Born: 28 October 1967
Where: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Awards: Won 1 Oscar, 3 Golden Globes, 1 BAFTA and 1 Emmy nomination
When Julia Roberts won the 2001 Best Actress Oscar for her performance as self-made lawyer and Woman Of The People Erin Brokovich, the award seemed to reflect a popular acceptance that she had finally arrived as a "serious" actress. Due to the outrageous success of Pretty Woman, eleven years before, people had considered her to be most at home being charming in romantic comedies (and, by God, was she charming). For long periods her love life was scrutinised more avidly than her films. And then there were the ever-increasing wage-packets that saw her not only as Hollywood’s most sought-after female headliner but also a major rival to the likes of Cruise, Gibson and Schwarzenegger. Throughout the Nineties, for all her efforts to widen her scope, she was seen primarily as a movie star, hardly as an actress at all. It was forgotten that actually, as the doomed Shelby in Steel Magnolias, she’d been Oscar-nominated for a dramatic role before the Pretty Woman explosion blinded us all.
She was born Julie Fiona Roberts in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 28, 1967, into a very large extended family of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish extraction (Roberts legend has it that some Cherokee also crept into the gene pool at some point). Her father, Walter, was a genuine outsider, not sharing the conservative, macho values of his farming-stock family. Instead, he was artistic and sensitive, wearing tight clothes with a European cut, even daring to become a drama student. Having joined the air force to take advantage of the recent GI Bill that gave a free education to those in the armed forces, he wound up at the Keesler base at Biloxi, Mississippi. Here, in 1955 auditioning for a stage production of George Washington Slept Here, he won both a role and the heart of the play’s vivacious blonde ingenue, Betty Lou Bredemus.
Betty Lou, born in Minneapolis and partly of Swedish blood, had studied drama and worked in stock companies before, like Walter, making use of the GI Bill. She and Walter would marry and move back to Atlanta, where they’d have three kids — Eric, Lisa and Julie. They’d also establish and run a children’s theatre at their home and, being amongst the first whites to defy Georgia’s colour lines, their pupils would include the children of Martin Luther King. It’s rumoured that, given the theatre was not profitable, the Kings not only sponsored it but actually paid the costs of young Julie’s birth at the Crawford Long Hospital. Sadly, she would never speak to the great peacemaker, who was assassinated in Memphis before she was 6 months old.
Julie’s first years were spent in a 2-storey house in middle-class midtown Atlanta. Here, she’d watch the theatre workshops while Eric and Lisa would join in (she’d later claim the only acting advice she got from her father was "Don’t ever say anything unless it means something"). Unfortunately, the financial situation exerted so much pressure on Walter and Betty Lou that their marriage began to crack. Usually charming and charismatic, he became occasionally abusive. She, in turn, was not faithful. They’d split when Julie was just 4. Walter would remain in Atlanta with Eric (then 16), taking a job selling vacuum cleaners in a department store to make ends meet. Betty Lou would move with the girls to Smyrna, a suburb just out of town to the north-west. Here Betty would become a church secretary, then a real estate agent, quickly getting married to Michael Motes (in 1976, the union would provide Julie with a half-sister, Nancy).
In Smyrna, Julie would attend the Fitzhugh Lee Elementary School, Griffin Middle School and Campbell High School. She learned to ride at the riding school opened by her paternal grandfather on his retirement, and loved animals in general, following the local vet on his rounds and often returning home with stray or injured creatures. At school, she would be teased for her big mouth and glasses and, according to Eric, would be given a hard time at home by her step-father (though Julia herself would never mention the subject). Though she would occasionally take part in Shakespeare plays put on by English teacher David Boyd (she’d also play Elizabeth Dole in an election skit), there were no official drama classes that would encourage her to follow in her parents’ footsteps. There was, though, tennis — she was on the school team -and poetry. An insecure girl, she became convinced that one of her teachers disliked her and asked if, as she wasn’t going to pass in that subject anyway, she might spend the class-time in the library. She was given permission and spent the time reading, making several important discoveries, in particular Walt Whitman’s classic collection of poetry, Leaves Of Grass. She would read this every day for months, later growing to love the works of Faulkner, Hardy, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Two particular events in this period left a deep and lasting mark. One was the death from cancer of her father, when he was just 47 and she was just ten. Walter had died disillusioned and unfulfilled, making young Julie desperate to make a success of herself (in fact, she later claimed this event was like a re-birth). The other was the sudden breakthrough of her brother, Eric. Having scored a role in the soap Another World in 1977, the following year he was a hit in King Of The Gypsies (with Shelley Winters and a young Susan Sarandon), his hot run continuing through The Pope Of Greenwich village to a 1985 Oscar nomination for Runaway Train. His example showed her what was possible and how it could be done.
