I was there in 1989 when the Julia Roberts starting getting buzz.
It was at a press conference in the small Louisiana town of Natchitoches before the filming started for the feature film “Steel Magnolias.” The all-star cast included Sally Field, winner of two Oscars for “Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart”; Dolly Parton, a multiple Grammy winner; Shirley MacLaine, an Oscar winner; Olympia Dukakis, who won an Oscar for “Moonstruck”; and Daryl Hannah, a hot box-office draw at the time.
And newcomer Julia Roberts.
She was the panelist who drew the most attention. Although one reporter could only describe her as “the sister of Eric Roberts,” Julia Roberts stole the press conference with her girl-next-door beauty, disarming smile and a laugh so infectious the Centers for Disease Control sent a team to investigate.
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It’s been more than a quarter of a century since that press conference, but the 48-year-old Roberts, whom I met at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel to talk about her latest film “Secret in Their Eyes,” still has the same girl-next-door looks, winning smile and laugh that fills a room. The only difference is that she’s now one of the biggest names in Hollywood, with her own Oscar and the potential of another nomination off the work in this new movie.
“Secret in Their Eyes” is like no other role Roberts has played. She’s taken on a dark and broken investigator dealing with the brutal murder of her teenage daughter. It’s been 13 years since the killing, but her former partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has never given up trying to find the primary suspect. His discovery opens old and deep wounds.
“Secret In Their Eyes” opens in theaters Friday, Nov. 20.
Playing a character described in the film as looking “a million years old” isn’t typical for the actress, who has become America’s sweetheart, a term not bestowed on another actor since Mary Pickford was dubbed that at the beginning of the 20th century. Roberts earned the title through light romantic comedies such as “Pretty Woman,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Notting Hill” and “Larry Crowne.”
Roberts knows she could have continued with light romantic comedies. Her acting instincts convinced her to take a chance with “Secret.”
“I read a script and I am connected to that thing and I want to accomplish this. I try to do varied things just for my own creative impulses,” Roberts says. “I want things to be different and challenging.”
But, I’m also happy at home. I’m creative in my household.
Not only was the role emotionally and physically draining, Roberts was dealing with her dying mother at the time of the filming.
“Eyes” director Billy Ray has a deep admiration for the way Roberts was able to give him such a strong performance while dealing with what happened in her personal life.
“There were days when she would shoot, go to to the hospital to see her mother and then come back and shoot more,” Ray says. “She is, aside from her other virtues and her magnificent abilities, very brave.”
One helper Roberts had to get through the drain was her husband of 13 years, Daniel Moder, who was the cinematographer on “Secret in Their Eyes.” Ray recalls how he would see the couple locked in an embrace between scenes.
He’s my favorite person on the planet and I love spending time with him.
Julia Roberts on her husband Daniel Moder
“I love his work ethic and his point of view is really important to me,” Roberts says. “When you have scenes where you are exposing yourself in a way I wouldn’t comfortably do sitting here with you, if he was sitting right behind me, I would feel some sense of that security that makes me want to do more.”
In recent years, Roberts has been more selective about the roles she will play. Taking care of her three children is her top priority. The children are old enough now to know when their mom is away for a long film shoot, as was the case for “August: Osage County.”
“Secret in Their Eyes” was filmed in the Los Angeles area, which gave Roberts more opportunity to see her family. That proved a blessing.
The story took her to dark depths she’s never faced with another role.
“You have to be careful what you ask for,” Roberts says with a big smile. “I wanted a really interesting, complicated role. It’s one of those things that I feel is a combination of preparation and a certain roll of the dice. I felt like this character was written in such a pure 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. Then I constructed the performance around that.”
Roberts had not approached any other role in that manner. Roberts didn’t let her own life intersect with the character. All of the emotions she shows comes out of how she felt the character would act.
“Secret in Their Eyes” is based on the Argentine film, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year in 2010. Had the adaptation of the movie gone as Ray had intended, Roberts would not have been in the movie. The role was written for a man. Roberts was so passionate about the project the script was changed.
Since Roberts has reached such a peak in the Hollywood hierarchy – where roles will be changed just to get her in the cast – her next obvious step is directing, right?
That’s never going to happen, she says, because she already has the ultimate directing job.
“I get everyone out to school, on time, clean, fed, happy. That’s directing a whole project,” Roberts says.
Since exploding on the scene in “Steel Magnolias,” Roberts has watched her career grow. Between work and home, she’s very happy with where she is at this moment.
“I just had my birthday and I don’t think I had felt so happy on a birthday in quite a long while,” Roberts says. “I think part of it is the happy space I am lucky enough to occupy in the world with my family and friends. But, you also start to realize, what’s the point of not being happy about anything? There’s no value to it.”