“Let’s call it a jubilee!” Julia Roberts quips when reminded that this year marks the 30th anniversary of her big-screen debut in Satisfaction. “I’ve been saying [I’ve been working] 30 years for 20 years,” jokes the 51-year-old actress, who stars in Amazon’s Homecoming and Lionsgate’s Ben Is Back this fall. “No, it feels like an accomplishment. If you made watches for 30 years, you would be proud of that.”
To help prepare for the harrowing drug abuse drama Ben Is Back, Roberts invited director Peter Hedges, his son and star Lucas Hedges, and actress Kathryn Newton, who plays Roberts’ daughter, to her family’s home in Malibu last fall to rehearse. The group grew so close that Lucas spent Thanksgiving with Roberts’ family. “She obviously has been a cultural touchstone for such a long time, but her family is really grounded,” the actor says. “It really was a family Thanksgiving dinner.”
No easy days
Ben Is Back is a gut-wrenching story, but that is precisely what made Roberts want to do the film — despite having to endure a frigid New York shoot last winter. Says the actress: “There were no easy days, but I’ve kind of realized that’s the way that I like it. If I’m going to leave my family, because we shot this during the school year, who wants easy days?”
Roberts’ performance in Back is fueled by both love and anger, especially in a scene where her character, Holly, confronts Ben (Hedges) in a men’s clothing store when she thinks he’s using drugs again. “I damaged my hand, actually,” remembers Roberts. “I don’t think it’s in the movie, but I really kind of beat the s— out of Lucas in that dressing room, and I wasn’t imagining that was the way the scene was going to go, and I don’t think he was either.” [Laughs] Recalls Lucas, “Oh yeah, I think I actually got bruised. She went hard, so credit to her.”
Amazon’s psychological thriller Homecoming, based on the 2016 podcast, finds Roberts playing a woman whose life unravels after she starts working for a seemingly benevolent program helping soldiers with PTSD. “Julia has that warmth that she can just flip on, and you feel it so strong,” says series creator Eli Horowitz. “It’s especially useful because [her character] Heidi’s put in these situations where she’s having to be repressed or gloomy or stressed. You can feel the tragedy of this woman being caged. We’re not used to seeing Julia Roberts get intimidated or bullied.”
Testing the waters
Roberts, who dipped her toe into the TV pool with appearances on Friends and Murphy Brown and Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart, was captivated when her agents sent her the podcast. “I felt like it hearkened to the radio shows, where everyone sits around in the living room just listening, and I thought it was done so well,” she says. “It was so evocative.” Plus, she was impressed with what people like Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) and good friend Steven Soderbergh (The Knick) had done in the TV space.
Homecoming diverges from the podcast in many ways, including a bulked-up subplot for Bobby Cannavale’s manipulative boss character, Colin, and a different climax. Says Roberts of Homecoming’s final scene: “It’s like ‘Who shot J.R.?’ You want to spend all summer talking about that kind of thing. It’s nice for something to end in a way that has all kinds of pathways it can potentially pick back up with.”
Roberts doesn’t have any immediate projects on the horizon (Homecoming’s second season has been ordered, but a start date is unknown as executive producer and director Sam Esmail wraps the final season of Mr. Robot.) The actress at least feels satisfied and energized by her current work. Beaming about the Homecoming experience, Roberts says, “Everything really came together in this dreamlike way. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just done. I should just retire.”
Click through for the second of Roberts’ two covers.