Kevin P. Sullivan
November 14, 2017 AT 12:45 PM EST

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With the rise of Pixar and the like as the premiere purveyors of family films, the live-action market for similar movies has dried up. It’s the reason that Wonder, the new film based on R.J. Palacio’s hit book, seems like such a rarity.

Telling the story of Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a fifth grader with craniofacial difference entering a neighborhood school for the first time, the adaptation of Wonder could have easily slipped into the mawkish. Instead, Wonder is an honest — albeit teary — tale of a family just trying to get by.

Speaking with EW for a larger story on Wonder, Julia Roberts, who plays Auggie’s mom, went into some detail about her history with Palacio’s book and how the production balanced the tone.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first encounter with the book?
JULIA ROBERTS: I was just harkening back, and I do believe that it was three years ago that I took the book with us on vacation. I had read about it in the the paper or something. I was late to the party, for sure. We were running to the airport, and I put it in my purse. On the plane, I started reading it, and I could not put it down. I was so enthused about the writing. When the perspective changed from Auggie to [his sister] Via, I was completely knocked out. I was not expecting that at all. I read the book over the weekend. I came home and said to my kids, I have just read the most fantastic book. I think we should put a pause on the book we’re reading together at night and start this one. They all loved it. They were all really intrigued by it. They were asking interesting questions. It just brought up a lot of good family conversations.

So you’re thinking, “If there’s a movie…”
I called my agent, and I said that I’m sure somebody is making this into a movie because it’s so beautiful and it’s been out for, at that point, a year. He looked into and called me back to say, “Funnily enough, do you know who has secured this property? David Hoberman.” David Hoberman I know because he was one of the producers on Pretty Woman. He and I and his partner, Todd Lieberman, we all went out to lunch. They were as in love with the property as I was, and they just said, “We’re trying to get this off the ground. It obviously isn’t the easiest piece of material to create into a movie.” So I said, “I would love to be the mom.” It was about a year later that we were all on the set shooting.

What about the story made such an impact with you?
The way she wrote it, I was so knocked out when I turned that last page of the first section and suddenly she was in Via’s point of view. I was so knocked out by that contrivance because it allows you a whole new set of tools to understand not only Auggie, but his sister. Times when you would have thought, “Oh, the sister, she’s so selfish. Why can’t she be more understanding?” You realize, “No, wait. She’s being completely understanding. She’s heartbroken. She needs her mother too.” I just love that. That to me was such a great bell to ring, especially as the mother of three kids, when you’re trying to give everybody the same amount of attention, which you never can. That compassion, that empathy, I just loved it. I loved what she was sharing and what she was teaching without saying, “You should be more compassionate.” She was just doing it in this really beautiful way as, “How about this option of your internal compass? Just be kind.”

What were you concerns about an adaptation of the book?
Her book was so rightly and wildly popular, and it had turned into classes in schools and required reading, so you think, “Okay, you have to be faithful to this book in a way that’s very deep and true.” In other way, movies are a different animal from books, and it can be very complicated. I think we were so fortunate in Steven coming on board because he’s a novelist, he’s a screenwriter, and he’s a director. He understands all of the formulas so instinctively that he was able to create the translation in a way that I think was really the best thing for the novel. He had such an allegiance to it. This is our homage to the novel, more than our interpretation.

How do you avoid making a movie like this overly sentimental?
I think our biggest responsibility as the Pullman family — Owen [Wilson, who plays Auggie’s father], myself, Jacob, and Isabella [Vidovic, who plays Via] — was to seem like we really know each other and love each other and get along and have our challenges, to have some authentic energy among the four of us. Owen and Bella had come over to my house in California before we all set off. We were just having a barbecue, and they hung out. She brought her mom, and Owen brought his son. It was just great to meet each other’s families. Then you instantly have a kind of understanding of where a person resides in the world. That, for me, was incredibly valuable. With Jacob, I only met him one time, which was the first day we were all together as a cast. Then after that, I was only ever with Auggie, who felt like my son. I loved him and treasured him, and I worried about him and tried to protect him. It all just seemed very true. I think Owen brought an incredible earnest humor to the family, which I didn’t see coming. I just thought it was the thing that really connected all of us.

Why do you think we haven’t seen a movie like this in years?
Maybe it’s too heartbreaking to look at the possibility of what we could all be doing for each other compared to what we are doing to each other. Maybe that’s it. I think the biggest message of the movie is that every minute of every day, we have this option to be the best version of ourselves, to make a choice that’s just a little sweeter, just a little kinder, just a little bit more positive. I think you have to be prepared to feel that.


Wonder is in theaters Friday.

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