Julia Roberts says with age comes more complexity of possible parts. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Julia Roberts finds life (and her roles) get better with age

NEW YORK — Julia Roberts is sitting on a couch in a Soho hotel when Lucas Hedges bursts in and begins frantically searching for his phone, sending pillows flying.

“This is what I say to Finn,” Roberts says, referencing one of her three children as she instructs her 21-year-old co-star. “Where did you go from here, honey?”

Roberts’ motherly instincts play a big part of her latest film, “Ben Is Back.” Written and directed by Peter Hedges (“Dan in Real Life,” and the father of Lucas), “Ben Is Back” is about a son (Lucas) home from rehab for Christmas. The short visit resurrects past demons and present temptations for Ben, testing his mother’s anxious balance of trust and suspicion.

It’s the second standout performance this fall for Roberts, who also stars in Amazon’s acclaimed conspiracy thriller “Homecoming” as a government-sponsored caseworker coaxing soldiers back into civilian life. It’s a more dramatic chapter for Roberts, the most quintessential of movie stars, who at 51 is stretching in new directions that are increasingly further afield from the frothier romantic comedies she built her career on.

“With age comes more complexity of possible parts,” Roberts said in a recent interview. “You know, I’m happy and I have fun at home, so it would take a lot for someone to say: ‘Look, you can play this part where you’re happy and have fun.’ Well, I just do that at home!”

It can take a lot to get Roberts away from home. Hedges at one point jokingly suggested shooting “Ben Is Back” in her backyard. She’s notoriously picky, generally acting in one film a year, and that’s become iffier considering, as she says, there’s “a whole lot of math” that needs to factor her kids’ school schedule and that of her husband, cinematographer Danny Moder. Roberts has, quite contentedly, largely withdrawn from the limelight. She knits. She plays Mahjong with girlfriends once a week. She will watch “Point Break” anytime it’s on TV.

But she still wears the role of movie star about as comfortably as anyone ever has, and in person she is — to an almost disarming degree — precisely as you’d expect. She remains genuinely, breezily, unaffectedly herself, a quality that has made countless feel as if they know — really know — her. Roberts grants that the public’s impression of her is “probably relatively accurate,” something few who have graced so many tabloid covers in their lifetime can do. “I mean, I’m not interested in trying to seem cooler than I am or something,” she says.

Still, Roberts, a four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner (“Erin Brockovich”), is also indelibly linked to the ’90s and ’00s pre-digital movie era when stars, not superheroes, still ruled the box office. Times have changed; her breakthrough film, 1990’s “Pretty Woman,” is now a Broadway musical. Roberts recently had the out-of-body experience attending it alongside Barbara Marshall, wife of the film’s late director Garry Marshall.

“I wasn’t prepared for how profoundly it made me miss Garry,” she said, choking up.

“I wasn’t prepared for how all of the improvs that I created are in a Broadway book now,” she says. “People are saying things that I was just making up, just vamping.”

And long before pay equality became an industry-wide concern, Roberts was among Hollywood’s highest paid stars. Asked about the #MeToo movement and Hollywood gender parity, Roberts replied, “You can never rest.”

“You think that’s sorted and you come around a corner and then how is it not sorted suddenly? How is it not fair?” she says, noting a few advancements that hit home for her and her family: equal pay for women surfers and Manchester United launching a women’s team. “Things like this give me hope that our business can keep making strides, because every year that it’s ‘the year of the woman,’ you kind of go: Again? Let’s just have it always be the year of the artists. If we have to keep spotlighting the gender of this and the gender of that, we’re kind of blowing it.”

Lately, Roberts has been trying some new things. She joined Instagram in June. “Homecoming” is her first foray into a TV series. Roberts insisted Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”) direct all the episodes and that all the scripts be completed before shooting began.

She similarly helped shape “Ben Is Back,” pushing for Peter Hedges to cast his son, the in-demand breakout star of “Manchester by the Sea,” a tall task because Lucas has deliberately sought to establish himself outside of his father’s shadow.

“When Julia read the script and met with me, I came with a list of actors that I thought would be good for the part, and Lucas wasn’t on that list,” Peter Hedges said by phone. “Before I could even share that list with her she said: ‘Lucas needs to play this part.’ I said, ‘One, I don’t think he’s available, and, two, I don’t think he would ever want to do a film with me.’ Once she signed on, she began a very persuasive and I think classy campaign. She made effort to let him know that she thought he should do the film with her.”

It is, alas, hard to say no to Julia Roberts. The actress later invited Lucas to her Malibu home where she says he became part of the family, hanging out and taking her kids to the beach. Making “Ben Is Back” was for her less about channeling her own parental nightmares than fostering a relationship with her fictional son.

“Spending time with Lucas meant that I had heart-space with him, and that is what I called upon and relied upon for the movie,” says Roberts. “Separation is important. Especially in the middle of the night when you’re playing a scene over and over again, you just have to have so much clarity about that jumping off point. I think that helps it be super clear and fair. I don’t want to drag my kids through this crap.”

