Julia Roberts on ‘Ben is Back’ and the ‘insidious’ opioid crisis it depicts

TORONTO — When Julia Roberts arrived at the recent Toronto International Film Festival with a drama about drug addiction, rapper Mac Miller had just died of what was later deemed an accidental overdose, and singer-actress Demi Lovato was recovering from an overdose in the summer.

The headlines served as yet another tragic reminder of how addiction knows no boundaries and added a sense of urgency to presenting “Ben is Back,” in which Roberts stars as the mother of a drug-addled teen (played by Lucas Hedges) who returns home from rehab for the holidays.

“It makes no distinctions anymore, these drugs,” Roberts said in an interview during the September festival. “They don’t care where you come from, how much money you make, what you do for a living.

“It’s so insidious and pervasive, and I think that in a time when it’s gone on for such a long time, that people have just grown immune to the statistics written in the paper.”

Highlighting how a teen falls prey to addiction and how the entire family has to deal with the fallout might help humanize and pierce through the staggering numbers that make many immune to the crisis, added the four-time Oscar-nominated actress.

“Everyone is affected by this in some way or another,” Roberts said, “and I think it’s so interesting to have an actor like Lucas — who looks like every boy in any neighbourhood, and just getting along and he’s got his hoodie — and he has this demon that does not leave him.”

Peter Hedges wrote and directed “Ben is Back,” which hits theatres in Toronto on Friday and other markets in the coming weeks.

Roberts is earning critical raves for her role as Holly, an image-conscious church-goer who is enamoured with her son and seemingly in denial about the severity of his addiction.

Courtney B. Vance and Kathryn Newton co-star in the story, which takes place over 24 hours as the family grapples with Ben’s roller-coaster ride of recovery in their affluent neighbourhood.

Vance plays Holly’s husband, who highlights the racial divide that can exist for some addicts when he declares: “If Ben were black, he would be in jail.”

The film also shows the role medical professionals, pharmaceutical companies and addictions specialists play in the crisis.

“You really get to see the true effects of this sad, sad addiction issue that affects so many families,” said Roberts, who won an Oscar for best actress in 2000’s “Erin Brockovich.”

“I also love that it’s Christmastime, this sort of happy-face time and you decorate your house and sing all these beautiful songs, and to have this undertow that’s constantly going in all their minds.”

There are some heart-wrenching moments in the film and the atmosphere on set was intense, Roberts admitted.

“We were outside at night a lot and it was dark topics, dark atmospheres,” she said. “It was freezing cold and Lucas and I, just together in this endless odyssey of trying to get to the morning.”

To lighten the mood, cast members would sing Christmas carols together while walking back to their trailers from the set.

“Jingle bells was always the big hit,” says Roberts. “And you know what? Everybody joins in. Doesn’t matter how much you think you don’t want to.

“See, we kept it happy. We had to. I felt a real responsibility, especially for the younger actors, to rescue us in between setups and stuff, because it could be so intense. We also had little children on the set, and so I think we were all devoted to a sense of being happy and keeping that going when we weren’t filming.”

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