TORONTO, CANADA: I glance up over my notes. Julia Roberts is shooting me the same look of endearment Julianne gave George as she stood in her lavender dress at Michael and Kimmy’s wedding reception in the 1997 film My Best Friend’s Wedding. Black blazer. Navy polish. The Academy Award-winning actress’ amber brown eyes are smiling, her expression is in repose and she nods gently – encouragingly even – signalling me to “go on”. A faint squint is offset by that pretty little beauty spot underneath her right eye. In a decade of interviewing high-profile names, I’ve never been caught out by the awe of some old-fashioned movie star incandescence quite like this.
“That’s hard-hitting!” Roberts jokes in reply to my question. She does so while cuing her co-star Kathryn Newton beside her. “That is a very good question.” It wasn’t, really. But after sitting through hours of press interviews in a ballroom inside the InterContinental Hotel for her new film – a compelling family drama titled Ben Is Back – my question was different. In what is being touted one of the most powerful Oscar-worthy performances of her career, Roberts plays a desperate and devoted mother of a drug-addicted son. When 19-year-old Ben (rising star Lucas Hedges) returns home from rehab on Christmas Eve, Holly (Roberts) is ecstatic to have her son back even if her daughter Ivy (Newton) and husband Neil (Courtney B. Vance) are not. Urgent and raw, the film explores a turbulent 24 hours as Holly scrambles to keep Ben clean and shows the unfathomable lengths a mother will go to to protect her own. The bond between Holly and Ivy is special, I note to Roberts and Newton; when they can’t tell Neil the truth, they can always tell each other. So how did Roberts and Newton connect prior to filming?
“Julia really welcomed me into her home,” says Newton. “She made me feel like I could be free with her and open, and I think that helped our relationship.”
“Did Reese Witherspoon do that?” I interject to Robert’s surprise and her aforementioned “that’s hard-hitting” response. (Newton played Witherspoon’s daughter is the hugely successful television series Big Little Lies.)
“I did not have a weekend at Reese’s house with her kids and dogs and where we were pretty much on top of each other every day,” Newton admits with a smile. “[Julia] really created that warm environment. She gave me a lot of love and was really generous with all of us, from the crew to the cast. I feel like I can talk to her.”
“You just didn’t have to do that,” Newton adds, musing to Roberts. The 51-year-old actress smiles wide.
Upon Ben’s return, the medicine cabinet needs to be cleared, his pockets – and shoes – need to be routinely checked and Holly’s jewellery stored away. What hits hard about observing the Burns family is that it’s not the exception. This is the extremely sad reality for a lot of families in America. In fact, according to the National Institute On Drug Abuse website, more than 130 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids. What, too, needs to be understood is most of these people don’t start out as recreational drug-takers. In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients in chronic pain would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers. As a result, they were prescribed at greater rates and were found to actually be highly addictive. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose, that number concentrated in the mid-Western regions. Between 2016 and 2017, opioid overdoses increased by 30 percent in 45 states. It’s an epidemic but as this film shows, it’s a brutally heartbreaking experience for the families of those addicted. There is an incredibly powerful scene in the film where Holly pleads with Ben in an icy cold graveyard. “Just tell me where you would like me to bury you, Son,” she says.
“I was so delighted by something being written about an entire family,” explains Roberts. “Even when Holly is putting her little children to bed and they are scared and crying and the dog is missing… I just think you need to see it from all the sides to really appreciate a story like this. That’s what drew me to the script.”
Roberts, a mother of three children (twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, 14, and Henry, 11) says she never puts herself in her character’s shoes. “I did a film called Secret In Their Eyes [in 2015] and my character’s daughter is violently murdered and my whole pact with myself at that point was to say ‘I don’t relate to this as parent, I relate to it as an artist and I relate to it within the constructions of my feelings about my own mother or my feelings of being a mother but not as it relates to my own children‘,” she explains. “It just becomes very complicated and unsafe I think. Tom Hanks would never wear his wedding ring as a married person in a movie because it’s separate, it’s a different ring.”
