A behind-the-scenes look at how teacher Julia Roberts and her star students -- a TRIO OF UP-AND-COMING YOUNG ACTRESSES -- made up the chick-flick curriculum.

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated November 14, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s like stepping into an Arthur Fonzarelli daydream. As far as the eye can see: coeds. A lecture hall full of bubbly girls in saddle shoes, itchy tweed skirts, and tight angora sweaters. But the Fonz wouldn’t stand a chance in this room. After all, these aren’t just any old Eisenhower-era coeds looking to hop on the back of some grease monkey’s motorcycle and zip off to Inspiration Point. They’re Wellesley girls.

All right, they’re actresses playing Wellesley girls for the film Mona Lisa Smile (opening Dec. 19). And we’re at Columbia University, not Wellesley College. But you get the idea. Today’s scene is set in an art history class. It will come toward the end of the film and will be offered as proof of how one special teacher — Julia Roberts’ Katherine Watson — has transformed these sheltered girls into freethinking women.

After Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Kirsten Dunst weigh in on why the woman in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait is smiling, Roberts says, ”The important thing is, there is no right answer. You guys should all come up with your own interpretation and trust your opinions.” ”Cuttt!”

The director, Mike Newell, storms out from behind his monitor. ”Julia, could you please try it again without calling them guys?” Nice catch. Not only because a teacher in the ’50’s wouldn’t make that mistake. But also because no one in their right mind would see anything related to Mona Lisa Smile as male. It’s as unapologetically chicky as chick flicks get.

Later, after Roberts gets her gender idioms straight and nails the scene, she walks over to her husband, cameraman Danny Moder, and gives him a big bear hug. They’ve been married only five months at this point in the shoot, so Mona Lisa has turned into a working honeymoon for the newlyweds.

”I don’t know what the f — – I’m doing here,” Roberts says, putting it a bit more bluntly. ”I guess I’m preaching one thing and kind of doing the other, because I still have rice in my hair and I want to stay home and cook dinner. The movie’s all about how it’s okay for women to go off and have careers, but secretly I’m thinking ‘What time do we get out of here?”’

Then why do it? It’s been two years since Roberts detonated into her Oscar-night giggle fit, winning Best Actress for Erin Brockovich. And her films have made a total of nearly $2 billion at the box office. What does she have left to prove?

”There’s almost nothing now that is more attractive to me than staying home. And I’ve already started to work less. I mean, I’m 35 years old and I’m able to see the ridiculousness in myself: I go to work, I get dressed up like a doll, a nice man puts lipstick on my mouth, and I say words. It’s an elaborate dress-up. I mean, it’s deeply satisfying to me. But there is this part of me that sometimes thinks, ‘What am I doing?”’

When asked if it’s hard for the onetime Pretty Woman ingenue to be den mother to a trio of younger stars like Stiles, 22, Gyllenhaal, 25, and Dunst, 21, Roberts laughs. ”They look like babies to me. One day I said to Maggie, ‘I feel like Elizabeth Montgomery’s drunk sister’ and she was like, ‘Who’s Elizabeth Montgomery?’ After that, I could hear my back creaking.”