A tale of two Julias: Inside the making of the edgiest roles of Julia Roberts' career
While she has yet to unveil a Julia Roberts line of timepieces, the Oscar winner does have two projects this fall that are already garnering acclaim and awards talk: The actress takes on her first major TV-series role as a caseworker on Amazon Prime Video's paranoia thriller Homecoming, which begins streaming Nov. 2. Then she plays a mother struggling to keep her drug-addicted son clean and sober in Ben Is Back, out Dec. 7. Both roles are complicated women but hinge on Roberts' innate likability. "Her baseline of charisma and talent is so high that her real skill is being able to not have anything diminish that," says Homecoming costar and good friend Dermot Mulroney. Adds Back writer-director Peter Hedges, "She's a movie star who happens to be a great actress, and that's not always the case."
Roberts filmed both projects within weeks of each other, and now they're being released in similar proximity. "I feel like it would be nice if they came out a little further apart so I could rest on my laurels a bit," she admits over a salmon wrap and sweet potato fries at a Malibu restaurant. "At press conferences, one person will ask you something about Homecoming and then you get super invested in that whole idea, and then someone else asks a question about Ben Is Back, and so it's a little dizzying." So you don't experience similar whiplash, dear reader, we took the liberty of giving you two Julia stories for the price of one.
BEN IS BACK: FAMILY MATTERS
It all began with a soccer game. To help prepare for the harrowing family drama Ben Is Back, Roberts invited director Peter Hedges, his son and star Lucas, and actress Kathryn Newton, who plays Roberts' daughter, to her family's home in Malibu last fall to rehearse. (Roberts and her husband, cinematographer Danny Moder, are the parents of twins Phinnaeus [Finn] and Hazel, 13, and Henry, 11.) Remembers Roberts: "I said, 'Before you come to my house, take down this address. It's a park. Why don't you meet us there at 8:30?' My older son, Finn, had a soccer game. We had such a blast. Peter was the best sidelines cheerleader. And then we went to our house and cooked a bunch of food." Lucas and Newton surfed with Roberts' kids while the actress and Peter talked about the film. 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," says Lucas. "It really was a family Thanksgiving dinner."
Family is at the heart of Back, which takes place over the course of an intense 24 hours when opioid addict Ben (Lucas Hedges) leaves rehab and returns home for Christmas Eve. His mother, Holly (Roberts), is thrilled to see her son but terrified at the thought of him sliding back into old habits. After their family dog goes missing, Holly and her son set out on a mission to find him while battling Ben's old demons. "I love the idea of exploring a character who would not give up — and will not give up —
on her child," says Peter Hedges. "I kinda used Orpheus as a jumping-off point: the notion of someone who loves someone so much, they'll go into the underworld to bring them back. To give them life. To keep them alive. And who better to go into the underworld to bring her child back than Julia Roberts?"
It's 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 is fueled by both love and anger, especially in a scene where Holly confronts Ben 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."
Roberts hopes that the movie puts a human face on a crisis that can so often seem inaccessible. "There's not a good guy and a bad guy, and every right choice on a Monday is the wrong choice on a Tuesday," says the actress. "I think it just shows how truly impossible it is to judge. People think, 'Oh, well, you wouldn't find me in a situation like that as a parent or as a person.' I think it just brings it all back to a place of great humility, where it can happen to anyone, and it does happen."
HOMECOMING: A NEW CONSPIRACY THEORY
Welcome home, bro! It's good to see you!" It's a warm March day on the Los Angeles set of Homecoming, miles away from the tundra of upstate New York, and Roberts, playing caseworker Heidi, is high-fiving her patient Walter (If Beale Street Could Talk's Stephan James). Heidi is taking the recently returned soldier through some role-playing activities to help him reacclimate to life at home, hence the bro-tastic scenario. It's a deceptively cheery scene for a series that is a conspiracy thriller in the vein of The Manchurian Candidate. Production is about halfway through the 10-episode first season, with Mr. Robot's Sam Esmail helming all of the episodes. Creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg sit behind the monitors, clearly in awe of their leading lady. "I don't think you get her — I think she [chooses] you," says Horowitz of Roberts signing on to the series.
Based on the 2016 Gimlet podcast of the same name (Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac voiced Heidi and Walter, respectively), Homecoming is about the titular program whose Florida facility purports to house and help soldiers who have recently returned from war. But flash forward four years into the future, and Heidi is a waitress living with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and has zero memory of her time at Homecoming. What happened to Heidi? And what's Homecoming's real goal? Cue heavy Alfred Hitchcock vibes, complete with dizzying stairwell views, one-take tracking shots, and off-center camera angles. "Julia has that warmth that she can just flip on, and you feel it so strong," says Horowitz. "It's especially useful because 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."
Roberts, who had 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.
Esmail, who has a deal with Universal Cable Productions (the studio that optioned the podcast rights), was in New York at the time and suggested a Skype chat, which was Roberts' first meeting of that type. (Erstwhile Luddite Roberts also just joined Instagram a few months ago and says her teens think her posts are uncool.) "My face is completely in shadow — I look like I'm in the witness protection program," she recalls. "So I'm running all around the house because he's gonna call me any second on this thing." Shadows be damned, the pair hit it off. "We connected in this deeper way…. We just had this instant friendship," says Esmail. "And, honestly, we didn't even talk about the project for the first 45 minutes of the conversation. We were just talking about our lives and her family and my wedding" (Esmail married Shameless star Emmy Rossum in 2017). Roberts' one request was that Esmail direct all 10 of Homecoming's episodes and that all the scripts would be written in advance.
While the podcast consisted of mostly taped therapy sessions between Heidi and Walter, plus phone calls with Heidi's arrogant boss, Colin (David Schwimmer in the podcast; Bobby Cannavale on the TV show), Esmail brings a striking visual style to the series, paying homage to directors like Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, and Alan J. Pakula. The series also diverges from the podcast in many ways, including a bulked-up subplot for Cannavale's Colin and a different climax. "I would say that was the trickiest part: deciding when to just do it like it was on the podcast and when to do something different," says Bloomberg. 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."
Back in Malibu, it's the day before Brett Kavanaugh accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is set to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Roberts admits the current social climate weighs on her. "For people to have a voice in any capacity is paramount," says the actress. "But it is so, so challenging to find any kind of clarity in these times. There's so much mire and bulls—. And you feel like it's five steps forward with #MeToo, Time's Up. Then [there's] this whole Kavanaugh mess, and people are being so disrespectful and unkind. Why on earth would a person put their life through what she is putting her life through and not be telling the truth? I just go, 'F—, I [don't] even know which way is up anymore.' "
The actress doesn't have any immediate projects on the horizon (Homecoming's second season has been ordered, but a start date is unknown as Esmail wraps the final season of Mr. Robot). Despite being married to a DP, Roberts says she has no interest in making her directing debut anytime soon. "I direct all day, every day," she jokes. "Everybody up. Brush your teeth. Get your backpack. Be home for dinner. All day, every day." 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." How about in another 30 years?