Toys covered the floor, and Mary Poppins sang softly on the TV when director Tony Gilroy arrived at Julia Roberts’ New York City apartment in the fall of 2007. The actress, who has three kids with husband Danny Moder, seemed to have relegated herself to ensemble work, but Gilroy was determined to woo her back to the screen in a major way. They sat in her kitchen, sizing each other up. He told her why she’d be perfect in Duplicity, as a slick corporate spy who trades kisses and quips with an equally smooth Clive Owen. Then Roberts’ new baby, Henry, started burbling for his mama, 3-year-old twins Finn and Hazel woke from their naps, and the meeting took a G-rated turn. ”It started off, I thought, with me seeming very chic,” says Roberts, ”because it was just me and Tony sitting having a cup of tea. Then one by one they all woke up and came in until I looked like Mother Hubbard.”
Today, Roberts is tucked away in a suite at midtown Manhattan’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. Her kids are safely ensconced in another room, always near their mother, but shielded from the rigors of her public life. Roberts is in game spirits, and she takes a crack at writing the headlines that will inevitably trumpet her return to the spotlight — and question her relevance going forward. ”The Pretty Woman Is Back!” she teases. ”The Working Woman! Everybody’s talking about ‘Oh, this is her comeback’ and ‘Ooh, she’s 41 and she’s working and not a lot of girls in their 40s are working.”’ She shakes her head, her face sliding into that famous grin. ”Well, I’m baaaa-aaaack,” she says in a patient voice, free of any urgency. We might have missed her more than she missed us.
Give the woman credit for holding out for a grown-up role. With Duplicity (out March 20), Roberts had the chance to fall in love on screen without first having to fret over a biological clock or whine for her man to propose. ”There are no issues about what to wear,” she says gratefully. ”Nobody’s drunk or tripping in a hallway.” Best of all, she could get back in the ring with Owen, who, as her boorish husband in the 2004 drama Closer, ripped Roberts open in what has to rank as one of film’s most brutal breakup scenes. (”You f—ed-up slag,” he spat into America’s Sweetheart’s face.) So Gilroy didn’t worry that his actor would shrivel in the presence of Roberts’ star wattage. ”I didn’t have to spend a lot of time saying ‘Hey, Clive, you better butch up for this scene,”’ the director laughs. ”He brings that [masculinity] with him.”
It was Roberts’ buddy George Clooney who helped reunite the couple. While shooting Michael Clayton, he and Gilroy, who directed the film, were unwinding one evening at a New York club. Gilroy was already eyeing his next project, Duplicity, a romantic thriller he’d written about undercover agents who may or may not be gaming each other, even as they tumble into bed. Clooney had invited Owen to stop by the club that night. When Owen arrived, Clooney pushed Gilroy to get the man a drink. ”You should do Duplicity with him,” Clooney whispered in Gilroy’s ear. That did the trick. ”Clive was so charming and so loose,” Gilroy says of the actor, who’s best known for playing serious men in some form of rugged panic. ”There was so much more going on than I had seen on screen. Sitting with him, I thought, Well, God, if I can be the first person to get this…. He really can almost just play himself.” (Roberts chuckles when reminded of how quickly Gilroy took to Owen: ”Well, I think if you met Clive in a bar, you’d probably be taken with him too.”)
In any case, Gilroy finally had his guy. Now everybody put the full-court press on Roberts. ”She’s the best at playing this kind of material,” says Owen. ”She’s got a deftness and a lightness of touch and an ease. She was far and away the choice for us.” So Clive called her, singing the script’s praises. Then Clooney called her, singing Gilroy’s. But Roberts had some news for the filmmakers. ”Listen,” she said, ”I’m going to have a baby. I’m not doing this movie.” Gilroy and Owen decided the film wouldn’t work with another actress, and opted to wait.
And so, when Henry was 8 months old, Roberts engaged in one very long take-your-kids-to-work exercise. ”They were in the trailer, hanging out, reading books, jumping on the one bed they’re allowed to jump on, Henry’s taking naps,” she says of life on the Duplicity set. ”To make a movie as a mother of three children under 3? That’s an accomplishment I’m proud of.” She knows she is the luckiest of working moms, with bosses who want to keep her happy, instead of the other way around. Roberts waves away the suggestion that Duplicity is her sexiest movie yet. (”That’s just because my boobs are so big in it,” laughs the actress, who was nursing Henry on the set.) But as women the world over fall for Owen, who at 44 is just hitting his stride as a leading man, Roberts’ turn in this film should quell speculation over whether her most ? seductive years are behind her. ”I think the days of ‘Oh, we hit 40 and we’re f—ed!’ are really over,” she says, her firm rat-a-tat voice willing it so. ”Because the best actresses around who are working with consistency are Susan Sarandon, Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep, Annette Bening, Holly Hunter. They’re not 30. And what’s going on with girls in their 20s? Where are the movies that are motivated by the 20-year-olds? There aren’t any! There certainly aren’t as many as there were when I was in my 20s.”
The game in Hollywood has changed, Roberts says. ”The way a person was received and treated used to be a lot more methodical. Like for me: ‘Okay, Satisfaction was cute, she’s a little bit chubby, we’re not sure about the hair, but we’re not going to discount her. [TV movie] Baja Oklahoma, okay, still chubby, but okay.’ You were given these little tries, and you were paid accordingly. Now people go from relative obscurity to being wildly famous and hugely overpaid and expectations are so out of proportion, and it’s a huge disaster story.”
But here she is, 20 years into her career, with a mass of photographers still waiting for her outside the hotel. This winter she’ll begin production on Eat, Pray, Love, playing the real-life writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who fled a broken marriage and turned her recuperation in Italy, India, and Indonesia into an Oprah-endorsed phenomenon.
As the conversation ends, Roberts decides to personally introduce Owen, who’s stationed one floor below. A bodyguard in the hotel hallway assures her that her three kids have all made it safely, secretly home. In the elevator, she coos over her babies. ”Well, Finn is a dreamboat. Green eyes and red hair. Danny had that exact color hair as a boy. And then Hazel and Henry both have platinum hair and blue eyes.” There’s a lightness to Roberts that’s palpable, she’s told. ”You should meet my husband,” she says with a devious whisper, before stopping to rap on the door. ”Ding-dong!” Roberts singsongs as she enters her costar’s room. She wraps her long arm around her interviewer’s shoulders in a motherly fashion. ”This lovely lady…hates you!” she tells Owen, then laughs. She grabs the actor, who slings a chummy arm around her neck, and gives him a hard kiss on the lips. ”I’m going home!” she announces, with a fist in the air.
First she must make her way through a pack of paparazzi hissing to one another about whether Julia Roberts is still the biggest movie star in the world. Let them. She has to get back to her life.