The truth is, it’s hard to get Julia Roberts to say yes to a movie these days. “As time goes by and my children are less packable with their school schedules, life isn’t the once origami thing it used to be where you go, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting!’ and it all folds into this one nice little piece,” says the 47-year-old Oscar-winner, breaking into her signature boisterous laugh that you can hear, right now, simply because of how often you’ve heard it over the years. She’s not avoiding work, she says. “It’s just a sense of choosiness for something compelling enough to keep me away from home, to a degree. I’m pretty much a stay-at-home mom and it’s incredibly fulfilling.” So what compelled her to take a supporting role in director Billy Ray’s Secret in Their Eyes, an American remake of the Argentine thriller El Secreto de Sus Ojos? “Certain stories come down the way,” she says, “where I think, ‘This bears investigating.’”
And that she does, playing Jess, a district-attorney investigator who is forced to relive a gruesome tragedy—the rape and murder of her teenage daughter—after her former partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) summons up new intel on the case 13 years later. In the original film and its novel source material, Roberts’ pivotal character was male and grieving the loss of his wife. Writer-director Ray (Breach, Captain Phillips) was searching for a leading man, too, until he says he heard a rumor that Roberts “was looking for a part she could disappear into.” That rumor was false, it turned out—“It makes me sound cool and actor-y,” laughs Roberts—but the report of ambition was fortuitous. Ray sent Roberts his script of a remake (which shifted the action from ’70s Argentina to post-9/11 America) with a suggestion that the critical role could swap genders. She bit.
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“I could see that she was intrigued by the prospect of this part, even though it was still written for a man. Julia had ideas about how she would want the role tailored to be a woman,” Ray says. “What was most impressive to me was, she didn’t want much tailoring at all. She didn’t want the dialogue changed. She wanted to say it in the same way the character did when the character was a man, and we locked in on that idea.” Roberts says she did want to make one critical change for the character, though. “I remember saying, ‘The victim would have to be her daughter,’” she says. “When [the victim] becomes not a peer, not an adult, it ups the stakes in an appropriately hideous way. Everything hinges on that pain.”
Ray wasn’t afraid to push for pain, either. “She didn’t want a movie star part,” says Ray. “She wanted to get in and get dirty, and she went to a place in this movie that I’ve never seen her go before.”
One of the roughest places is the scene in which Roberts’ Jess finds her daughter, Carolyn (Zoe Graham) stuffed in a dumpster. It was a heavy sequence Roberts dreaded for weeks, and on the morning of the shoot, production went to great lengths to keep the two actresses apart. “We ended up bumping into each other, and we didn’t speak,” says Roberts. “I just hugged her for a long, long time and didn’t see her again until we were shooting an agonizing amount of time later.” It was that off-camera “insta-parent” bond that allowed Roberts the freedom to access those dark corners of parental fear. “I was able to transfer all of my maternal affection to her, and it made it easier for me to one hundred percent not only keep all of my children out of it, but certainly keep my daughter out of it,” says Roberts, who ended up pulling off the excruciating scene in just two takes—the second, according to Ray, largely just for safety.
It undoubtedly helped that her husband Danny Moder served as the film’s cinematographer. “It actually became crucial for me for him to be there,” she admits. “I don’t know if I would have been as willing to make myself that vulnerable if it weren’t for the fact that the safest place I know in the world is across the room.” Roberts continues: “When it was finally all over, I’m getting a lot of hugs and a lot of tissues and a lot of ‘Are you okay?’s and there’s a number of people broken up…and then the swarm of kindness kind of shifted from me over to Danny, like, ‘Are you okay?!’”
Though only Roberts, Moder, and Graham could fit into the dumpster, there was no shortage of bystanders on the set who got to witness what Ray calls a “literally jaw-dropping” performance. “There were moments when a take would end and I would glance to one side or the other and see the way my crew members were looking at each other, mouthing things like, ‘Did you see that?’ or ‘Oh my God,’” says the director. “Julia has a gigantic engine inside her, and it’s her access to her pain, her love, her joy, her anger—and she turns it all loose in one movie.”
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