Julia Roberts is the kind of star who prefers constellations.
Over the last three years, one of Hollywood’s most bankable actresses has chosen to wedge herself in the middle of marquee-busting lists of other famous actors in “Ocean’s 11,” “America’s Sweethearts” and “Full Frontal.”
In “Mona Lisa Smile,” her first major star turn since she won a best-actress Academy Award for 2000’s “Erin Brockovich,” Roberts plays a free-spirited art teacher who confronts repression at a 1950s women’s college.
But Roberts still shares a bulk of screen time with Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst and Marcia Gay Harden.
“It’s just more fun, I think. It’s more fun and less work. These are the things I strive for in life,” Roberts jokes, seated at a long glass meeting table at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Co-stars Gyllenhall, Stiles and newcomer Ginnifer Goodwin were assembled around her — a condition of the interview. (Even off stage, Roberts prefers a supporting cast.)
Keeping her schedule lightBut Roberts was only partly kidding about her light workload.
In 2002, she married her second husband, movie cameraman Danny Moder (who also worked on “Mona Lisa Smile”), and has repeatedly said she prefers home life to the movie set.
Roberts was the first actress to sign onto the new movie and took a role in choosing her co-stars.
“It’s not really philanthropic,” Roberts says. “It’s really quite selfish, because their genius makes me look like a genius, so it’s not like I’m really giving back.”
Her compliment is echoed by smiles and mutual praise from the other actresses.
But despite scene-stealing performances from Stiles, Gyllenhaal, Dunst and Oscar winner Harden, the focus of “Mona Lisa Smile” remains squarely on Roberts.
Focus squarely on Roberts
“The one question that has been repeated many, many times is ‘What was it like to work with Julia Roberts?”’ Stiles says, recalling an afternoon full of press interviews. Then, with a side glance at Roberts: “It’s very funny to talk about people in front of people.”
“You know what somebody said to me yesterday?” Gyllenhall adds. “’What was it like to work with Julia Roberts — and don’t give us the same answer that everyone gives, that she was great and lovely and fun to work with!”’
Roberts raises her eyebrows. “Well, this is what I got asked yesterday: ‘What was it like working with all these young, beautiful girls and having to get up everyday and look at yourself in the mirror. Does that make you consider plastic surgery?”’
Her co-stars are aghast.
“They’re just poking at you” Stiles says.
“I was just so insulted,” the 36-year-old Roberts says, adding with a rueful laugh: “She was not having her best day either, let me tell you.”
Goodwin tries to reassure the veteran: “I think people want so badly for there to be something wrong because it makes them feel better about themselves.”
Roberts shrugs off the memory. “I get asked a lot of insulting questions,” she says. “I think they’re just thoughtless.”
Playing the 'kid sister'
But sharing the screen helps take the pressure off — whether she’s mingled in with Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack, Christopher Walken and Billy Crystal in “America’s Sweethearts,” or George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Bernie Mac and others in “Ocean’s 11.”
She said she has a soft spot for that movie. “With the guys, I have that feeling of being the kid sister who’s let in on all the jokes and knows everything that’s going on.”
Roberts also has used her clout to make offbeat projects with friends. That motivated her small role as an assassin with Clooney, Gyllenhaal, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”; and her performance opposite Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pierce and David Duchovny in the art-house project “Full Frontal” — directed by Steven Soderbergh, who did “Ocean’s 11” and “Erin Brockovich.”
See a pattern?
Roberts said she responds better to friends than to studio demands or audience expectations.
“I don’t feel pressure to prove myself anymore, but I feel an enormous amount of pressure that I put on myself to do a good job and impress the people that I’m working with,” she says. “The best thing that you can hope for is to work with people that you like enough and respect so much that your purpose is to impress them or dazzle them in some way.”
Soon, she plans to team again with Soderbergh, Clooney, Pitt, Damon and others on the sequel “Ocean’s 12.”
So what’s the difference between a cast full of women and a cast full of guys?
“It’s more like hugging, as opposed to high-fiving,” she says.