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Julia Roberts and a part-time idol's choices

'Deception,' with Clive Owen, lures the box-office force back to the screen.

March 15, 2009|Rachel Abramowitz

Michelle Obama has nothing on Julia Roberts.

On the Monday after the Oscars, there was the elusive actress, in a fitted black blazer, jeans and rippling locks, with all the presence of a polished but approachable politician, pressing palms and personally greeting each member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. -- that idiosyncratic group that bestows the Golden Globes -- in a conference room of the Four Seasons Hotel. The line to speak with her was long, its denizens frequently shabby and odd and gushing, but Roberts did not flag, dutifully raining that glorious, improbable smile on every grateful scribe and posing for a memorializing photo.

She then disappeared, and returned with her hair upswept, sporting a green, summery linen top. She did a quick photo shoot (as the great "Slumdog Millionaire" actor Irrfan Khan, a hotel guest, stopped by and introduced himself) and retreated for this interview into an almost furniture-less meeting room. She perched on the only couch, eventually slinging one leg up in that idiosyncratic, long-legged recline, often seen in her movies and magazine spreads.

Unlike her married peers (Brangelina or TomKat), Roberts and husband Danny Moder have maintained a distinctly more selective media presence, and the Oscar-winning actress has emerged from her cocoon only to discuss her new film, "Duplicity" -- the first movie she's actually top-lined since 2003 -- which opens Friday.

It's a snarky romance-thriller about two former spies -- looking to score really big -- in the underhanded world of corporate espionage. She and Clive Owen -- the two were last seen viciously battling on screen in 2004's "Closer" -- play charming scoundrels, madly in love but congenitally unable to trust. The film, written and directed by "Michael Clayton's" Tony Gilroy, is told through flashbacks and purposeful misdirects, leaving the viewer to puzzle out the extent of almost every character's mendacious ways.

But that's just work. What has preoccupied Roberts for the last few years has been motherhood, and the evidence of her other focus -- Henry, 2, and Hazel and Phineas, 4 -- were seen shortly before the interview, hanging out at the entrance of the hotel. "We move as this pack," says Roberts. "This morning Danny got them ready while I got me ready. Load them up in the car, and here we come."

These days, Roberts has the air less of a star who happens to be a mother and more that of a mother who occasionally dips her toe into the world of work. Even in a vaguely sterile hotel room, she emanates happiness, not the manufactured "I'm happy in this public situation" professional facade but that deep-in-your-bones calm that's hard to fake.

At 41, she is almost (miraculously) wrinkle-free, as if age and gravity have decided just to skip this one person. The skin is tawny, the hair blondish for the moment, the only seeming minute flaw an infinitetesimally small mole under one eye -- only really apparent on a 20-foot screen. Roberts insists it has always been there, and she and her minions are forever telling the magazines not to airbrush it out, because that "blands" out her face.

"Duplicity," a kind of sultry kissing cousin to Steven Soderbergh's jaunty "Ocean's" series (which featured Roberts in the first two installments), keys off her knowing confidence. There's a memorable scene when her character saunters languorously down the streets of Rome in a knockout, form-fitting dress evocative of 1960s Italian cinema. All the time, she's watched by Owen's spy, a man she once seduced and abandoned. "That dress took us the whole movie to find," she says. "There was a look that Tony was going for. This movie has great style, just a real cool sense of itself. We as a country and culture have gotten sort of sloppy. I love the idea of cleaning it up and buttoning it up and having a point of view visually, wardrobe-wise."

"Duplicity" evinces a kind of genteel cynicism that runs through many of her recent films -- with the hipster heisters in "Ocean's," the brutal, adulterous lovers of "Closer" and most recently the carousing congressman in "Charlie Wilson's War." These movies are nothing like her own life, which may be the (un)conscious point, says Roberts. "I think of my life as a pretty sunny existence." Films are "how I explore what I don't want out of my life in a safe place."

The radiant grin, the signature of such films as "Pretty Woman," "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Notting Hill," exists off-screen for the moment. While contemporaries like Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker are still looking for love in movies, Roberts says: "I can't play those parts anymore. . . . It just doesn't work for me at 41, with three kids and happily married. It doesn't hold the same interest that it did for me once upon a time."


It takes two

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