NEW YORK — Nothing about this Julia Roberts recalls the radiantly pretty woman whose wide smile and wild tresses made her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.
In fact, today that unruly mess of hair, which seduced a nation of men and women alike, has been tinted a deeper red and pressed into a smooth, flat bob to go with the tailored houndstooth slacks she's sporting during a recent stay in New York City--her home between movies.
And the $12-million smile? That's being doled out carefully as a reward for asking the right questions--about work, and not about her recent breakup with her high-haired husband, Lyle Lovett. But when she does address the topic, she speaks with a motherly tone--full of hindsight and lessons learned.
At 27, Roberts has soared to the top of Hollywood's alleged A-list, catching the industry's attention with "Mystic Pizza" (1988) and "Steel Magnolias" (1989) before snagging the $178-million domestic box-office hit "Pretty Woman" in 1990. She received a best supporting actress nomination for "Steel Magnolias" and a best actress nomination for "Pretty Woman." But now, with her sleek grown-up look and a new movie in which she plays a wife and mother, she's doing something Hollywood usually frowns upon: She's trying to change her image.
In "Something to Talk About," which opened Friday, she plays a frazzled woman who realizes that her husband, played by Dennis Quaid, has been fairly publicly cheating on her. She flashes those pearly whites only occasionally, and the movie's emphasis is on the Angst. This comes on the heels of three films in a row that also generally portrayed Roberts looking more anxious than beatific: "The Pelican Brief," "I Love Trouble" and "Ready to Wear."
"Choosing this role had a lot to do with not doing the same stuff over and over," says Roberts, leaning carefully over a turkey burger and fries at the Regency Hotel for a mouthful. "It's also about getting older and having increasingly more to offer. You start to mature, and the roles mature with you.
"To keep doing the same thing gets boring for me and ultimately boring for people who go to the movies. They think they want certain things out of you--but do they really?"
She asks this as a rhetorical question, but in fact it's the biggest concern behind studios' closed doors. (For a critic's answer to that question, see opposite page.)
"Julia's resisting all the movies her audience wants to see her in," says one studio executive, noting that Sandra Bullock's new movie, "The Net," which capitalizes on its star's youth and vulnerability, would have been an obvious choice for Roberts. "I wonder how long the audience's patience will last. Julia wants to be Meryl Streep, but she's not. She's a movie star trying to be an actress."
Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay for "Thelma & Louise," also wrote "Something to Talk About." She supports Roberts' deliberate shedding of her old image.
"I think she can do a number of different things. If I were her I wouldn't want to be limited to one particular type of role," she says. "She's just got a wide-open future."
In the new film, Roberts plays Grace Bichon, a grand-prix horse jumper turned homemaker and mother. She once had visions of becoming a veterinarian (which was also Roberts' childhood dream growing up at her parents' acting school home in Smyrna, Ga.). Grace soon finds herself trapped by the men in her life--her philandering husband and her overbearing father, whose horse-farm business she manages.
Khouri says she wrote the role for a mature actress.
"This movie is a departure for Julia--this character is a woman , not a girl. She has all the problems that go along with being married and having a child," says Khouri, who nonetheless immediately envisioned Roberts in the role. "She's delicate because of her looks, but on the other hand you feel there's something titanium at her core."
Echoing Khouri's opinion is Lili Taylor, Roberts' co-star in "Ready to Wear" and "Mystic Pizza."
"Julia's early movies were easy--they made people happy. Particularly men," Taylor says. "I'm sure the money folks aren't going to like the movies she's making. People like to see a beautiful woman onscreen--it's not a threat. But if she did 'Pretty Woman 2,' it would be a shame. She has so much more potential."
And in fact, those roles may now be impossible for Roberts, who, Taylor says, has changed palpably since they first met eight years ago. "She was a completely different woman," says Taylor of working with Roberts in Robert Altman's "Ready to Wear." "During 'Mystic Pizza' she was innocent, almost naive, and had a bit of that sparkle thing in the eye. When I saw her again, she was much older--and wiser. Sometimes you lose that sparkle to gain life experience."
If the movie-star sparkle is gone, something with more depth seems to have replaced it.