Julia Roberts: Best Years of Her Career and Life–Ben Is Back, Amazon Series Homecoming

Julia Roberts, the Oscar winner and multiple nominee has two high-profile projects this fall that are also passion projects: Amazon Series Homecoming (streaming in November and December) and Indie Feature Ben Is Back (December 7).

Amazon Series: Homecoming

Age and Beauty

The title Pretty Woman, the 1990 romantic comedy that put her on the map as a major Hollywood star (when she was only 23) fits Julia Roberts like a glove.  She certainly does not look her age—she will be 51 on October 28—nor does she show any signs of slowing down.  She knows that it’s a dangerous age for actresses, but she is also aware that the industry is changing for the better as far as women’s roles are concerned, following the careers of her contemporaries, Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman.

Roberts still flaunts her sexy figure, shapely legs, long hair and the famous smile that has enchanted generations of moviegoers, ever since she made her debut in Mystic Pizza (1988), for which she got her first Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Influential Directors

Asked to single out the three most influential directors of her career, she’s quick to point out, Garry Marshall, the director of Pretty Woman), Soderbergh, the helmer behind the biopic Erin Brockovich, which earned her the 2000 Best Actress Oscar, and Mike Nichols, the legendary director, who cast her in one of her most challenging roles, Closer, in 2004. While Marshall and Soderbergh are obvious choices, Nichols is not. “Mike was instrumental,” she says, “the very fact that he considered me for that part was encouraging, because I don’t think I would have necessarily thought of myself for that part. Later on, he also  became an incredible influence in my personal life, he and Dianne (Sawyer, ABC’s former news anchor and his wife) became some of the most important people in my life.”

Bad Directors

And what about all the other (some bad) directors she has worked with: “More than anything else, what is the most discouraging to me is if and when I feel that a director doesn’t have confidence in what I’m doing. If they seem unsure, it places instability in the relationship between us that isn’t productive.” But she is professional and cordial enough not to mention specific names.

Highest Paid Actress

Having achieved stardom and commercial success at a young age, Roberts doesn’t care so much about being a star—or celeb.  It’s astonishing to realize that her fee was just $300,000 for Pretty Woman, a  blockbuster which earned $464 million worldwide.  Ironically, the picture for which she got $25 million, thus making her Hollywood’s highest-paid actress, Mike Newell’s 2003 Mona Lisa Smiles, was both an artistic and commercial disappointment.  These are the vicissitudes of the ever-shifty, unpredictable movie industry.

Even so, her films have collectively brought box office receipts of over $2.8 billion, making her one of the most successful actresses in terms of box office receipts. She has been named the world’s most beautiful woman by People magazine a record five times. Tom Hanks told me, half seriously half jokingly, that when he cast her in Larry, he knew that “in every scene, together on screen, the viewers look at her, not me, and I cannot blame them for that.”

Peer Recognition

Peer recognition has always been crucial to her. The fact that she earned great reviews (and Supporting Actress Oscar nod) and stood up honorably against Meryl Streep (who played her troubled mother) in August: Osage County, meant a lot to her.  Along the way there were awards for excellence on the small screen, such as the 2014 Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Actress in Limited Series, The Normal Heart.

Actress Vs. Star

What more can such an accomplished actress and happily married wife and mother of three, want?

Good, meaty, challenging roles that allow her to “stretch” as an artist.  And indeed, this year is essential for Roberts, who makes her TV series debut in Amazon’s, Homecoming, and toplining a terrific cast in Peter Hedges’ Ben Is Back, both of which world premiered at the Toronto Film Fest.

With a release date of December 7, Ben Is Back clearly is Roberts’ bid for what would be her fifth Oscar nomination (she has received two lead and two supporting Oscar nominations). Both roles do not depend or rely on her natural beauty and charismatic appearance, but rather on a range of acting skills she has seldom been asked—or showed—before.

Roberts makes her debut on the small screen, a move that no major actress would have made 10 or even 5 years ago.  Why now?

