Julia Roberts is long past her days of starring in two, three, even four movies in a year. Nowadays, by choice – the choice of raising a family – she limits herself to one starring role a year (2012: “Mirror Mirror,” 2011: “Larry Crowne,” “2010: “Eat Pray Love” and some ensemble work in “Valentine’s Day”). It’s safe to say she’s the second lead in the dysfunctional family melodrama/dark comedy “August: Osage County,” chewing up the scenery right behind the devouring of scenery by her idol Meryl Streep. Roberts plays Barbara, who she describes as the “oldest and least appreciated sister” in the Weston family. The setting is the Weston home, where cancer-riddled, pill-popping, fouled-mouthed mom (Streep) continues to dominate everything and everyone when the family comes together after dad (Sam Shepard) commits suicide. Roberts recently spoke about her role as well as the awe and respect she holds for Streep.
Have you seen the film yet?
I just did, and I sat between [costars] Dermot Mulroney and Julianne Nicholson. I think I cut off Dermot’s circulation, just squeezing his hand with excitement to see what everybody did. It’s such a great ensemble, and even though there were a lot of scenes that we were all in together, my favorite one is at the bus station with Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Chris [Cooper]. To watch the way they did that was just heartbreaking. That’s why you want to go and see what your friends did so perfectly.
There’s already a lot of talk about what’s being referred to as the “fish scene,” where you and Meryl really go toe-to-toe in emotional intensity. Could you talk about putting that scene together?
The rhythms and the performance of it is terrifying. I think the word “fish” is in the scene like 175 times (laughs). But here’s the thing, here’s the crux of the biscuit, if you will. We worked our asses off, because there was no other way to do it. I’ve never worked so hard in my life! And I’ve given birth to three children! It was like a mountain to climb, every single day. And we discovered that the only way to climb it was holding hands, whether we liked it or not. We would work all day, and go home and shower, then all run to Meryl’s house, and start practicing for the next day. Because you had to have that momentum going, otherwise it would just leave you. And it was the best acting experience of my life. I don’t know how they did it eight times a week [in the play], without some kind of rehab after. Our experience was a treasure box of discovery for me, and at the top of the heap was Meryl Streep, who showed that it is about working hard. Because I’ve never seen anybody work harder than she works. She doesn’t [just] snap her fingers and be a genius. She really is just the hardest working girl in the room. And I was so grateful to see that up close.
Page 2 of 2 - You’ve said many times in the past how much of a Meryl fan you are. Did the experience of finally acting with her live up to your expectations?
To work with Meryl Streep is a dream come true for anyone. It was intimidating, certainly, to be in those scenes with her. Choking her and things like that is not how I pictured it going, in my mind. All these years I thought we’d be together and having tea, speaking in fabulous accents, and all dressed up, looking very chic. And then there we were, and I’m sweating and I have on a big butt pad. So that wasn’t what I had in my dream. But it was amazing, and I think that at the end of every day, coming out of the truth of the Weston family, and into our own truths of who we are together, there was always a hello and a kiss and an “I love you,” and that was really the elixir that I needed to come in the next day and to climb over the next table to choke her in the next way. It’s very scary to do that kind of stuff. You have to feel really safe with that person. She’s not only sublime and superior in her work, she’s such a beautiful person that she sees not only what I need as an actor, but what I need as a girl in the world. And she provides all that, all the time.
This movie is all about angry people venting their frustrations, sometimes on each other. How do you deal with that in your own life?
I act (pause). I mean, I don’t have to be angry now for 10 more years. I got it all out.
“August: Osage County” opens in theaters Jan. 10.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.