Graduating from High School in 1985, within days she’d taken off for New York City, where she moved in with big sister Lisa, now also an aspiring actress. Here she’d attend acting classes while working at Baskin-Robbins and at the Ann Taylor designer boutique on Fulton Street at the foot of Manhattan. She scored herself an agent but no acting jobs came her way — she was even turned down for the soap All My Children. Needing a SAG card to get work, she discovered there was already an actress named Julie Roberts. Thus was Julia Roberts created. Eventually she signed up with the Click modelling agency but hated the work — after the persecution she’d suffered at school, she still considered herself to be radically unattractive, and consequently an imposter.
Now an Oscar nominee and big news, it was down to Eric to engineer his little sister’s first screen break in 1986, in Blood Red. This was the tale of Sicilian immigrants in 1890’s California, battling for their vineyards against evil Dennis Hopper who wants to run a railroad across their land and sends thugs to clear them off. Eric would play the hero, seeking revenge for the murder of his father, Julia popping up as his sister, who witnesses the patriarch’s slaying. Sadly, the movie would not serve as any kind of launch-pad for the young hopeful. Delayed for several years, it would enjoy only a very limited cinema release in 1988.
By then, Julia would be well on her way. Having appeared in an episode of the TV series Crime Story (later would come Miami Vice), she made her screen debut with a tiny role in the wacky sex-farce Firehouse, where the least effective fire station in town is transformed by the introduction of often naked female rookies (Julia was not one who revealed her assets).
The next year, 1988, would see her charge up the ladder of success. First came Satisfaction, where she played the slutty bass-player in an all-girl band led by Justine Bateman (of Family Ties fame), playing a residency at a beach-side roadhouse. Setting her sights on a vile preppie guy she meets on the beach, she’s confused when her former boyfriend turns up with a proposal of marriage. Meanwhile, there’s all sorts of shenanigans involving Bateman, club promoter Liam Neeson and a returning Deborah Harry. The movie would be re-titled Girls Of Summer once Julia had become a star. In the future, she’d also see a great deal more of Neeson.
Next she made her TV movie debut in Baja Oklahoma where wannabe singer Lesley Ann Warren, a waitress in Fort Worth suffering terrible luck with her career and her men, is inspired by ex-flame Peter Coyote to attempt to make the Grand Ole Oprey. Roberts would appear as Warren’s wayward daughter, adding to her woes by running off to Aspen with a dope-dealing boyfriend.
The year would end with her first critical hit, Mystic Pizza. Set in a Connecticut fishing town, this saw three poor Portuguese-American friends (Lili Taylor and sisters Julia and Annabeth Gish) working in a pizza joint and tasting the first fruits of adult life and love. Here seductive, hot-headed Roberts would fall for another preppie, this one having been kicked out of college for cheating, her street-smartness proving far more effective than his high education. As said, the movie (featuring a young Matt Damon) was well-received, with Roberts in particular earning high praise. But she nearly didn’t get it. At her first reading she was told that she wasn’t physically right for the part — they needed someone darker, more Portuguese. So she slapped on some black hair mousse and nabbed the part, despite the fact that, during her audition, as her "boyfriend" stroked her hair, the dye was coming off all over his hands.
Though Mystic Pizza brought her to the attention of critics and public, her career still needed another boost. This was provided by Sally Field, the double Oscar winner and author of the notorious acceptance speech beginning "You like me! You really like me!" At this point, Field was married to Alan Greisman, the producer of Satisfaction, and had taken young Julia under her wing, acting as a form of mentor. Now she pushed to get her protegee involved in her next project, to be titled Steel Magnolias, even performing Julia’s final audition with her. Her efforts would pay off — Roberts would be hired to play her daughter, Shelby. Again, it might never have happened as, after filming Mystic Pizza, Roberts had been struck down by a mysterious, never-identified disease. After several weeks in hospital, then several more convalescing at home, her visiting mother offered to read with her a script that had been sat there for ages. Julia had refused then, only later picking up Steel Magnolias and realising the opportunity it offered.
