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On Top of Her Game

She didn't convert an Oscar nomination for Pretty Woman in 1990 - this time it might be different for Julia Roberts.
By Paul Fischer

Roberts roles: clockwise from top left: Erin Brockovich,
Pelican Brief, Pretty Woman, and her latest The Mexican
with Brad Pitt

Academy Award nominee Julia Roberts remains Hollywood's golden girl, and odds on favourite to win this year's Best Actress Oscar. In her latest movie, The Mexican, Roberts teams up with Brad Pitt in an irreverent black comedy, in which she plays a highly-strung woman kidnapped by a gay hit man.

This has been quite the year for one of Hollywood's few powerful women, the latest icing on the cake being her Oscar nomination. Yet, the actress who can wield so much power seems coy almost embarrassed at the Oscar talk.

"Look, I'm gratified that I've been nominated, especially for a movie I love. It's very exciting and overwhelming. Sure, it's a good time for me", Roberts responds with faint enthusiasm. She plays down, somewhat laughingly, the individual importance of an Oscar.

"Well I mean, outside of your own home, it's the highest praise you can get as an actor, isn't it? So yeah, it's exciting."

One has the distinct impression, even after spending a half hour with this movie icon that her life is not about individual achievements, but her work. While she will hesitate to gush about the kind of seriousness with which critics are now taking her - not to mention her peers - she is less reserved about the man who saw in her the depth we were all waiting for: Steven Soderbergh.

Roberts is re-teaming with him next in the star-studded Ocean's 11, and says, laughingly, that she begged the director to "put me in Traffic, but he didn't, and that was tragic."

Asked to explain why major stars queue up to be in a Soderbergh movie, Roberts gushes unapologetically. "He is a bona fide genius, certainly. He has a respect and love for movies that is paramount to being a really good director and he knows how to tell a story so well to that topic. All of his movies are very different because he doesn't just 'Soderbergh' every movie; he really takes care of the stories that he tells. And he's also nice to be around; he's just a nice, smart guy and to serve him is to feel as though you're serving a higher purpose.

With Roberts' Oscar nomination - and likely win if pundits are anything to go by - she has managed to attain a new respectability, it seems, but for the actress, it's all about the work and her aim, she says "at finding the best roles available to me." That may have been her attraction to an offbeat little black comedy called The Mexican, a relatively low-budget, quirky road movie of sorts, which Roberts shot mainly in Las Vegas, and a bit in Mexico. The film teams her up with long-time pal Brad Pitt.

In the movie, the latter plays Jerry Welbach, who is given two ultimatums. His mob boss wants him to travel to Mexico to get a priceless antique pistol called "The Mexican" or he will suffer the consequences. The other ultimatum comes from his girlfriend Samantha, (Roberts) who wants him to end his association with the mob. Jerry figures that being alive, although in trouble with his girlfriend is the better alternative so he heads south of the border.

Finding the pistol is easy but getting it home is a whole other matter. The pistol supposedly carries a curse - a curse Jerry is given every reason to believe, especially when Samantha is held hostage by the gay hit man Leroy (played by The Sopranos' James Gandolfini) to ensure the safe return of the pistol.

It has taken Roberts and Pitt fifteen years to find a film they liked enough, to do together. "Brad said yesterday it was because all the movies I liked that I wanted him to make, stunk," she says laughingly. "You know what it is? It's kind of a testament to the sweet nature of THIS movie, and the idea and concepts of fate and timing, and that which passes through our lives, because this is a movie that truly came out of a conversation between two people, one of whom works with Brad, one of whom works with me, at a social event, chit chatting. That simple. It was just one of those trains that was destined to pull out of the station."

As for working with Brad, Julia smiles glowingly. "It was so great. He's so lovely, which I had always known, but you get on a movie set and sometimes people change. And Brad is the sunniest guy that I know."

The Mexican WAS initiated as a small movie without major stars, until it attracted the attention of both Roberts and Pitt. "I just thought it was incredibly original. It was sent to me and I was told: Brad Pitt was interested; this guy Gore Verbinski is going to direct, have a look at it. I read it and was sort of taken by ability to take every GENRE known to film and kind of put it into one script, have it make sense and be interesting."

