By Angela Dawson
HOLLYWOOD — Pretty Woman Julia Roberts tackles the role of a woman haunted by the brutal murder of her teenage daughter in the crime thriller Secret in Their Eyes.
The film, written and directed by Billy Ray, is based on the 2005 novel El secreto de sus ojos, by Argentine author Eduardo Sachari. Adapted first in 2009 into an Argentine film, it was named Best Foreign Language Picture at the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010.
Ray initially wrote the part that Roberts plays for a man (as it is culled from two male characters in the book). But, as she sometimes does with Hollywood scripts, Roberts looked at the part, and thought she could make it her own.
At 48, Roberts is still the beauty she was two decades ago when she burst onto the scene in films like Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias. For years, she was the one of the highest paid female actresses — and top international draws — for years. She still commands attention whenever she walks into a room.
For an interview, she arrives dressed in pinstriped Oxford shirt overlayed with a crocheted black and white vest, black slacks and chunky black patent leather shoes. She is wearing black-framed glasses. Her highlighted, wavy golden locks fall loosely about her shoulders.
The mother of three explains that she was drawn to the project because the challenges the role offered, as well as working with director Ray, and the top-shelf cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Dean Norris and Michael Kelly.
Wearing little to no makeup in the film (except perhaps some that gave her dark circles under her eyes and powder that made her complexion pale), Roberts plays Jess, a Los Angeles District Attorney’s office investigator whose FBI colleague (Ejiofor) returns to the city 13 years after he left following a failed investigation into her child’s murder, to inform her that he thinks he may have tracked down the girl’s killer. The film bounces back and forth between the 2002 murder investigation and the clues that Ejiofor is following now to find the suspect. As with any good whodunit, the movie audience learns hidden truths as the mystery unfolds.
Despite the dark subject matter, the production became a family affair for Roberts who got a rare chance to work with her cinematographer husband, Danny Moder, on Secret in Their Eyes.
You look so different, which is good.
Different from the last time you saw me?
No, different from the way your character looks on screen. I don’t remember the last time I saw somebody go to such depths emotionally, with this character, as I saw with your work in this film. Can you just talk about going to that dark place and staying there, or how you just dealt with the emotional aspect of the character?
Thank you. You know, it’s so funny. You have to be careful what you ask for, you know. You sit there and go, I want a really interesting, complicated [role], and then you get there (to the set) and it’s like, why is everybody looking at me? It’s one of those things that I feel is a combination of preparation and then there’s just a certain roll of the dice that comes into it for me.
What did you like about playing Jess?
I felt like this character was written in such a clear way, and the biggest part of my preparation was figuring out what she looked like in the beginning, what she looked like 13 years later and then sort of constructing the performance around that, in a way.
It was a unique approach. I don’t think I’ve ever sort of tried to craft a character like this, and try as I did making a commitment in the beginning that my personal thoughts had no intersection with Jess’s personal thoughts. Our lives did not intersect.
Normally, as actors you say, “Oh, my kitten died when I was 12 in my arms and I cried all night.” But this was all Jess, all the time, and everything that she was going through was never a thought outside of really what was her planet. I’m really looking forward to seeing this movie after today, I have to say.
What? You haven’t seen it?
I haven’t seen it yet.
Jess is basically an amalgam of two male characters that were in the Argentine original, which I think is interesting.
See it takes two men to make one me. (She laughs.)
Billy Ray originally he wrote your part for a man.
Well, I’ve read a number of scripts over the years that get sent to me that say the part is a man now, but if you want to do it we’ll change it into a woman. I don’t know how many men have had that experience, but it happens.
Have there been other roles that you’ve played that were originally for men?
Of all the ones I’ve been offered, none of them really spoke to me or interested me at that time. This was something that did, but I think the fact that it was originally a guy is sort of secondary to the things about it that appealed to me. It wasn’t a particular challenge.
What kind of input did you have on how the character was changed from the original script to the one you play?
The note that I had been sent with the script was it would be a woman who loses her wife, and I thought “Well, that’s really cool and 21st century, and I’m down with that,” and then about halfway through the script I thought we were going to really need (the audience) to be openly invested in the truth as Jess reveals it, all along the way, the different times that she says, “Okay, here’s the truth.” She has to somehow have a story that everybody has a part in, and so I said to Billy, “Can she lose her child (instead of her wife) because we all have been one or the other — a child and/or a parent?”
So everybody is, therefore, connected to her grief in some way, and I felt that it was a really important aspect of then saying, “Okay, so we are connected. You understand me. So you believe me.”