Set primarily in a Louisiana beauty parlour, Steel Magnolias would follow the trials and triumphs of a group of funny, sensitive but tough Southern belles, Shirley Maclaine playing a bitter divorcee and Dolly Parton the witty, sexy hairdresser. The high emotion would be brought by Julia, as a bride-to-be enduring child-bearing problems and a vicious case of diabetes, and attempting to live her life to the full as her health dramatically deteriorates (as Shelby says herself "I’d rather have 3 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special"). Despite accusations of over-emoting, the movie would be a major success, with Roberts herself winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. She also picked up a fiance in co-star Dylan McDermott. But nothing could prepare her for what happened next.
This next project had been hanging around for a while, and had been offered to her before Steel Magnolias boosted her profile. Called 3000, it would have seen her play a bolshy, foul-mouthed, drug-addled, poorly-educated hooker who spends a week with a bolshy, foul-mouthed but tremendously handsome and wealthy businessman. She was up for it, but was denied when Vestron collapsed and the project was turned over to Disney where Garry Marshall turned it into an altogether nicer piece. So, the film now being Disney and thoroughly nice, Meg Ryan became the producers’ target lead. Julia would have to fight for it and, with yet more help from Sally Field, she did, eventually winning the title role in what was now to be titled Pretty Woman.
In its revised form, the film would see Roberts driven to prostitution and hired as a week-long escort by corporate raider Richard Gere. Tutored in social graces by the hotel manager, she does a My Fair Lady and charms the pants off of everyone, quite literally in the case of Gere, winning both a man and a fine future. Her barely suppressed exuberance was a major hit with audiences, too. On a budget of $14 million, the film would gross $178 million in the US alone, an explosive success that saw her win a second Golden Globe, and be both Oscar-nominated and immediately crowned as Hollywood’s latest superstar.
The furore would coincide with severe turbulence in her private life. Five days after wrapping on Pretty Woman, she’d moved on to Joel Schumacher’s spooky ensemble piece Flatliners. Here a gang of medical students, led by Keifer Sutherland and wanting to discover more about a possible afterlife, take it in turns to have their heart stopped then re-started. Both selfish visionary Sutherland and caring pragmatist Kevin Bacon are in love with Julia, the emotional heart of the movie, playing a dedicated healer haunted by memories of her dead father (in order to reach appropriately heightened levels of performance, she would discuss with Schumacher her own feelings for Walter). The film was beautifully shot by Schumacher, and it gave Roberts both another financial success and a new fiance in Sutherland. But, just as quickly as her life had taken off, so it began to spectacularly blow up.
After Pretty Woman, Roberts was major tabloid news and her imminent marriage to bad boy Sutherland began a feeding frenzy. Sadly, even as the world was seeking details of the nuptials, the relationship was falling apart, the final blow coming when Julia discovered Sutherland had had an affair with stripper Amanda Rice. Just days before the proposed wedding in June, 1991, she took off for Ireland with Sutherland’s best friend (and Lost Boys co-star) Jason Patric. With three films released that year (her heavy schedule meant she’d missed out on Godfather 3), Roberts’ face was ubiquitous. Yet her performances, and her Golden Globes and Oscar nominations were hardly mentioned, just the glamour, the kooky laugh, the gawky naivety and the scandal. She would have to work far harder than most for the respect those accolades usually bring.
Her first 1991 release was the thriller Sleeping With The Enemy, bringing her first $1 million pay-check. Here she played the young trophy wife of wealthy financial advisor Patrick Bergin, a man who terrorises her physically and mentally. Unable to stand any more, she fakes her own death and does a runner, only to be traced by her increasingly malevolent spouse. Directed by Joseph Ruben, who’d earlier made The Stepfather, it begin as a tale of abuse and ended as a slasher flick. Far less frenetic would be Dying Young, reuniting her with Joel Schumacher. As with Pretty Woman, here she played a working-class, ill-educated charmer, this time hired by rich guy Campbell Scott to help him in his struggle against leukaemia. Gradually they fall for one another, but Julia also has the hots for handyman Vincent D’Onofrio (formerly her co-star in Mystic Pizza) and thus must choose whether to stay faithful to her dying lover. In the original cut of the movie, her decision would so incense test audiences (Julia wouldn’t do anything like that, godammit!) that the producers demanded a change.