Like much of Roberts’ best recent work, including “Wonder” and “August: Osage County” (for which she received an Oscar nomination), “Ben Is Back” revolves around family, both on and off screen. While her next film, “Little Bee,” is a drama, too, Roberts hasn’t turned away from romantic comedies for good.

“It’s just two delicious things put together,” says Roberts. “It’s like spending months wrapping a present for people. They’re really hard to make well, so I don’t begrudge their absence because I’d rather not see a bunch of really bad ones.”

But “Ben is Back” and “Homecoming” have allowed Roberts to expand on the dramatic work she did with Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich”) and Mike Nichols (“Closer,” ”Charlie Wilson’s War”), who once said of the actress: “Her face is made by God to express thought and feeling.”

What’s left for Roberts to prove? To her, that’s not the question.

“I’ve never been in the proving business, but I do reside very humbly in the I-want-to-impress-you business,” says Roberts, noting her husband is at the top of that list. “I just remember the feeling of walking on the set everyday with my beloved Mike Nichols and thinking: What can I do in my work today that he’ll go: ‘I didn’t see that coming.’”

By The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

Keaton Wildeboer, of Lacombe, participates in the Westerner Championship Dairy Showcase at Westerner Park on Thursday. More than 150 cattle will be on display at the event, which continues until Saturday, carrying on a tradition started in 1954. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Western Canada’s first dairy showcase since last fall begins in Red Deer

Western Canada’s first dairy showcase since last fall is currently being held… Continue reading

Car thief opening stolen car doors. 
(Black Press File Image)
Idling vehicles attracting thieves, RCMP warns

About one-third of stolen vehicles left idling unattended

Police reveal a collection of drugs, cash and guns seized in an April 2016 bust. One of the men charged was sentenced to 27 months in prison on Thursday.
Advocate file photo
Red Deer man sentenced to 27 months for role in “dial-a-dope” operation

RCMP Priority Crimes Task Force broke up drug operation in April 2016 after four-month investigation

Red Deer RCMP say a 30-year-old man faces sexual charges against a teen. (File photo by Advocate staff)
RCMP’s downtown traffic stops lead to charges

Two traffic stops conducted by Red Deer RCMP officers on bike patrol… Continue reading

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives for an announcement at a news conference in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.	Kenney is isolating at home after one of his ministers tested positive for COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Alberta premier isolating after minister tests positive for COVID-19

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is isolating at home

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, file photo, signage is pictured at a Walmart store in Oklahoma City. On Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, Walmart filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government in a pre-emptive strike in the battle over its responsibility in the opioid abuse crisis. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
Walmart sues US in pre-emptive strike in opioid abuse battle

Walmart sues US in pre-emptive strike in opioid abuse battle

FILE- In this Feb. 19, 2019, file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. Despite efforts by the Trump administration to improve communication to track children who are separated from their families at the border, the process is still vulnerable to error and information sharing between agencies is inconsistent, raising questions on the accuracy of current data, a watchdog reported Thursday. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
Judge urges US to help find parents deported without kids

Judge urges US to help find parents deported without kids

Police officers detain a protester at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday Oct. 21, 2020. After 13 days of protests against alleged police brutality, authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, as moves are made to stop growing violence.( AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
Nigerian president leaves protest shootings out of speech

Nigerian president leaves protest shootings out of speech

FILE - Audrey Strauss, acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, points to a photo of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell during a news conference, July 2, 2020, in New York. Transcripts of interviews lawyers conducted with Maxwell, the ex-girlfriend of the late convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, should be released as soon as possible, a judge ordered on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska said the transcripts of two days of depositions in 2016 of the British socialite and related documents along with the deposition transcript of an anonymous accuser should be released publicly as soon as is practicable. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Epstein ex Maxwell denied getting Prince Andrew sex partners

Epstein ex Maxwell denied getting Prince Andrew sex partners

Kevin Drew, right, and Pearl Wenjack give a tribute to the late Gord Downie at the Juno Awards in Vancouver, Sunday, March, 25, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Gord Downie’s brother Patrick on the ‘peace’ he hears on new album ‘Away is Mine’

Gord Downie’s brother Patrick on the ‘peace’ he hears on new album ‘Away is Mine’

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino listens to speakers during a news conference in Ottawa on October 2, 2020. A much heralded program that would give permanent residency to some asylum seekers working on the front-lines of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to accept a single application. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Promised path to residency for “Guardian Angel” asylum seekers yet to open

Promised path to residency for “Guardian Angel” asylum seekers yet to open

Rogers Communications CEO Joe Natale speaks to shareholders during the Rogers annual general meeting in Toronto on Friday, April 20, 2018.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Rogers says its progress in Q3 shows it’s on right track in tough environment

Rogers says its progress in Q3 shows it’s on right track in tough environment

A man watches the financial numbers on the digital ticker tape at the TMX Group in Toronto's financial district on Friday, May 9, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
S&P/TSX composite inches higher on strength of energy and telecommunications sectors

S&P/TSX composite inches higher on strength of energy and telecommunications sectors

Most Read