If her emergency trip to the hospital was the scariest moment of her pregnancy, then Roberts is downplaying it now. “I think I knew that everything was going to be okay,” she says. “This is all par for the course. It's nothing particularly surprising, or dramatic, or tragic.”
Anyone hankering for surprise, drama, or tragedy, or all three at once, need look no further than Roberts's latest movie. Based on the acclaimed play by Patrick Marber, Closer follows four attractive Londoners (Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen) as they fall in and out of love with one another while driving themselves mad with anguish. Roberts's character, a photographer and adulteress named Anna, is perhaps the most selfish and manipulative of the bunch.
It took a while for the actress to warm to her. “Whenever you are faced with someone who has made far more errors in judgment and far more mistakes than you,” she says, “you have a tendency to get on your high horse.” Ultimately, Roberts accepted the role in large part because of Nichols, who, with such films as The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and HBO's Angels in America, has proved himself to be a wittily sophisticated explorer of the darker depths of human nature. (Nichols had initially cast Cate Blanchett as Anna but approached Roberts after Blanchett got pregnant and had to drop out.) “The movie is so completely and utterly adult and intense,” Roberts says, “so different than anything I ever do, or even get asked to do, frankly. I wouldn't think of me for it.”
If there's one scene that will simultaneously impress the critics and test the loyalty of her PG-13 fan base, it's the climactic face-off with her husband (Owen), in which he learns of her yearlong affair with Law's character. Desperately hurt, and searching for a way to make himself hate his wife, he forces her to recount all her adulterous escapades in graphic detail, even grilling her on the taste of his rival's semen.
So how much fun was that?
“Horrible,” Roberts says with a shiver. “We called it The Scene. I had so many different reactions to it. We rehearsed it once, and I just wept through the whole thing. The next time, I laughed through it. I was really glad when it was done.”
According to Nichols, shooting that scene “sort of ripped up everybody who was on set”—especially Roberts, which helps explain why her performance is so riveting. “With Julia, it's not pretending,” he says. “She's living it as she does it. She's an actress who actually blushes in scenes. And if she blushes once, she does it in every take.”
It remains to be seen what effect, if any, Closer will have on Roberts's career trajectory. What's certain is that in the past, whenever Roberts has made films that have alienated her legions of mainstream fans, she's never had much trouble winning them back. In the mid-Nineties, a few years after her breakout success in Pretty Woman, there was a period when she played a string of sourpusses in a string of flops (Mary Reilly chief among them). Things got so bad that Sandra Bullock was called in to temp as America's Sweetheart, until Roberts beamed her way back with My Best Friend's Wedding in 1997, proving that her box-office power was directly proportional to the amount of screen time given to her mile-wide smile. But Oscars aren't won on good dentistry alone, and Roberts's 2001 victory for her turn as Erin Brockovich proved that she'd become that rarest of creatures, a true star who's also a true actress.