Julia Roberts begins by excusing herself for having the flu. “I keep on throwing up, which is quite disgusting, but don’t worry, I’m not contagious”, Roberts says laughingly. Never a huge fan of the press junket process with a reputation for being difficult, the Oscar-winning actress was surprisingly good-humoured when promoting her latest film, the fifties-set Mona Lisa Smile. “Unfortunately I can’t contaminate anybody”, she adds, laughingly.
In Mona Lisa Smile, Roberts plays a forward-thinking Art History teacher who accepts a job in a prestigious, but highly conservative all-female college in 1953. Roberts says that she didn’t find it too difficult to relate to this progressive character. “I think you have to identify with ANY character you play on some level,” Roberts explains. “I liked the fact that she was someone who had latched onto an idea and felt a strong conviction about one that was very new at that point. At that time, not a lot of people were saying: Look further, explore your options and expect more. It was a new cry for women. I also liked the fact that she really believed in it so much that even in the face of people that she knew she felt didn’t agree and weren’t interested in what she was saying, she still kept on.”
One of the prevalent themes of Mona Lisa Smile is the question of choice: Marriage or career. Roberts, recently married, is someone who gets to have both, and it’s a balancing act she says, is not so tough. “It’s not hard to balance those things at all. I have a very blessed life and situation and the timing of the convergence of things for me have worked out in a way that I’m just humbled by and really grateful for. I just can’t ask for anything else,” says Roberts, smiling, who remains unaffected by her fame and power, saying that it’s not so crazy that she remains so grounded “I find a natural instinct to be sort of indifferent to it in a way, to the idea of being famous, because that’s not something that one does. It’s not my job or something I do.”
These days Roberts prefers to expend her energies to being wife to cameraman Danny Moder, saying, somewhat shyly, that “It’s a joy being domestic. It’s something I want and something that makes very happy.”
In her latest film, Mona Lisa Smile, Roberts plays a progressive woman at a time of sheer conservatism in post-war America. 50 years after the film takes place in Bush’s America, one wonders whether much has really changed, making this film surprisingly contemporary. “I think it does have resonance in some common themes and continued struggles. It’s nice to remember and nice to offer up this story in a way of reminding, particularly, a younger generation of girls who only knows her life as freedom and the joys of choice to inform those younger girls it hasn’t always been this way. A lot of people weren’t born into these expected freedoms, so it makes me appreciate more the women who have come before me and made me appreciate my life.”
Not quite the comedically romantic heroine of Pretty Woman, Roberts enjoyed the challenge of getting to play a flawed character in her latest film, which is “the thing that makes her interesting. Also, the thing that makes her the most intellectually aware are the things she probably understands the least about, such as her conviction that she’s right.”
Playing a teacher, one wonders whether she has been influenced by teachers throughout her life. Surprisingly, the actress is reticent to elaborate. “I just want to make a point that it’s not just great teachers that sometimes shape your life. Sometimes it’s the absence of great teachers that shapes your life and being ignored can be just as good for a person as being lauded.”
In a career spanning some 15 years, Roberts has risen to the top of a patriarchal Hollywood. At this point, the now 36-year old Oscar winner cannot think of anything major to add to her life, insisting “I don’t have specific goals like that. I suppose my desire is just evolution and growth,” and of course good roles, but not necessarily designed to shock her legion of fans. “I would like to do things that are different. My reason wouldn’t be, oh, I’ll do this to shock people, because I don’t really know what people would find shocking. Though someone asked me a few weeks ago if I would be in the movie called Cock. And I said, you know, I don’t think I’m ready for that, I have no idea what it’s about. But I just can’t call my mom and say, “So, Cock”” she adds amidst peels of hysterical laughter.
And though she has mastered the romantic comedy genre, Roberts isn’t ruling out a return to the genre that made her a superstar. “I love romantic comedies. I like to watch them and I like to be in them. It’s something that’s increasingly difficult to find that spark of originality that makes if different than the ones that come before.” Yet it was a very serious film that she first saw as a Southern child that made her fall in love with the movies. “I think the first movie that really impacted me was Beckett [with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole]. I know what your thinking, me of all people, Beckett, figure that out.” She adds that this film had the impact on her it did, because “it was the first time I realized actors commanded such great power, I was really affected by it and was just really impacted by the power of this film”.