“Pretty Woman,” “Runaway Bride,” “Notting Hill,” “Ocean’s 11,” these are the types of movies and roles in which audiences associate Julia Roberts.
However, in her latest film, “Secret In Their Eyes,” the Oscar-winner has stepped outside of her comfort zone by playing a very different role. Interestingly, Julia Roberts was meant to be a man, at least in this film’s first incarnation. That’s how it was written in the original Oscar-winning Argentinian drama upon which the film is based. But in the American remake, written and directed by Billy Ray (the screenwriter of “Captain Phillips”) and co-starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman, it is Roberts who loses a family member. In the film, Roberts plays a mother on a FBI task force that’s sent to a homicide that hits very close to home. It’s an emotionally charged raw performance and she recently sat down with us in Santa Monica, CA to discuss the challenges she faced bringing such an emotionally vulnerable character to the screen. Beware, crucial elements of the movie are about to be revealed throughout.
Examiner: You look so different, which is good, I guess…
Julia Roberts: Different from the last time you saw me?
E: No. Different from on-screen. I don’t remember the last time I saw somebody go to such depths emotionally, with a character, as I saw with your work in this film. Can you talk about going there and staying there, or how you just dealt with…I mean, this is so, so emotionally heavy.
JR: Thank you. You know, it’s, it’s, so funny, like, be careful what you ask for, you know. [Laughs] You sit there and go, I want a really interesting, complicated and then you get there [Laughs] and it’s like, why is everybody looking at me? [Laughs] It’s one of those things that I feel is a combination of preparation and then there’s just a certain roll of the dice that comes into it for, for me. I felt like this character was written in such a clear way, and the biggest part of my preparation was figuring out what she looked like in the beginning, and what she looked like 13 years later, and then sort of constructing the performance around that in a way. It was a unique approach. I don’t think I’ve ever sort of tried to craft a, a character like this, and try as, as I did making a commitment in the beginning that my personal thoughts had no intersection with Jess’s (her character) personal thoughts. Our lives did not, you know. Normally, as actors you say, oh, you know, my kitten died when I was 12 in my arms and I cried all night… It was, it was all Jess, all the time, and everything that she was going through…
E: Jess is basically an amalgam of the two, of two male characters that were in the Argentinian original, which is interesting.
JR: See it takes two men to make one of me.
E: And Billy was telling us that originally he had written this for a man. So, you know, we, we actually, some of us spoke with Sandra Bullock a week or so ago, about how her part in “Our Brand is Crisis” was originally written for a man, and she gets hold of it, and it’s changed.
JR: Well, I’ve read a number of scripts over the years that get sent and say, well, the part is a man now, but if you want to do it we’ll change it into a woman. I don’t know how many men have had that experience, but I mean, it happens. It happens.
E: But have there been other roles that you’ve played that were originally for men?
JR: Of all the ones I’ve been offered, none of them really, kind of spoke to me or interested me at that time. This was something that did, but I think it was written originally as a guy, is sort of secondary to the things about it that appealed to me. It wasn’t a particular challenge…
E: What kind of input did you have on how the character was changed from the original script to the one you play?
JR: Well, I just asked that…because the man loses his wife, and Billy had said…well, the note that I had been sent with the script was it would be a woman who loses her wife, and I thought well, that’s really cool and 21st century, and I’m down with that, and then about halfway through the script I thought, you know, if you’re going to really need people to be openly invested in the truth as Jess reveals it, all along the way, the different times that she says, okay, here’s the truth, she has to somehow have a story that everybody has a part in, and so I said to Billy, if it’s a woman, can she lose her child because we all have one, or we’ve been one. So everybody is, therefore, connected to her grief in some, in some way, and I felt that was a really important aspect of then saying, okay, so we are connected, so you understand me, so you believe me.
E: And those scenes with that girl who played your daughter were so powerful. How did that work?
JR: Isn’t she amazing? She’s amazing. Well, as soon as she got cast we went out to breakfast, she and I went out to breakfast one morning, and you know, you just fall
immediately in love with her. She’s so bright. She’s so articulate. Her interests are so diverse and Bohemian, and she’s in college studying textiles, and I mean, she’s the person I want to be when I grow up, and wake up, and I’m 17 and awesome. And it made me so absolutely connected to the idea of Jess having lost her husband and raising this child by herself and watching her grow up into this magnificent human being that she gets to admire and feel responsible for and everything is about getting back to the kitchen to talk to this girl. I mean, honestly, it’s so touching to me that, that relationship, and I thought Zoe (Graham. Played Jess’s daughter, Carolyn) did such an impeccable job and it was just one of those things that…that breakfast with her, it was so valuable and illuminating to me as an actor because I just thought every single thing makes complete sense in light of how in love this woman is with her daughter.
E: How did you decide on the 2002 Jess and 13 years later? You said once you decided what the character would look like in those two places that informed how you
were going to do this. It’s such a naked performance.
