Bartlesville, Okla., rests on the edge of Osage County, carved in half by the broad, flat Caney River. It’s a pretty city, clean and polite, and for a brief time last fall, it was home to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, who all lived together (at Meryl Streep’s suggestion) in a new condo complex tucked behind a car dealership. ”I’d step out on my little patio and look over and ‘Oh, there’s Meryl,”’ Julia Roberts says, laughing. ”I’d look to my left and there’s Ewan McGregor. Someone would say, ‘So, anybody want to run some lines?”’

August: Osage County, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play by Tracy Letts, is about a family swirling in a dust storm of dysfunction. The matriarch, Violet Weston (Streep), staggers around a sprawling house in rural Oklahoma, smoking, suffering from mouth cancer, and popping Percocet like peppermints. When her husband (Sam Shepard) vanishes one day, her daughters and their families return to provide support.

It doesn’t quite play out that way. Violet’s daughters — Barb (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis) — have all been damaged by their mother. And each becomes the target of Violet’s verbal cruelty until, in one epic family-dinner battle, Barb seizes control and the drama spirals into bitter confrontations and heartbreaking revelations. ”This kind of material is like the acting Olympics,” says Roberts. ”Tracy Letts has built this absolute house of cards where everything has to be placed perfectly. It’s so perilous. And then to have Meryl Streep play your mother…these are things I’ve dreamt about for the past 25 years.”

The film, produced by George Clooney (among others) and directed by former West Wing and ER exec producer John Wells (The Company Men), was shot primarily in and around Pawhuska, about 40 minutes from Bartlesville, in a five-bedroom Victorian Tidewater house that the production bought and redecorated. ”We wanted to show the rugged beauty and isolation of the landscape,” Wells says. ”It was also really valuable to the cast members. Being in that house all day long, they had time to feel the place, the language, and to start to feel as if they were a family.”

Luckily, a much happier one. Streep and Margo Martindale (The Americans), who plays Violet’s sister, took to hosting evening potlucks back at the condos. ”This was during the presidential debates,” says Nicholson, whose character is the film’s quiet heart. ”So we’d go to Meryl’s, and Margo would bring her chicken casserole, and someone else would bring salad, and we’d be chatting, and Meryl would be laughing and yelling politics at the television. It was amazing.”

Family was very much on Roberts’ mind during shooting. Her character’s dominant emotion is rage, but Roberts conveys a deep sadness beneath the acrimony. ”I don’t have that kind of anger, because, you know, I’m 45 and I’m sort of over it,” she says. ”[But] this was the first time I’ve ever been away from my family for work, and I found that incredibly painful. It really was like, if you say one wrong thing to me I could either burst into tears or take your head off.” She sighs. ”So, you know,” she deadpans, ”that helped,” and then laughs.

You Know Who’s Cool? Julianne Nicholson
Why She Looks Familiar The TV vet plays Assistant U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and had a recurring role as Det. Megan Wheeler on NBC’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Cry Us A River In August: Osage County, the 42-year-old holds her own against a heavyweight cast as the timid middle daughter of Meryl Streep’s acid-tongued mom. ”Julianne is just heartbreaking,” says costar Julia Roberts, adding, ”I’ve never seen anybody who looks more beautiful when she cries.”

Up Next She’ll appear on Showtime’s Masters of Sex this fall, then star on Sundance Channel’s The Red Road next year.

August: Osage County
  • Movie
  • R
  • 130 minutes
  • John Wells