This incredible year would end with an appearance in one of cinema’s most notorious oddities, Steven Spielberg’s Hook. This would see Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan, whose children are kidnapped by Dustin Hoffman’s titular Captain Hook, a bounder keen for a rematch. So Pan must return to Neverland, and rediscover himself, as his former magical nature is the only thing that can save the kids. Roberts would play the fairy Tinkerbell, a character most often viewed as a twinkle of light zipping around the scenery. The movie would be panned for many reasons — one being that this was not the most judicious use of the brightest star in the world.
After this crazy two-year period, deciding against publishing a book of her own poems, titled The Makings Of Insanity, Roberts now chose to stay out of the headlines, lessen her workload, choose her projects carefully, sort her life out. In this she was helped by relentless stream of trite scripts reprising Pretty Woman, but she also turned down Basic Instinct and Sleepless In Seattle. Eventually, after a very brief appearance as herself in Robert Altman’s The Player, she returned in 1993 with The Pelican Brief, a John Grisham thriller where she played a law student who discovers a link between the assassination of two Supreme Court judges and some very important, very dangerous people. She seeks help from the FBI, then investigative journo Denzel Washington, the glamorous, heroic duo being forced to flee from faceless villains. It would be a very difficult shoot for Roberts who was unsure whether, after her extended break, she was capable of a headlining performance. But experienced director Alan Pakula steadied her, and she was calmed by the presence of Sam Shepard who she knew from Steel Magnolias. And there was the ever-dependable Washington, who’d become such a good friend that, in at the 2001 Academy Awards, Roberts would show scant feeling for the other nominees when announcing his victory.
There was another reason for Roberts’ emotional turmoil during the shooting of The Pelican Brief — she got married. Her husband was the musician Lyle Lovett, who she’d met on the set of The Player in 1992. The tabloids again went insane, with many of the headlines sharing a cruel Beauty And The Beast theme — Lovett being of unconventional looks. What could the stunning Roberts have been thinking? It was simple, really. Lovett was ten years older, had studied journalism and European languages and was very well read and travelled. He was idiosyncratic, extremely witty and had been deemed far too weird for the country community of Nashville. For Roberts, he must have been highly entertaining, rebelliously artistic and also a rock of experience as her life threatened to spiral out of control. Sadly, the pressures of her absurd fame caused the marriage to founder within a year, and they were divorced in 1995. They would, though, remain friends, and Roberts would even sing one of Lovett’s songs in her 1998 movie Stepmom. To discover more about the relationship, uber-fans have spent long hours poring over the lyrics of Lovett’s 1996 album, The Road To Ensenada.
Also in 1993, Julia would accept a Lifetime Achievement from the Screen Actors’ guild on behalf of Audrey Hepburn, then too ill to attend. Hepburn herself had made this request as, aside from Pretty Woman sharing its subject matter with My Fair Lady, Roberts had begun working for UNICEF, a charity long-backed by Hepburn.
1994 would see Roberts make two further onscreen appearances. First was I Love Trouble where she played a keen cub reporter for a Chicago newspaper, continually scooping grizzled veteran Nick Nolte. The pair cheat and deceive one another — Julia being sly and charming, Nolte macho and exasperated — until they discover that a hormone being given to cows is making their milk cancer-inducing, and must work together. Then she’d return to Robert Altman for Pret-A-Porter, digging into the world of Parisian fashion shows. Roberts would play a fashion reporter who battles with rival hack Tim Robbins, their relationship being confused by the fact that they keep getting drunk and sleeping with each other. The year would also see her reading the poetry of Pablo Neruda on the soundtrack of the Oscar-nominated Il Postino.