JR: Well, it was interesting, and my husband (Daniel Moder) who was the cinematographer on this movie, he and I had a lot of conversations about this, and at
one point, he said, well…because it was sort of…I would figure out a little piece of the 13 years later puzzle and that would sort of inform the earlier puzzle, and then that would get me another piece of this puzzle, and then I’d have to go back to this one, and so it was…It was kind of tricky and fascinating and the best thing that he said to me about the whole thing was, at one point when I was starting to get, like, super crazy with the 13 years later, he said, okay, but you have to remember when Chiwetel (Ejiofor. Played Ray)…when you walk into that office and he sees you, this is your really great friend who hasn’t seen you for 13 years, who went through this experience with you, he can’t worry that something else has happened to you. It can’t be a question of, what did I miss? It can’t be a question of, is she sick? It has to be a very clear line between what happened in that parking garage and who the person is walking through that office door. And so that sort of took away a bunch of actor-y bullshit stuff…[Laughs] I wanted to do, and you just think, okay, this has to be…how can I portray her as a shell of a person?
E: What was it like to have your husband there supporting you through such…I mean, this is kind of a new role for you, it’s a pretty heavy role. What was that like to have him there with you the whole time?
JR: I mean, it was amazing. It’s so great. He’s my favorite person on the planet, so I love spending time with him and, and I love his work ethic, and his point of view is really valuable to me, and it was great, it was really great. And also when you feel like you do have scenes where you’re sort of really exposing yourself in a way that, you know, I wouldn’t do sitting here with you guys comfortably, but if he was sitting right behind me, and I felt like some sense of that security, it just makes you want to do more, really.
E: So you could have settled into a certain kind of film role and been happy. You’ve had success, but you continue to challenge yourself in a film like this. Is that something you just feel like you need to do every once in a while, or is it just, the material is so good, you don’t care what you have to go through for it?
JR: Yeah, I think it’s just, you know, an instinct. I read a script, and I’m connected to that thing, and I think I want to accomplish this, and I think I try to do varied things just for my own creative impulses. You want things to be different and challenging, and I’m happy at home, you know? [Laughs] It’s like I’m creative in my household, like, you know [Laughs] So it’s nice when things come up that are, as I said, dreams that you think, was I…did I dream the right dream, and now I’m in this parking garage and…but enough cannot be said about Chiwetel Ejiofor and his walking through that parking garage, and then walking back to me in that parking garage. That sets the whole scene, really. My part would be less of value were it not for, the way he travels back and forth. It was incredible to watch. He’s amazing.
E: You’ve got a movie with George Clooney and Jodie Foster directing. How did that go? Was like a total fun, frothy thing compared to this, or…?
JR: Well, I mean, anything would be, right? [Laughs] Getting your legs waxed would be fun and frothy. [Laughs] No, I mean, you know, listen, what sounds more amusing than me and George and Jodie together? It’s just hilarious to me. It was great. It was really great.
E: Can you tell us a little bit about that movie?
JR: Just that it was incredible, and I worship Jodie Foster 10 times as much now as I did before I worked for her. She’s really remarkable. She’s…I mean, of course, you go, oh, she’s brilliant, you know, she’s Jodie Foster, but to see it working, to see it kind of going all the time and to be responsible for so much stuff. I mean, my god, I would just never want to be that person, and she just does it. She just looks effortless…
E: You never want to direct?
JR: No. [Laughs] Listen, I get everybody out the door to school…[Laughs] On time, clean, fed, happy. Like, that’s directing a whole production right there. [Laughs]
E: And what do the kids say when mom’s away doing movies, which isn’t all the time now? It really must be sort of a whole break in the happy routine back at home.
JR: I mean, it is, and it’s not. You know, Danny (husband, Daniel Moder) is very much part of it, so there’s only one little element gone. I like to think I’m an important element. [Laughs] But I wasn’t gone…you know, the movie that I did with George and Jodie, I wasn’t…I worked days, and off days, and so I was back and forth a lot. I mean, my daughter does refer to “August: Osage County” as the dark time.
E: Because you were in summertime?
JR: Because it was the first time that I’d ever left. [Laughs]
E: You’ve had such an incredible career, a beautiful family, what’s something that you would tell your younger self? Some advice?
JR: Don’t take advice from anybody, even if they look exactly like you.
E: Can you tell us about working with Nicole (Kidman)? I know you didn’t have a lot of scenes together, but…
JR: I didn’t have enough. I did not have enough. I mean, honestly, I think she is such a quality human being. She is just as talented, and really, stupidly stunningly beautiful as she is, is how enormously good natured and wonderful a person as she is. I mean, she, she’s just like the real deal.
E: You guys are trying to do something else together?
JR: I hope. She’s looking feverishly for something right now.
“Secret In Their Eyes” is in theaters now.
Additional reporting by Izumi Hasegawa