The Rolling Stone Interview: Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts makes trouble

Julia Roberts wearing a hounds tooth jacket as she stands with her hand on her hip in a scene from the film 'I Love Trouble', 1994. Credit: Touchstone Pictures/Getty

Julia Roberts is on the phone, and she's pissed. She tries to deny her mood; she's claiming she's "really apathetic" about reports that her marriage to Lyle Lovett, 36, is finished. But after she is asked to set the record straight about the trouble she's stirred up by dancing close in a Manhattan restaurant with Reality Bites star Ethan Hawke, 23, Roberts' terse tone is tough to misinterpret.

"I danced. Is that a felony?"

Then it's all bullshit?

"Sure it is," she says. The 26-year-old actress's voice goes soft. "I guess people have nothing better to do."

Trouble seems to follow Roberts it's in the title of her new reporters-in-love comedy with Nick Nolte, I Love Trouble, and in nearly all of the media coverage of her off-camera doings. "You guys are like the voice of doom," she recently told the press in London, where she's filming Mary Reilly (she plays the chambermaid to John Malkovich's Dr. Jekyll) and fending off questions about the absence of her husband and her wedding band. Almost immediately after she sneaked off to Indiana to marry country maverick Lovett on June 27 of last year, the tabloids began predicting the odd coupling of the Pretty Woman and the self-professed geek wouldn't last much longer than their whirlwind three-week courtship. The evidence cited: Roberts and Lovett keep separate residences his house in Texas, her apartment in New York City and don't spend much time together even in the house they rent while working in Los Angeles. Many cynically recalled that Roberts had always shown a clear-cut MO when it came to romance: Love them and leave them.

In 1988, Roberts split from her Satisfaction co-star Liam Neeson, then 36; the next year she canceled her engagement to Steel Magnolias co-star Dylan McDermott; two years after that, she called off her wedding to Flatliners co-star Kiefer Sutherland three days before the ceremony and flew off to Ireland with Sutherland's friend and Lost Boys co-star Jason Patric. Then Roberts and Lovett both appeared in The Player, Robert Altman's Hollywood satire. Cut to May of this year with the groom in Paris taking on another acting role, in Pret-a-Porter Altman's spoof of the fashion industry in which Roberts has a cameo as a reporter and the bride in New York taking on Hawke on the dance floor. In a press release, Roberts made it clear that she and Hawke were out with others and that dinner was purely business. They may co-star in the film Pagan Babies.

While one might reasonably assume that where there's smoke, there's two sticks being rubbed together, Roberts insists that, once again, it's the media obsessively fanning thin air. When she took a two-year break in her career after Hook, the media suggested a series of causes: anorexia, heroin addiction, nervous breakdown. Roberts denied all charges. Her blockbuster return six months ago in The Pelican Brief was a vindication. But it's clear that Roberts is sick of the whole situation. "Everybody has a job to do," she says. "I appreciate that. But at the same time, my job is to act, not to clear things up, not to fill in the dotted lines of the ifs, ands, buts, whys and hows of my life. I have too often succumbed to the pressure of feeling that's my responsibility. I have been fleeced enough times, lied about enough times, raked over the coals, misrepresented, misunderstood and misconceived enough."

Since she previously told me how happy she and Lovett are, I suggest it would be unfortunate both if the marriage were over and if a story ran in which she proclaimed fealty to a passion that no longer existed. Also, Roberts has a history of springing surprises. She did a series of interviews just days prior to her marriage in which she kept mum about the impending news. Her right, certainly, but since she was so good at keeping secrets, we had to ask if there were any more in store.

"It's interesting," says Roberts, measuring her words. "This is where the press, in their zeal to cover a story, can bother me. Do I find it really unfortunate that a person like yourself, with whom I've talked, laughed and had really good times, is approaching me with a line of questioning that I find insulting? This is what the press has the potential to do you've done it in this moment and it shows how power can be so grossly misused."

It's a question, I explain, that any reporter would ask, with no insult intended. It's part of the territory when talking to America's No. 1 actress, who pulls down $8.5 million a picture. Wouldn't just clearing it up be best?

"I know that seems like the easiest tactic," she says. "But, babe, I'm living proof that it doesn't make a difference."

No matter what she says, it won't clear up matters?

Roberts thinks this over. Then she makes an offer. "So are you saying that if I tell you for the record everything is fine that I'm going to be left alone, that I'm not going to be spied on, that people aren't going to be suspicious of me or scrutinize what I'm doing, that I'm going to be able to walk the streets freely with whomever I choose man, woman, child, friend, family member, dog, cat and be able to dance when I choose, laugh when I want? Then I'll go for the record."