With her marriage over (she’d entered relationships first with Daniel Day-Lewis, then Matthew Perry, the latter getting her to appear in an episode of Friends in 1996), 1995 saw her only in Lasse Hallstrom’s Something To Talk About. Here she’s cuckolded by husband Dennis Quaid and, though pressured to forgive by family and townsfolk, she reacts hilariously by confronting him in front of his drinking buddies and then, at a Women’s Institute-style meeting, revealing the shameful secrets of those judging her. It was a slight movie, but it did allow her to run the gamut of frustration, anger, rebellion and heroism.
Ever keen to expand her thespian horizons, and to prove that she could deliver the goods outside of romantic comedy, 1996 saw her enthusiastically pushing back the envelope. First came Stephen Frears’ Mary Reilly, where she played the Irish housemaid of John Malkovich’s Dr Jekyll. At first she’s timid and fearful, then gradually attracted to her unravelling employer. He, in turn, discovering that she still loves a father who beat her and locked her in a cellar with rats, recognises that she might accept him despite the terrible transformation that’s overwhelming him. Thus she’s drawn deeper into his disaster.
Washed-out and scurrying, Mary Reilly was clearly intended to have us see Roberts as an actress rather than a superstar. And, though the movie was not a hit, it worked to a degree. She continued on the Irish tip with Neil Jordan’s epic Michael Collins, playing the love interest who comes between freedom fighter Liam Neeson and his friend and co-strategist Aidan Quinn (earlier, she’d also enjoyed a real-life relationship with Neeson, who she knew from Satisfaction). She’d end the year with Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, where Allen, unlucky in love, takes his unhappy daughter on a trip to Venice. Here he sees Julia, falls hard, but has no hope of winning her — until, that is, his daughter, whose best friend’s mother is Roberts’ therapist, uses inside information to coach her dad in romantic strategy. The movie was sweet and fun, and marked by the cast suddenly bursting into song, Julia contributing All My Life.
Now accepting that her best chance of continuing success might lie in alternating dramas with the rom-coms her public so loved, 1997 saw Roberts score another massive hit with PJ Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding. Here, when her best buddy Dermot Mulroney gets engaged to Cameron Diaz, Julia realises that she loves the guy and travels across country to infiltrate proceedings and sabotage the marriage. It was high-quality knockabout fare, and earned her another Golden Globe nomination. It was very different from her next project, Conspiracy Theory, where Mel Gibson would play a cab driver constantly boring his customers with his wild-eyed thoughts on sinister global elites. Julia would appear as the Justice Department agent he turns to when he stumbles upon a real conspiracy and has dark forces attempt to silence him.
1998 would bring just one screen appearance, in the heartstring-strumming Stepmom. Here she hooked up with divorced Ed Harris but, try as she might, she cannot win over his kids, who are being turned against her by former wife Susan Sarandon. Then Sarandon discovers she’s dying and realises that Roberts will become their mother whether she likes it or not.
Stepmom was a hit, but small fry compared to the double whammy Roberts pulled off in 1999. Having turned down the lead in Shakespeare In Love, this began with Notting Hill where she played a movie star visiting London, who gets involved with bumbling bookstore owner Hugh Grant. Together, the couple crashed through the top of the charm-o-meter, they were cute beyond reason, and Roberts scored yet another Golden Globe nomination. The only way she could hope to top it was by reuniting with the Pretty Woman crew — Richard Gere and Garry Marshall — which she now did with Runaway Bride. Here Gere would play a cynical hack who writes a story about Roberts, a mid-Western girl who, apparently, has left a string of men fuming and weeping at the altar. Flying out to research more deeply, he . . . well, you can guess the rest.
The new millennium saw another turnaround. My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill and Runaway Bride had made Roberts the biggest female star in the world. But now, due to her efforts throughout the Nineties, people were able and willing to accept her as a dramatic actress (she’d also been Emmy-nominated for an appearance in the TV show Law And Order). This was proven beyond doubt by Stephen Soderbergh’s Erin Brokovich where she played a divorced mum, desperate for work, who wheedles her way into a lowly position at a law firm and proceeds to organise a successful investigation into a public utility that has poisoned an entire community. She was sexy, brassy and full-on, especially bolshy in her dealings with rival lawyers (one being Peter Coyote, earlier her co-star in Baja Oklahoma) and her own boss, Albert Finney. She would be rewarded with a third Golden Globe and, going one step further than the brother who’d inspired her, a Best Actress Oscar. Now in the third year of a relationship with Law and Order actor Benjamin Bratt, it was all looking good — though Bratt would leave her in 2001.