Academy Award-nominee and Director Peter Hedges (screenplay writer for About A Boy, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) admits to letting out a palpable cheer when Roberts signed onto the film. Of course he did. In fact, as he’s telling me the story, he’s actually in tears. Since Pretty Woman took almost US $400 million at the box office in 1990, the then-26-year-old actress’ price tag came with the promise she could “open” a movie. This meant no matter what the film and whatever the reviews, enough people around the world would buy a ticket within the first few days of its release to cover every production cost. “They say I can open movies, and that’s nice in that it puts it into people’s minds that women can do it,” Roberts told The New York Times’ Timothy Egan in 1994. “It’s not just Kevin Costner, not just Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not just guys.”
Before signing, however, Roberts outlined one condition to Hedges: You must cast your son to play my son. “When I heard Julia was interested, she couldn’t meet me for many months,” Hedges says. “I was like, ‘No, no, I have to meet her. I’ll go anywhere in the world. They called back and said she was in Malibu and I was there in 12 hours. We had a great meeting. She said, ‘I’ll let you know on September 11. Maybe we can start to turn that day around.’”
“I’ve never had a movie where the first person I’ve gone to wants to do the movie, that never happens. It just doesn’t, and it was her,” Hedges continues. “I selfishly cannot wait for you all to see this film and to have Julia Roberts rock your f***ing world. She’s astonishing.”
While Hedges wanted Roberts, he was very reluctant to sign his own son up to the project. But he did – and as he’s telling this story, he’s again overcome with emotion. “Three days into filming, it hit me how dangerous the thing was that I’ve attempted: I’ve taken the most important relationship – my relationship with my children – and I’m testing it. [My family] had long talks about whether casting Lucas would be a good idea,” explains Hedges. “Julia wanted him to do this film. He didn’t need to do it, he is doing just fine. Everyone thinks I am this puppet master with his career and it’s just the opposite. Lucas inspired me to do deeper and more meaningful work so I’m the beneficiary of his artistry. He doesn’t know this – he will if you write about it – I definitely had a real fear that I would fail him.”
Of course, beyond the film, everybody wants to know what Roberts is really like. Well, you can hear her before you see her. Her laugh is so famous and so loud, you could swear Richard Gere had just closed a box full of diamonds on her hand in the room next door. She’s smart. The sentences she uses to answer a question will tell you she reads a lot of books. She’s got an opinion and isn’t afraid of a headline if it means voicing it. And she’s funny. She’s really beautiful and really funny.
With limited time left at this round-table interview, a journalist from Israel asks Roberts a question about whether Pretty Woman – a film about a rich New York businessman and a young prostitute – would stand up and be accepted in today’s society, most specifically in light of the #MeToo movement.
Roberts’ demeanour instantly goes from Julianne Potter to Erin Brockovich. Suddenly it feels like I’m sitting in Ed Masry’s office next to the woman with “two wrong feet and f***ing ugly shoes”. “It’s a 30-year-old movie,” Roberts replies. “I think anytime you’re going to reach back to bring something into the present, there’s going to be trouble making the connection for a variety of reasons. They could be political, cultural – they could be just dated clothing – so I don’t think it’s a reasonable testament to challenge the question of now, to use that as a template of ‘Would that work now?’. We have no way of knowing that.”
There’s silence. A South African journalist attempts to probe the actress with a very confusing follow-up question, this time about, well, god knows what. “I will say this,” Roberts interrupts. “I’m not entirely sure what we are talking about at this point but I think we get very caught up in the conversation about gender and equality – and then you have the ‘Year of the Woman’ that happens every few years,” she begins. “I think ultimately we should focus less on separating men and women and more on celebrating as artists – ‘The Year of People Doing Great Work whether they be Men or Women’. If we say, ‘Didn’t she do a great job and she’s a woman’ then it’s almost like we are participating in the issue in our attempt to rise above it in a funny way.”
And with that, Roberts ends on a lighter note. “It’s time to exit the ballroom, there’s a dance class coming in.”
Ben Is Back in in Australian cinemas January 31.