Julia Roberts, left, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson star as family members coping with a crisis in 'August: Osage County.' (Claire Folger)
‘How are your kids, hon?” a woman asked Julia Roberts after stopping the actress on a Pacific Palisades sidewalk.
She was a familiar neighborhood face to Roberts, and so the two caught up for a few minutes, hugged and parted ways. Here, in the tony enclave populated with Pilates studios and juice bars, this is how most people relate to Roberts — as a neighborhood mom. Someone who hides her makeup-less face behind Ray Bans while running errands; sets an alarm on her phone so she remembers to feed the meter; wears a neon-colored rubber band bracelet because her daughter made it for her.
“The kind of energy I attract is very calm,” said Roberts, 46, settling in for lunch at an empty local café. “People don’t come up to me very often. Everyone is always in such disbelief that I can go to the market.”
That’s probably because the type of reception she still receives in Hollywood can be, frankly, terrifying.
When she arrived at the premiere of her new movie “August: Osage County” in Los Angeles last month, dozens of photographers descended on her. A security detail had to be called in to break up the melee.
Such is the double life Roberts leads. Even if she no longer graces magazine covers with the frequency she did in the 1990s, she’s managed to remain a movie star. It’s that level of fame that has allowed her the freedom to transition from the romantic comedies that endeared her to millions — “Pretty Woman,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” — to less commercial, more dramatic fare.
Enter “Osage County.” Released Friday, the Oklahoma-set family drama is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and features an all-star ensemble, including Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Ewan McGregor. She and Streep have been nominated for Screen Actor Guild and Golden Globe awards for their performances, and the cast received a SAG nomination for ensemble as well.
Even though the four-month shoot would take her away from her family for the first time, the project’s pedigree instantly proved alluring to Roberts, who had seen the Tracy Letts production during its Broadway run.
“I think people like to say that I’m super picky because of how much I lo-oo-ve my kids,” she said. “But as an actor, I sort of pride myself on the fact that I’ve always been picky. There’s a couple things at play. For one, I’m 46 years old, so falling out of chairs isn’t as funny. I could break a hip. Certain scenarios that worked 10 years ago aren’t as appealing, as applicable, as believable, as original; all those things.”
The subject matter at hand in “Osage County” certainly isn’t easily digestible. Roberts plays the hard-edged Barbara, one of three sisters who return to their childhood home to aid their cancer-stricken mother after their father commits suicide.
Because the script was verbally and emotionally demanding, Roberts and her cast mates spent evenings at Streep’s place near the set, running lines late into the night.
“It was nice that Meryl didn’t conceal how much work went into it for her,” she said. “Because people can conceal that, and I’m just not able to hide anything.”
She paused to answer a text message from her husband, the cinematographer Daniel Moder, to whom she has been married since 2002. Together, they have three children — twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, 9, and Henry, 6.
Roberts worries about her kids and how much time she’s able to spend with them. The following day, she and Moder were leaving town for separate work trips — “news that didn’t go over well with the children,” she admitted.
Accordingly, she has slowed down her work life considerably and only makes about one movie per year.
“When I met her,” “Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall recalled, “she was worried about dating and how she looked and her career. And now she worries about being a mom. I think she’s good at that part.”
To make sure her time is worth it, Roberts often chooses projects because she’s close with her collaborators. Her next project, an HBO film about the 1980s AIDS crisis based on the Tony Award-winning play “The Normal Heart,” was directed by Ryan Murphy, the filmmaker behind 2010’s adaptation of “Eat, Pray, Love.” Over the last 10 years, Roberts has done two movies apiece with Clive Owen, Tom Hanks and filmmaker Mike Nichols. She even turned in a cameo in Marshall’s “Valentine’s Day.” She isn’t driven by a film’s box-office prospects; to be fair, a luxury she can likely afford after years of securing $20 million-plus.
She’s quick and funny in a way that can make you feel like she’s letting you in on a secret — even when she’s not revealing anything revelatory. She’s self-aware, but it feels authentic. She thinks maybe it’s because she came of age during a time when “nobody expected me to be anybody but myself, really” — a period before stars were forced to go through media training.
“Thank God I never had that,” she said with a laugh. “I would have failed.”