s a moment where you’re hitting the compass and it’s just not giving you the way to go.
EW When was that for you exactly?
Roberts Well, my whole 20s was like that: trying out this idea of things, working a lot, and moving away from home at 17 and being away from my mom. So there are times when you’re figuring out those puzzles where you really do feel lost. ”Do I really want to be an actor? Is it really going to work out?” You want to talk about a series of breakdowns? Talk to any actors in their 20s. You just never know if it’s going to click.
EW You’re in literally every scene of the film. Was that a lot of pressure for you?
Roberts This is the first time where I’ve traveled so much, worked every day, and had my family with me. This was, like, the big full-meal deal. The last time that I worked every scene of every day on a schedule was Erin Brockovich. It definitely has its own challenges, definitely has its own set of magical comforts that you find at the end of the day. I mean, the day never ends [when you’ve got kids]. As opposed to coming home from work and thinking, ”Hmm, should I make a drink and take a shower and put my feet up?” it’s, you know, ”Mommy!” But there’s a beauty to that that I was very attached to. And I certainly had a village of support to make it all happen. That’s the thing too — so much of this movie is about finding a place of gratitude to really dwell in, to build a residence in. And the experience of making this movie allowed me to open my eyes and see all the people and elements of my life coming together that make me so — I could start crying right now — but really, humbly grateful. So I couldn’t trade that for anything.
EW What was your family’s favorite location?
Roberts Well, my kids could really make a party in a cardboard box. It’s not hard to please people under four feet tall. They have a great spirit of adventure. EPL was for us the WPT: We called it the World Pool Tour. Everywhere we went, it was so hot, we were just looking for a swimming pool. The fact that they never got sunburned and no one’s hair ever turned green was pretty much my maternal triumph of the summer.
EW One of your most memorable scene partners in the movie is an elephant. That’s certainly a first for you.
Roberts Actually, it’s funny, because the day we were doing that, I come walking across the ashram and I see the elephant. I go to my assistant director: ”I know I know this elephant. What’s the elephant’s name?” He says, ”I don’t know. Some Indian name.” I go, ”Is it Laxmi?” ”Yeah! That’s the elephant’s name! Laxmi!” I say, ”I know that elephant.” He goes, ”No, that elephant’s not from around here. That elephant’s from Jaipur.” I said, ”I was in Jaipur because my husband was shooting a commercial in India, like, six months ago.” The kids and I had come to visit him and we had gone on this elephant ride. And Finn and I were on Laxmi. And the reason I would even recognize the elephant was because I had been working on this family calendar that I do every year, and I had gone through a bunch of pictures from when we were in India. And the ears are very specific, with spots.
EW So did she remember you too?
Roberts I don’t think she did, only because I learned later that you have to blow in an elephant’s trunk so they get your scent. Then they know who you are.
EW It’s hard to believe, but this year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Pretty Woman. What advice would you give to your younger self if you could?
Roberts Nothing. The funny thing is, I’m still so much that same person, really. I think that you’re born that person — becoming famous doesn’t make you crazy. I just don’t believe any of that crap. Twenty years is, first of all, a drop of water. It’s all still kind of hilarious and unbelievable to me. And I have so many places to put the big weight of identity of my life that movies just will never have that. They just fulfill me in a different place.
EW Do you obsess over your appearance? Do you like the way you look today?
Roberts I’m human. Sometimes I, like anybody, wake up in the morning and go, ”F—. Really? This is the starting point?” Haven’t you ever picked up a picture of yourself from, like, five years ago, and you look at yourself and you just go, ”And I had no appreciation for how lovely I looked, how fit and healthy I looked.” So now I say, ”Now listen. Ten years from now, you’re really going to think you should have appreciated yourself more.” And I’m raising a daughter, and I really want to empower her by example.
EW At the end of the movie, your character comes up with one word to sum up where she is in her life. I’m sure you’ve been asked this dozens of times already, but what’s your word?
Roberts What is my word? Has anybody asked me that? I don’t think so. What do you think it is? If someone said, ”What is Julia Roberts’ word? You just spent an hour with her.”
Roberts Balance is good. You know, I probably would say happy. Just happy. It’s so easy to be really, truly happy, and so easy to forget that and get grumpy. I know it’s a shock, but I can be grumpy.
EW You’re clearly a Ryan Murphy fan. Are you also a Glee fan?
Roberts I’m not a Gleek. But I was lucky because I had an in, so I got to watch all the DVDs. I felt like I was ahead of the tsunami.
EW Well, the cool thing for actors to do right now is a guest spot on Glee.
Roberts And that’s why I’m going to be the only cool actor who doesn’t go on. That’s how I’m going to stand out.
Getting to know the men of EPL
Jenkins, 63, an Oscar nominee for 2008’s The Visitor, hadn’t planned on contacting his real-life Eat Pray Love alter ago, Richard Vogt (a.k.a. ”Richard from Texas”), until director Ryan Murphy suggested it. ”It was the easiest 40 minutes I’ve ever had on the phone,” says Jenkins. ”He just cracked me up.” Vogt passed away suddenly of a heart attack at age 62 in March. ”It’s too bad he didn’t get to see the movie,” says Jenkins. ”He is such an important part of her journey.” — DK
Bardem, 41, had just finished a grueling shoot of the bleak drama Biutiful when he got the offer to play Felipe, the romantic single dad living in Indonesia. ”I thought, Okay. Bali, Julia Roberts, linen shirts, driving a boat — what’s wrong with that?” says the actor, an Oscar winner for 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Off screen, Bardem has found love as well; he married Penélope Cruz (his costar from 1992’s Jamón Jamón and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) in early July. — DK