Now Roberts is laughing. This much she will say: "I'm secure in my truth that I've done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. I don't feel compelled to defend myself. People have cast aspersions that are ridiculous. On Monday, I'm pregnant. On Wednesday, I'm getting divorced. On Friday, I'm having affairs. That's their version of my week. And my version is: I got some chores done, I had a few meetings, I worked out five times, I ate good I didn't have any potato chips."

Yet Julia Roberts remains the object of vigorous analysis. It starts with her childhood in Atlanta, where her parents, Walter and Betty Roberts, ran an acting workshop. When they divorced in 1972, Julia and her older sister, Lisa, went to live with their mother in the nearby town of Smyrna. Older brother Eric went to stay with his father, who died of cancer five years later, when Julia was 9. After high school, Julia joined her siblings in New York, moving from modeling into acting when Eric won her a small role in his 1988 film Blood Red.

Roberts' relations with her brother have since become strained. She did not invite him to her wedding. Opening old wounds for an interview is clearly an ordeal. But Roberts gives it a shot. During our first meeting, at a trendy Los Angeles coffeehouse, she looked and sounded intensely pressured by her work. Later, after a hiatus before beginning Mary Reilly, a more relaxed Roberts was funny, impertinent and remarkably clearheaded about marriage.

When we last spoke, you said you were so tired that you were considering taking off another year. Still feel that way?

I've actually had a resurgence of energy. When I saw you last, I was still doing I Love Trouble, and three-quarters of the way through a movie, you think, "If I don't get a day off soon, I'm going to die." But now I've had some time off. And Pret-a-Porter was a real energy boost.

Why?

It was fun, intensely creative. We were on our toes every second, and Bob [Altman] was so supportive. It really pumps you up. Also, how fabulous to be in a movie when you only have to work eight days [laughs].

And Lyle is in Paris now, working on the film.

Hmm, hmm.

Were you in any scenes together?

There's some airport stuff that the whole cast is in.

How do you handle the loneliness when you're apart?

I'm not lonely. I have plenty of friends in New York and lots of things to do.

What's your definition of "togetherness"?

Some people think of togetherness in terms of physicality. I think that when you have a great love, and you're secure in that, it doesn't matter how far apart you are. Lyle and I actually spend a lot more time together than people imagine. I feel wherever I go separate from him, I now, by virtue of being married, represent both of us.

The first time we spoke, it was four years ago for a "Playboy" interview. Can you describe how you've changed since then?

[Laughs] What can I tell you that most people probably don't think they already know?

You'll think of something.

I read the interview we did then, and I had a different voice. I could hear the years go by in my head. I was probably much nicer. I probably gave a more open interview.

Naturally we expect total openness now.

Here's what's changed: I'm probably smarter now. I have more focus. I'm clearer.

About what?

About what's important, about what goes in the "life is too short for this kind of crap" or "life is too short to engage in this conversation because I feel like I'm supposed to be nice" categories. Now I say what I think. It can come off sounding aggressive, but it's not, really. Even when I've made mistakes and I've fallen short in ways that can't be taken back I've never been badly intended.

What do you take seriously now that you didn't before?

Myself.

What's tough about your job?

The first day on the set and feeling that people probably have preconceived notions about me, whether from the press or from "I hear she's hard to work with."

How do you handle that situation?

With as much patience as I can muster. It takes two or three days until people go, "Oh, I see. OK, this'll be fun."

But wasn't the pressure intense on "Pelican Brief"? If it had bombed, you would have been blamed.

What are they gonna do, take away my SAG card if it bombs? I'm still going to make movies. If they're that eager to run me out of town, then let them try.

Are you really as secure as you sound?

No. I just know that I did my best.

So, contrary to rumors that in the two years between "Hook" and "The Pelican Brief" you were lost in a drug haze or just falling apart, you were plugged in the entire time?

I always knew what was going on. I always knew why I was turning things down.

What were you waiting for?

A challenge; a character, a movie, a director, experiences that could take me to another level. And just for the record, I knew almost 11 months before I started shooting The Pelican Brief that I was going to do it. So all this two-year hysteria is really quite silly. Ten years from now are they going to remember two years off? No. Would they remember five bad movies? You bet.

How aware are you of your power?

The power, as you call it, allowed me the luxury to take the time off and to come back and not be kicked out again. But I don't really wield power.

Come on. Isn't it more like what Julia wants, Julia gets?

Yes, but Julia doesn't abuse that. I don't make demands and bang my fists, saying, "I want this!" I don't want to be that kind of person.