Those scenes with Zoe Graham, who played your daughter, were so heartwarming. How did you like working with her?
She’s amazing. As soon as she got cast we went out to breakfast one morning. I just fell immediately in love with her. Her interests are so diverse and bohemian. She’s in college studying textiles. I mean, she’s the person I want to be when I grow up, when I wake up and I’m 17 and awesome!
It made me so absolutely connected to the idea of Jess having lost her husband and raising this child by herself and watching her grow up into this magnificent human being that she gets to admire and feel responsible for. Everything is about getting back to the kitchen to talk to this girl. Honestly, it’s so touching to me — this relationship. I thought Zoe did such an impeccable job and it was just one of those things. That breakfast with her was so valuable and illuminating to me as an actor because I just thought every single thing makes complete sense in light of how in love this woman is with her daughter.
How did you decide on the look of Jess in 2002, and then Jess 13 years later? Once you decided what the character would look like in those two places, did that inform how you were going to play her?
It was interesting, and my husband, who was the cinematographer on this movie, and I had a lot of conversations about this. I would figure out a little piece of “the 13 years later” puzzle and that would sort of inform the earlier puzzle, and then that would get me another piece of this puzzle, and then I’d have to go back to this one.
It was kind of tricky and fascinating. The best thing that he said to me about the whole thing was, at one point when I was starting to get super crazy with “the 13 years later,” he said, “Okay, but you have to remember when Chiwetel walks into that office and he sees you, he is your really great friend who hasn’t seen you for 13 years, who went through this experience with you, so he can’t worry that something else has happened to you in the interim.” He can’t question, “What did I miss? It can’t be a question of, is she sick? It has to be a very clear line between what happened in that parking garage and who the person is walking through that office door.” And so that sort of took away a bunch of actor-y bullshit stuff. I just thought how can I portray her as a shell of a person?
What was it like to have your husband there supporting you through this? This is kind of a new role for you. It’s a pretty heavy role. What was that like to have him there with you the whole time?
It was amazing. It’s so great. He’s my favorite person on the planet, so I love spending time with him and, and I love his work ethic, and his point of view is really valuable to me. So it was great, just really great.
Also, when you feel like you have scenes where you’re sort of really exposing yourself in a way that, I wouldn’t do sitting here with you comfortably, but if he was sitting right behind me, and I felt like some sense of that security, it just makes you want to do more, really.
You’ve had a long and successful career making big Hollywood films, but you continue to challenge yourself in a little film like this. Is that something you just feel like you need to do every once in a while? Or was it just the material is so good that you didn’t care what you had to go through for it?
Yeah, I think it’s just an instinct. I read a script, and I’m connected to that thing, and I think I want to accomplish this. I try to do varied things just for my own creative impulses. You want things to be different and challenging. And I’m happy at home, you know? It’s like I’m creative in my household.
It’s nice when things come up that are, as I said, dreams come true. You think, “Did I dream the right dream, and now I’m in this parking garage? But enough cannot be said about Chiwetel Ejiofor and his walking through that parking garage, and then walking back to me in that parking garage. That [scene] sets the whole movie, really. My part would be of less of value were it not for the way he travels back and forth. It was incredible to watch. He’s amazing.
Can you tell us about working with Nicole Kidman in this? You didn’t have a lot of scenes together.
I didn’t have enough. Honestly, I think she is such a quality human being. She is just as talented, and really, stupidly stunningly beautiful as she is, she also is enormously good-natured and wonderful a person. She’s just the real deal.
What do your kids say when you’re away doing movies, which isn’t all the time now? It really must be sort of a whole break in the happy routine back at home.
It is, and it’s not. Danny is very much part of it, so there’s only one little element gone (when I’m away making a movie). But I like to think I’m an important element. I wasn’t away that much with Money Monster. I worked days, and I had days off. I was back and forth a lot. My daughter refers to August: Osage County, (filmed in 2012) as “the dark time,” because it was the first time that I’d ever left home for an amount of time.
You recently turned 48. How do you feel about yourself at this point in your life?
I just had my birthday, and I don’t think I had felt so happy on a birthday in quite a long while. I think part of it is just the happy space that I’m lucky enough to occupy in the world — with my family and my friends. I played mahjong all day. But you start to realize, “What is the point in not being happy about anything?” There’s no value to it. There’s no value to think, “Oh, my God! I’m 48!”
What advice would you would give your younger self?
Don’t take advice from anybody, even if they look exactly like you.