Happily balanced

Hollywood

Happily balanced

Tom Hanks is on the line. “What am I,” he joked, “just another in your long line of I Love Julia calls?” Well, yes, as it happens. Call around to movie industry associates about Julia Roberts and the love gushes forth. Hanks, who starred with her in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), said flat out: “There’s no professional I admire more than Julia. Working with her is like having a fabulous dinner conversation with somebody you really like and who really likes you and is loaded with energy and intelligence.” Mike Nichols, who directed her in Closer (2004) and Charlie Wilson, unabashedly testified, “Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and my wife” — Diane Sawyer — “those are the three women I love.”

Her newest admirer is Ryan Murphy, who directed her in Eat Pray Love, which releases in August. “We laughed within 30 seconds of meeting each other and haven’t stopped since,” said  Murphy, who is best known as one of the creators of Glee. “She was a real collaborator on making the movie and a real leader on the set.” Also a fan is Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, the best-selling 2006 memoir on which the movie is based. “There’s this luminousness to Julia,” Gilbert said. “It’s almost as if she was always lit from behind. If she wasn’t a movie star, the only other job she could have would be professional fairy.”

The object of all this affection sits curled up in a comfy chair in her sewing room, upstairs in her sprawling but unpretentious, family-friendly house in Malibu. Her latest sewing project is whipping up personalised, oversize pillows for her three young children to loll upon while reading. Roberts has asked a reporter to meet her here at 9 am, an hour when moms are up, not movie stars.

Happy as clams
At 8:59 am, Roberts, in worn jeans and a yellow cotton cardigan, was securing her 5-year-old twins, Phinnaeus and Hazel, into a car so that her husband, the cinematographer Daniel Moder, could drive them to school. “Have fun,” she told the kids, waving goodbye as the family’s two dogs, Myrtle, a rescue mutt, and Louie, a Labrador, barked excitedly.

Fun is something Roberts is having a lot of these days. She is relishing marriage and motherhood — “We are happy as clams,” she said — and works only when she wants to. “I am fulfilled by my own life on an hourly basis. Every little moment is amazing if you let yourself access it. I learn that all the time from my kids; children are so filled with wonder.
Roberts has been a major movie star — the biggest female box office draw — for 20 years, ever since she fetchingly guffawed her way through the romantic comedy Pretty Woman in 1990. She was 22 at the time, a slip of a girl with a gigantic smile and a boisterous laugh.

Now 42, Roberts still has a smile as wide and a laugh as infectious, but a lot has happened in her life since Pretty Woman: two marriages (the first to the singer Lyle Lovett, the second to Moder in 2002); motherhood to her brood of three; winning an Oscar as best actress for Erin Brockovich (2000); and roles in more than 30 movies, including crowd-pleasers like My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Notting Hill (1999) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001).

Finding peace
In Eat Pray Love, which also stars Javier Bardem, James Franco, Viola Davis and Richard Jenkins, Roberts gets to display bushels of emotion as a woman seeking answers to life’s big questions. The role was the most taxing she has taken on — she’s in every scene and travelled the globe during the nearly four-month shoot — since she had her children. “I was really exhausted when it was done,” Roberts said, “and I loved every second of it.”

She first encountered Eat, Pray, Love when her agent sent her a copy upon publication. Thirty pages in, Roberts snapped the cover shut and put the book down. It wasn’t that the actress didn’t like or relate to Gilbert’s perspicacious memoir about how, after a divorce, she spent a year searching for balance and harmony in her life while travelling to Italy, India and Indonesia.

Quite the opposite: “It cast a spell on me,” Roberts said, sipping from a mug of herbal tea. “I immediately got on Amazon.com and ordered a copy for my best friend in Chicago. I sent it to her with a note saying, ‘I want to be reading this while someone I love is reading it at the same time.’ ”

Roberts said the emotional and spiritual journey depicted in the book — and now, she hopes, in the movie — resonated with her. “We all kind of have that moment in our lives,” she said, “sometimes it’s just for a weekend, or a month, or even a year, when you think, ‘There’s no way out.’ You have to learn to find peace within yourself, to exorcise that restlessness and judgment. You have to learn, ‘Why can’t I just be happy with my life?’ ”
Among the things that make Roberts happy now is having her family with her when she’s working. The Roberts-Moder clan moved en masse for Eat Pray Love, spending time on location in New York City (where Roberts maintains an apartment), Rome, India and Bali.
Her kids got to watch as Mom gained seven pounds in Italy eating her way through platefuls of pasta and pizza; suffered a fever of 102 in India but still insisted on being on the set for Jenkins’s big scene; and endured humidity so intense in Bali that she was practically squeegeeing off the sweat. “I’ve never changed clothes so many times in the course of a day,”  Roberts said.

With Eat Pray Love now behind her (except promoting it this summer), Roberts, next up, has a small but significant role in Larry Crowne, a comic drama in which Hanks, who co-wrote and is directing, plays a member of the nouveau unemployed who enrolls in a junior college. (“To be able to get her in your movie is a hail-Mary pass,” Hanks said.) After that, there are films she is considering, and she’d like to give Broadway a go again, maybe improving next time upon the decidedly mixed reviews she received for her debut effort, Three Days of Rain, in 2006.

Roberts confirmed that she is indeed choosy about roles these days, weighing the juiciness or challenge of a part against family considerations.
She is getting within spitting distance of 45, an age when substantial movie roles tend to disappear for most actresses. There’s always one gal, however, who successfully bucks the odds: in the late 60s and 70s, it was Katharine Hepburn; in the 80s and early 90s, Shirley MacLaine; currently, it’s Meryl Streep. In terms of looks, talent and track record, Roberts would be a smart bet to fill that slot in coming years.
THE NEW YORK TIMES

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