Continuing to ring the changes, she now appeared alongside Brad Pitt in The Mexican, where Pitt played a useless petty crim who seeks redemption by going down to Mexico to collect a priceless handgun for mobster Gene Hackman. Roberts, meanwhile, was his dominating, disenchanted girlfriend, who takes off for Vegas, where she’s kidnapped by heavy James Gandolfini. In the movie’s best scenes, she gradually gets under his skin and begins to dominate him, too. Off-screen, she also won the heart of cameraman Daniel Moder. The couple would marry in July, 2002, with Roberts giving birth to twins — Phinneas Walter and Hazel Patricia — in late 2004. Giving her away at the wedding would be one Mick Devine, an Irishman she’d hired as a chauffeur and befriended when doing a Runaway Bride on Keifer Sutherland eleven years before.
The Mexican was a reasonable effort, but many complained that Roberts and Pitt, perhaps the fairest movie stars of their sex, spent so little screen time together. She moved on to America’s Sweethearts where she played the meek sister of film diva Catherine Zeta Jones, helping Jones’ estranged husband, John Cusack, to try to win her back, but gradually taking his heart for her own. Then she reunited with Pitt and Stephen Soderbergh (and Matt Damon) for Ocean’s Eleven. Here George Clooney would gather a gang of crooks to simultaneously rob three Vegas casinos run by Andy Garcia. The gang thinks it’s all for money, then discover that Garcia is presently seeing Clooney’s ex-wife, Julia. Roberts’ scenes with Clooney, marked by her casual mistrust of him, were among the movie’s highlights.
Having popped up briefly in Grand Canyon, a feel-good kids’ film that saw the headlining debut of her niece — Eric’s daughter, Emma — she then stayed with Soderbergh (and, briefly, Pitt) for Full Frontal. This, made for just $2 million, showed a day in the life of Hollywood’s entertainment industry, with Julia as a movie star playing a journalist interviewing a movie star — a movie within a movie within a movie. With break-ups, dog deaths and kinky massages, it was interesting enough, but a tad self-conscious. More successful was Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Clooney’s directorial debut. Taken from the memoirs of gameshow host Chuck Barris, in which he claimed to have been a hitman for the CIA, this saw Julia as the CIA’s own Nietzsche-quoting Mata Hari, recruiting Barris and occasionally boosting his morale. Working for scale (still $250,000 for 6 days labour), it was a favour for Clooney (Pitt and Damon would also appear).
Financially speaking, it was easy to do favours as Roberts now broke all female records by receiving $25 million for Mona Lisa Smile. This saw her as a freethinking art teacher in the Fifties, who comes to work at a posh East Coast girls’ school. Attempting to raise their ambitions higher than trophy wifedom, she encounters hostility from conservative pupil Kirsten Dunst and the authorities. Far harsher would be 2004’s Closer, based on the Patrick Marber play and directed by Mike Nichols. Here she played a photographer who, over a period of years, falls for writer Jude Law, cruelly dumping boyfriend Clive Owen, who ends up with Law’s stripper girlfriend Natalie Portman. It was tough stuff, questioning our ability to love anyone at all. Ocean’s Twelve — this time involving artwork robberies all over Europe, and reuniting her with the old gang as well as Catherine Zeta Jones — would come as light relief, indeed.
Beginning as the unknown sister of Eric Roberts, Julia’s success has been incredible, her movies grossing well over $2.5 billion. She is among the highest paid stars in the world, male or female, and owns homes in New York, the Hollywood hills and Taos, New Mexico. She likes dogs and knitting, and works, as said, for UNICEF as well as Paul Newman’s Hole In The Wall Gang and a charity attempting to find a cure for Rett Syndrome, a sometimes fatal disease which randomly attacks girls between the ages of 2 and 6. She also runs a production company, called Shoelace Productions. Its first production was Stepmom. Later would come Mona Lisa Smile and a superbly witty TV series called Queens Supreme, following the backstage antics of judges and starring Annabella Sciorra and Oliver Platt. The gawky girl with the big mouth and glasses sure done good.