You walk into a room, you have an immediate emotional power. Women envy you; guys want to sleep with you; some women want to sleep with you. How do you handle it without getting fucked up in the head?

Again: sense of humor. But I'm fascinated by why people are so quick to want to believe the bad about someone instead of the good.

Perhaps you've just reached that stage of stardom where people want to bust you, to take you down a step.

But why? What did I do?

The canceled wedding, the drug rumors, the mysterious vacation ... I can go on. Things just keep popping up.

The way that you phrased it "They want to bust you" these are the same people who helped me make that step. The press puts it out there, and the people embrace it. I don't get it.

Let's hope talking about it now will shed some light.

[Shakes her head] But it never does. I've been linked with so many men and some of them I've never even met. It's so ridiculous that I'm surprised people believed that Lyle and I had gotten married.

On the contrary: It got everyone's attention.

[Smiles.]

At least you can laugh at this.

It doesn't make me laugh it's stupid. If anyone thinks that [what's in the papers] is going to cause me to blink for a second and doubt my husband or where he's been or his integrity or loyalty not even for a split second.

Even if you haven't seen him for four months?

Not for a second. That's where they fail. They're dealing with sand. Their lives are about sand. My life is about something that's concrete.

Have you had Kiefer Sutherland over to the house yet?

No, actually. He travels a lot.

A couple friends of mine and I saw him in an L.A. restaurant the night before your "wedding." We had no idea it would be canceled, so we sent him a congratulatory beer, and he came over and thanked us.

But the night before the wedding? It had been canceled long before that.

Well, he never let on. He came over and shook our hands.

It was in all the papers.

Not by then.

Sure it was, trust me. That's another thing that's so exhausting. The only thing I really have no tolerance for is ignorance. People aren't even consistent. I've read "days before," "hours before," "minutes before." And the fact is, it doesn't matter how many times you say it he wasn't waiting at the altar, it wasn't the day before, somebody else didn't tell him, he didn't see it on TV people don't want to know. [Smiles] Anyway, good for him that he responded the way he did.

One last thing before we move on.

[Laughs] Oh, ask me anything. My reputation's shot!

You have been accused by Jason Patric of bringing all this attention and trouble on yourself.

When I read that, it really hurt my feelings.

So you do care?

In the face of any publicity, you're going to put on the happy face, the oh-everything-is-great face. [Pauses] But saying that I called all this attention to myself in order to advance my status really hurt me. It is grossly inaccurate. Worse, it was said by someone I know and we get hurt most by the people we care about.

OK. Let's talk about someone you do really care about. How's Lyle taking to being the most envied man in America?

[Smiles] I think he likes it just fine. He has great patience. It's certainly not easy to have people's focus and curiosities and desires about you change over the course of a weekend, but I think that he handles it with amazing grace. Things that are hard on me are doubly hard on him because he has to deal with them, too, and they're not really his fault.

Is it true that the thought of a media feeding frenzy drove you and Lyle to tie the knot more quickly than you would have?

I changed the date to try to make it what it should be as opposed to what they would have turned it into. Everybody is entitled to a private moment.

Let's get really private: Do you share a bathroom?

Yeah. What a weird question. Sure we do, we're in the same house. Why?

Some say the secret to a happy marriage is separate bathrooms.

In the house we're renting in Los Angeles, there's one big bathroom. Two different sinks maybe that helps.

Of the two, who has the least manageable hair?

Probably me, but I get my hair done every day at work. His hair is more normal than people think. I get asked about his hair a lot. It's not that crazy. What's crazy is me, an adult, sitting here talking about my husband's hair.

Describe Lyle's bedroom slippers.

I bought them. They look like loafers.

What about your bedroom slippers?

These are weird questions. I love slippers and robes ... and pajamas. I love pajamas. That Cary Grant style low collar, button up to the top, piping.

Are you allowed in the room when Lyle is writing?

I've actually never been around. I go to work, and when I come home, he'll play me a song he's been working on. But you can't really sit and watch him do this because it's all done in his head.

Does he watch you on the set?

He has, yeah. I've watched him record, and I go to his shows, but it's different. That would be like asking if he's there while I'm doing my research. Not necessarily.

So the blush is still on the rose.

We've been married for almost a year.

They say the first year is the toughest.

You're the second person today who's said that to me. Why?

There's a lot of adjustments you make that you can't anticipate. Sometimes you feel claustrophobic.

Lyle's work takes him so many different places that I can't ever picture us being trapped anywhere.

Is Lyle easy to buy gifts for?