She says: “I didn’t really make a decision to make a TV show like Homecoming. I had been sent this podcast long ago, and I wasn’t very familiar with podcasts then. And I certainly had never heard one that had a story like this. It just seemed to me an old-fashioned radio play, that you’d sit around in the living room and listen. By the time I got a call from Sam Esmail, who made incredible content for TV (“Mr. Robot,” starring Rami Malek), I didn’t necessarily assume it would television. We had this incredible conversation, but it wasn’t so much about if it would be TV series; it was just a creative conversation of material we both liked, and were intrigued by in the same way. I really more picked to be working with Sam than picked to do a TV show per se.”

She can’t explain the plot of  “Homecoming”—it’s the most impossible puzzle to describe. I always make Sam do it because I can’t. It’s such a muddle and there’s two different me’s, but I don’t want to give anything away. Frankly, watching last night the first episode set in a diner, I thought, we’re starting in the diner? I thought that didn’t happen for pages and pages. It’s so unfolding and fantastic that I don’t want to topple it.”

Ben Is Back

Her indie Ben Is Back centers on Ben Burns (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges, of “Manchester by the Sea”), a charming yet troubled youngster who returns home to his unsuspecting family one Christmas Eve. Ben’s wary mother Holly Burns welcomes her beloved son’s return, but soon discovers that he is still in harm’s way. During the next fateful 24 hours, which change their lives forever, Holly must do everything in her power to avoid the family’s disintegration, keep it intact at all costs.

She plays a complicated and complex mother, defined by strengths and weaknesses, which are ever changing. “One day what is a strength becomes a weakness the next day. I felt ultimately it was really important for me as an actor, and to be reminded as a person, that it is not for us to judge, particularly if we’re in a situation that we don’t know what this experience really feels like. We shouldn’t judge what is being done properly or improperly, or what’s strength or what’s weakness.”

Demaning Role

You don’t really know how hard it will be until it’s the middle of the night and it’s 23 degrees below zero and it’s just Lucas and I standing there staring at each other, wondering if we might die. And then you just think, I never really thought of the physical challenge of prevailing in these dark cold nights. The thing for me that was of the greatest value ultimately was that I had made a real concentrated effort to get Lucas and Kathryn into my house before we ever started filming so that we all had a really clear sense of each other and a comfort with each other that I knew once we started filming we just weren’t going to have the luxury of time in that same way. And I just respect adore them both so completely, I can’t imagine going through this story any other actors to play my two older children. It was really extraordinary for me.

Happily Married, Real-Life Mother

Getting married is easily one of the three most important turning points in my life, because I found what for me is my perfect match. There’s nothing general about finding that person in this big wide world. That person (Danny Modder) shapes you, crystalize the definition of who you are.

As a real-life mother, she doesn’t think of the nightmares experienced by her screen character: If you apply all the many nightmares that any parent could have in this world; you’d lock the doors and never leave the house.  You have to concentrate on the world’s positive, optimistic things, and hope that that you will carry through your intact.”

My husband Danny and I are a united front as any parents would be. We sometimes maybe take turns who’s more strict. We do take turns because there’re things that are more of my territory. Things that he notices I don’t always notice and vice versa, it creates a balance. And that way it throws the kids off, they don’t know who’s the stricter parent, they can’t keep it straight.”

Peter Hedges Vs. Sam Esmail as Directors 

They are two of the most different people you could ask me to talk about in a sentence. Peter just wears hi heart on his sleeve. He’s very emotional, he cries a lot at the monitor when we’re doing things. There’s something deeply touching about making Peter cry. He just feels it all so deeply.  I think he wrote this script from a deep, tender place.” But Sam is just this giant happy genius. He’s like a surgeon where he’ll say, wait, we’ve got to do this now, or now we’re ready. He sees details in a very unique an in Homecoming you see it in the style, music, the palate of all that stuff. Every little thing is incredibly important and unique.

I think Peter has an incredibly clever structure–24 hours that “Ben is Back” takes place from Christmas Eve morning to Christmas morning because it does create this idyllic idea of the angel’s chorus and the Christmas lights and everything that’s shiny perfect about the world at that time. And then it opens the door to see what’s really inside the house.

Character Married to Black Man

It was not in the script, but it was certainly in our pursuit of an incredible actor to play this part, Courtney B. Vance is on a very short list of people that can accomplish that.