Of her character, Roberts loved the fact that "she's so wacky and wonderfully misguided in her pursuit of enlightenment. The fact that she really THINKS if she reads all these books, then she'll understand all her problems; I LOVE that about her." The character can be defined as being a full on emotional train wreck. Not quite the same as the actress, one suggests.

"She's pretty high strung. Maybe if I slept more I'd be a lot closer to her emotional level but I think one has to put in some pretty good wrack time to get to that place. But I like how emotional she is. She's got her heart on her sleeve. The reason why I was intrigued by her, was because I think she's really well intended, really motivated, she has all the best reasons for what she's doing, she's just going about them in a kind of wonderfully messy and erratic way. I understand her GOAL; I just don't necessarily subscribe to her APPROACH so in that way, so it's kinda fun to figure out HER way of figuring things out."

Yet trying to figure out Julia's way of figuring things out, is not as easy. As big a star as she is, she knows how to retain a kind of grounded reality, but precisely what that entails she won't say. In Notting Hill, her character commented that her fame was illusory, unreal. Does Julia Roberts think the same way, one asks? "Your perspective would probably present more of a challenge to me than MY reality," Roberts responds. "The way that you see my reality would probably take a lot more effort to get through all of that, to just have a day and be a girl; for me it's not a matter of something I do or don't do, it just is."

Yet Roberts also concedes that she has a certain power and knows how to use it, especially in sifting through the myriad of projects she receives on a daily basis. Yet, surprisingly, "the power of this job is in the 'no'. The 'yes' is easy; if you want to do something, then it's 'yeah, I want to do that. Saying no is the big moment. Yeah, it's good, but somebody else can make it or it wait for me to go on vacation or it can go away."

But, Roberts, continues to elucidate, she got into practice saying 'no' early on. "Because when I was 23 with everyone saying all these lovely things about me, I was reading scripts that I just didn't like, so at a time when I DIDN'T have a lot of money to be frivolous about NOT having an income, I said 'No' for two years. It wasn't until I made The Pelican Brief that I realised that it wasn't about working just to work; you have to really want to do what you're doing and I think that there is value in work, and value in staying home."

Now at 33, a more mature and wiser Roberts has different tastes in scripts, "and something has to be really good for me to leave my house, as opposed to just: 'That's pretty good, I think I can make that work.' Maybe now it has to EXCEPTIONALLY good. But every really good script that I've ever read and believed in, THAT is the sum of the movies that I've made."

Roberts' next two films define her commitment to appear in films that are not centred around her, such as the comedy America's Sweethearts, which pokes fun at press junkets, a facet of Roberts' life she knows only too well. Not that attending a junket for The Mexican is specific research for that film.

"We already shot the junket. I'm just the assistant, and so I brought in the water, did some knitting and I got the rest of the day off. Catherine Zeta [Jones] had to sit there and answer all the questions." Then there's that other ensemble piece, Ocean's 11, about which she is justifiably excited.

"This script is so smart and gripping. When I first read it, it was the old actor's joke that when you read a script it's bullshit, bullshit, my line; bullshit, bullshit, my line, etc. I don't necessarily subscribe to that, it's more, lines, lines, bullshit stage direction, line, line. But in Ocean's 11, I probably only have 37 lines in the whole script, and found it SO gripping and really compelling."

Ten years as one of Hollywood's reigning queens, and Julia remains passionate about most aspects of her work. "I think what I like the best is that I get to, once or twice a year, go off to interesting places, such as Mexico on this, where I'd never been before, with some travelling band of gypsies and try to tell a good story." Fame does, naturally, bring with it some negative aspects, and in the star's case, the media's interpretation of her life that remains a contentious issue.

"I guess what I like the least about this is would be that there doesn't seem to be too much interest or room for the simple truth," she says. "I just think that in the big scheme of the world, the way media deals with people in showbusiness, is that the fiction it fodders is so salivated after and so the simple truth doesn't really seem to serve much of a purpose."

Yet asked what simple truths Roberts would like to expand upon, the actress won't be drawn, "because nobody cares, so I don't care to offer it. I'm so peaceful and content with what I know is MY truth, I'm YEARS over trying to go: No, no, you don't understand, because at one point you realise: Oh wait it's not about that you have no ability to comprehend, it's about you having no INTEREST in what I'm REALLY saying. So at THAT point, the battle's over." Or perhaps, regrettably, it's just beginning.


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