Julia Roberts lets it all go in 'August: Osage County'

5:36 PM, Dec 25, 2013   |    comments
(Photo: Todd Plitt, USA TODAY)
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

NEW YORK - For Julia Roberts, playing tart-tongued Barbara Weston in August: Osage County meant a million different things all compressed into one treasured experience.

She was honored to be an integral part of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play about family dysfunction, which she had seen on Broadway and which he has adapted for the big screen. She was giddy to be playing the daughter of one of her icons, Meryl Streep, with whom she would eat dinner many nights in the apartment complex the cast shared away from their Oklahoma set.

And she was notably leery about leaving her family back in California to fly to tiny Bartlesville to finish her acclaimed performance as a woman who's given up on herself, her family and just about everything else that should mean something to her.

"This movie was the first time I left my family to work. That was a big test. ... It was two months of back and forth and not having our normal flow of family. I don't like it. It's not satisfying. I was just glad we had a heavy work load. I went home every weekend," says Roberts, of leaving twins Finn and Hazel, 9, and Henry, 6, at home with dad Danny Moder. "I was just heartsick a lot of the time. But as my husband said, 'You're going to have to do it at some point. You're going to have to figure out if it worked or didn't work.'"

It did work out, mostly because Roberts, 46, was both enamored of her role and the people playing her family members: Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson as her sisters and, of course, Streep as her drug-addled, terminally ill mother. The cast hung out, cooking dinners and rehearsing their very long and intricate lines of dialogue.

"More often than not, we would congregate in Meryl's apartment and eat and chat and socialize and all sit around the table and go over the next day's stuff. The dinner scene was 18 pages maybe and nobody wants to be the one to blow the cue. Meryl is a beautiful person. She's very funny and of course incredibly smart. It's so nice to see someone who is goddess-like to you in your profession work really hard at it. She welcomes you into that process with her," Roberts says.

Streep returns the compliment with the kind of e-mailed quote only she could cook up: "Julia has a carefree quality as a person, and she is free of any inhibitions or checks on her strong and happy spirit. She likes to have a good time, and she spends time making sure the crew do, too. She likes to get them all going and laughing, and it makes an easy-going atmosphere; but when the time comes to do her own work, she is as serious and committed as you can imagine. Deep, resonant emotion lies readily available to her when she calls upon it, and then she lets it go like a tissue in the wind when they call cut. She's pretty amazing."

Amazing is not what you'd use to describe Roberts' appearance in this film. At best, she's a frumpy, bitter woman who's let herself go. "The hair and the makeup and the clothes, all of it was such a great element of explaining exactly where Barbara was residing in that moment. Maybe, get your roots done. Put a bra on," says Roberts, who herself goes casual when she's not in front of flashing camera lenses. "It was really some sad times to participate in with these characters. It's a good thing we all liked each other as people because as characters, what a miserable bunch to spend time with."

Director John Wells met with Roberts early to break down the role and what it entailed. For the actress, who won an Oscar in 2001 as spunky activist Erin Brockovich, it meant showing a darker side of herself. "This is a woman in her mid-40s who is bitter and having difficulties with her husband. She was confronting all kinds of issues in her life. (Roberts) was very willing to go there. She showed no vanity in the way we lit her. She wore no makeup. She looks like a real person. She wanted to embrace this idea of a woman wearing her martyrdom outwardly," he says. "Julia has a ferocity. She is lovely but she has determination."

Making the film, jokes Roberts, made her appreciate her own tight-knit family unit even more. She's thankful she gets to put her kids to bed most nights and take them to school the next day.

"My husband is really busy so that helps create a balance. I really do like to be at home and I really do like to cook the three meals a day in our house. I love that element of life. I think it's a privilege. I'm lucky that every once in a while I step away from that and work," she says.

Roberts also just wrapped the The Normal Heart, about the early days of AIDS activism, for her friend, director Ryan Murphy. It was while shooting the movie, due on HBO in the spring of 2014, in New York that Roberts' kids became de-facto Manhattanites.

"They went to pre-school here, the older ones did," says Roberts, who fondly recalls "me pushing the stroller with (them), in the snow, hauling up Madison Avenue. Those were the days."

Wait, one of America's most famous women hauled her kids to school, on her own, without a retinue of nannies? Better believe it, says her August co-star Dermot Mulroney, who has been a close friend of Roberts' since she chased him in their 1997 comedy hit, My Best Friend's Wedding.

"I like the way Julia carries herself in public. There's a well-defined line between what she gives America and what she won't. She's discreet. She can maneuver celebrity. She's very close with her family," he says. "She's a very engaging person. She looks people in the eye. She remembers your name. She is very courteous. She has a very decorous comportment."

So much so that when the dog she adopted in Oklahoma turned out to be pregnant and gave birth to four puppies a year ago, Roberts came up with this set of names, courtesy of Little Women: "Amy, Jo, Meg and Beth."

Her time on the August set affected her in other ways. She left with "a re-evaluation of how great my job is. I really do love it. I love working hard at it. This is probably the hardest I've worked at accomplishing something," she says. "I love an ensemble. If there's a theme to my work, it's ensembles. I love it."

(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)

Most Watched Videos