Drug Crisis

This drug crisis has gone on for such a long time, there’s so many other problems going on that take. And I think for Peter to humanize it in this way, with this family, to have each person in this family have a specific point of view to teach us all about how a family works with this crisis inside of it.

Preparing for Role

I didn’t talk to other mothers because that, as an artist, seemed very selfish, drudge up your pain for me to be interested and benefit from in this tool.  Unfortunately we live in a world today where the access to this kind of information online is enormous. So I had no shortage of things to watch and read and comb over. If you just Google mothers with addicted children, the forums solely devoted to mothers and their feelings and their crises is incredible.

It was such a well-written character. I love the fact that she was always right and always wrong at the same time. That was unique to portray a woman who is perfectly fault endlessly with this struggle. The moments of humor and of quiet found in this house together, make it really special, little things that make you believe this family is truly a real-living family. We had very short time to shoot, and it became challenging and enchanted to accomplish all the things that we really felt were important.

Learning so much about families struggling with drug is so heartbreaking. These big companies have absolutely been part responsible. There’s so many places of responsibility that as each one fails the next one becomes more empowered to fail and it’s been for so long that change has to come at some point.  There’s so many stops along the way towards the doctor that one has to examine the big picture.

I was fortunate I grew up in a very small town in a community where drugs were not part of the high school scene, and if it was I was not aware of it. It was more about people shot gunning beers in the parking lot of Domino’s Pizza. Peer pressure is such a huge dynamic of school culture, whether it’s drugs or something else.

TV as Medium

TV in the last five or seven years has really come into its stride. I don’t even know what TV is anymore, because there are so many great outlets and platforms and so much content that it’s overwhelming to know what to watch. If I’m going to sit down to watch something, want to have heard from friends what it is and that it’s pretty much going to be something that I would really enjoy.

I do have patience to watch episodic TV.  I’m not the binge; I like to have to wait. “Peaky Blinders” I just thought that was so innovative. I thought the details, the costumes, the writing, the production design, the performances, I thought it was extraordinary. “Big Little Lies” was incredible.

I don’t travel as much as I did, but just on a daily basis of homecomings, whenever someone comes into the house they have to find anybody else who’s there and to say they’re home and a give a hug and a kiss and a hi. Those rituals are infinitely impactful. I never like to discover someone’s home and they haven’t announced it to me. After I come back from a movie, I just intertwine and reconnect. This is the most I’ve worked continuously in a long time, so for me, it was perfect timing that school finished and I finished and we all went off together for the summer.”

Homecoming and Vets Problem

What I knew about veterans and their return to society is what we all know, it’s not necessarily informed by “Homecoming,” because it’s a very specific dystopian concept. There’s something very legitimate in “Homecoming” because that gets weird and dark and creepy, but the idea of people coming home, made the greatest sacrifice any person can make, there’s a longer, greater embrace of reintegration back into normal life because they’ve been put through things that none of us who haven’t been there can comprehend.

There has to be more time and consideration taken in that regard. I don’t know why anyone thinks that they should be able to come home from that and go right back to their life as they knew it because it’s impossible. There was a greater sense of government infrastructure to welcome these people who’ve done the most incredible thing for our freedoms to be given more the tools to return.

It was tricky to play character is different phases in Homecoming.  I had to definitely stay on top of it. There were only several days that I was both Heidi’s at the same time. I usually was just one Heidi a day, and I could manage that. And it was really hard because it was not shot in chronological order.”

Impact of Ben Is Back

I probably am more informed about drugs than I was before.  It’s all pretty shocking, but there has to be hope, particularly when you’re reading about families that have lost members, and then have the resolve in their hope that it was not for nothing. They can’t be sharing their heartbreak for us not learn and prevail on their behalf. One of the fascinating things about the internet is your access to people that otherwise you would never hear their stories.”

Roberts recently attended Pretty Woman on Broadway, failing to realize how “surreal” it would be for her: “It was a great show, and fun—my cheeks hurt at the end from smiling. But I didn’t realize how strange it would be to hear people saying things on stage that once upon a time we had just made up to fill some space in a scene. We were just constantly trying new lines and different jokes to make Garry (Marshall). And it also made me miss Garry so much.”