By Karen Valby
April 16, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

STARRING Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco, Billy Crudup
WRITTEN BY Ryan Murphy, Jennifer Salt

When Julia Roberts first cracked open Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, which describes the writer’s yearlong global search for sustenance and serenity after a wrenching divorce, she says it was like sitting down to lunch with her ”favorite, most brilliant girlfriend.” In fact, Roberts, 42, sent a copy of the book to her own favorite, most brilliant girlfriend so the two could read in tandem and discuss it at night over the phone. Meanwhile, writer-director Ryan Murphy (Glee) was handing out copies to his circle of beloveds, an act that resulted in three of his female friends finally muscling up the courage to leave their unhappy marriages. Roberts and Murphy share an agent, and the two soon joined forces to tackle an adaptation of the book that Oprah Winfrey herself declared a worldwide movement.

Murphy knows the impulse some people have to pigeonhole a film, especially one based on a memoir masses of women have claimed as their personal bible. ”Everybody’s going to come to the movie and say ‘Oh, it’s Sex and the City meets Out of Africa,”’ he says. ”Ha!” laughs Roberts. ”I hadn’t heard that one. But one of the things I really loved about our approach to this material is that people took it very seriously. This wasn’t gone into as a frothy, girl journey. This is a person’s soul-searching experience.”

Murphy worked for a year on the script with his writing partner Jennifer Salt, routinely seeking input from Roberts. ”I remember in the first draft I read, there was, like, one dinner,” says the actress. ”So, much to my ultimate chagrin, I said to Ryan, ‘There’s just not enough eating! It is called EAT Pray Love.’ Of course, there I am stuffing my face in Rome every other day. I gained seven pounds in Italy.” In Rome, the star finally met Gilbert. ”She just walks in the room and it’s like a warm light comes on,” says Roberts.

Other beacons — male costars like Billy Crudup, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, and Javier Bardem — awaited Roberts and the crew along their trek around the globe. The $50 million shoot was long — 72 days — and filmed in the memoir’s linear sequence. After three weeks in New York came the carb-filled shoot in Italy, followed by dizzying crowds in India and then logistical torments in Bali, which had never before hosted a Hollywood movie crew. Roberts traveled with her husband, Danny Moder, and their three kids, 5-year-old twins Hazel and Finn and 2-year-old son Henry. (”When you take a baby who’s 2 to India, that’s not something you do lightly,” says Murphy.)

Roberts was initially surprised by the casting of Bardem as the Brazilian-born Australian who reintroduces our heroine to the possibility of love. ”I couldn’t get the image of him as the character from No Country for Old Men out of my mind,” she says. But the Spanish Oscar winner brought a relaxed lightness and good humor to the end of a grueling shoot, even declaring one day that he would play an entire scene as an ape. ”People assume he’s so dark and heavy,” says Murphy. ”He said he did this movie because ‘I want to be fun and wear linen shirts and make Julia Roberts laugh.”’

And since Gilbert’s follow-up memoir, Committed, was released in January, there’s the possibility of a film sequel focusing on how the author’s Balinese love affair evolved into marriage. ”Javier kept on saying ‘What’s going on with the sequel, what’s going on?”’ says Murphy. ”We’ve only really discussed it because Julia and Javier just got along like a house on fire. I think it would be a great movie to do.” (Don’t expect a sequel right away. Sony has first crack at the movie rights to Committed, but no deal has been secured yet.)

In the meantime, Murphy hopes he’s created a summer getaway plan for female filmgoers. ”This is for the ladies who sat through five action movies with their boyfriends, and it’s their chance to say ‘My turn,”’ he says. ”If you can’t go on a summer vacation, let us take you around the world.”

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 133 minutes
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