No. He might think that he is, but I don't believe that. So I try to make things. And here's another problem: He always gets me the most fabulous presents. Of course, it's hard for me to compete because I don't have the time to go skulking around for the perfect gift. Not that he has, either, but somehow he pulls it off. Or he has more ideas. [Smiles.]

What do you splurge on when you feel like going crazy?

It sounds so dorky. I like to do needlepoint and knit. And I like furniture. I've been getting more into pieces like rugs or a chair. But I don't have any place to put them, so I just look at the decorating magazines and lust after an actual empty room to put things in.

You'll have that in New York.

Eventually. My apartment's almost finished. I was having it redone so that it would have exactly the kind of things that I wanted, like a big kitchen.

Where do you stand on kitchen islands?

Mine's on rollers. When I like it, I can have it. When I don't want it, I can get rid of it.

Sounds like the perfect marriage. Will happiness spoil Lyle's clever, cynical, ironic heartbreak songs?

Lyle would view happiness the same way he views heartbreak and being dumped on: with a twist, in a way nobody else would view it. So who's to say that he would write a happy song and people would think that it was a happy song? He puts such sardonic irony into everything.

What do you know about marriage now that you couldn't have anticipated?

Nothing I'm going to tell you [laughs]. It's not as confining as I thought it might be. It's not the ball and chain we hear about. It's whatever you make it.

What was your second impression of Lyle?

It was just more realistic than the first; calmed-down version. He's wonderful and intensely compelling.

So is it a storybook romance?

Essentially unfortunately for all the people who don't want it to be, it's boringly blissful.

And you've actually spent much time together — contrary to the reports that you're hardly together?

Well, yes.

Your marriage happened so quickly after you met. Have you yet woken up beside him and realized that he's merely human?

There are certain moments of realizing that, you know ... oh, my God!

Let the record show you're sort of clutching yourself.

It's that final sense of knowing that you're married. You'll never be asked on a date again. Well, you might be asked, but certainly you shouldn't go.

Have you been asked on a date since?

No! The moment is about realizing that your life has taken on some sort of adultness that it didn't have yesterday. It happens that fast. You're jointly responsible. Decisions aren't just your own. You should probably tell somebody if you're not going to be home until 12 midnight. You should tell somebody that you're spending four months in Australia. You should fill them in.

Do you just tell Lyle, or do you ask him if it's OK?

The other day, I was telling something to Lyle, and he was very sweet to me about it. He said, "Are you informing me? Or are you asking me what I think about this?" And I said, "Well, I'm asking." [Laughs] He sort of let me get away with that one. What makes it a little difficult is we go from spending time together to not spending time together. Sometimes he's always there for me to consult, and sometimes it's just me.

How has marriage changed you?

Previously, I always overcompensated in a relationship. I never realized how much of myself I was giving away until I found myself rattling around. Then you say, "Wow, I sound sort of empty." And women, regardless of their men being good or bad, have a natural instinct to take care. I used to get so involved in who I was with that I didn't think much of myself.

What's the toughest thing about living with you?

You have to ask Lyle. I think I'm messy, but that's only because he's not. I envy his ability to take off his clothes at the end of the day and put them away. Me, they go straight to the chair or straight to the floor.

Is career or relationship a better teacher of commitment?

[Big sigh] It's easier to be committed to a career. But it pretty much depends on the people involved and the definition of commitment. Some people have a pretty fucked-up idea of commitment.

What do you mean?

I'm thinking about all these people I see on the afternoon talk shows we watch when we're getting touch-ups in the makeup trailer. They're all so desperate, and it seems so sad. But we still love Oprah!

Do you feel lucky when you watch these shows?

I don't need to watch these shows to feel lucky. But yeah, there's a sense of "Oh, thank God."

What did David Letterman say to you after you revealed that you once called to ask him out but never got through?

Afterward, he said, "I really didn't know."

Why did you want to go out with David Letterman?

Just because I didn't really know anybody, and I needed a date for this thing. Why wouldn't you want to go out with someone who's nice and funny and interesting?

Before marriage, were you in the habit of asking guys out?

No! But I was in dire straits. I needed a date, and David's name just came to me.

When's the last time you realized you were like your mom and your dad?

Sometimes I say things, and I think, "I sound just like my mother." But that's probably more because I grew up with her than because I'm actually like her. My dad died so young, but I sense I'm more like him.

How often do you talk to your brother, Eric? The tabloids have had a field day combing through your problems.

We don't speak. [Pauses] Actually, in all fairness, we spoke about a week ago, me making an attempt to explain how I felt based on what he and his wife seemed to be up to and that it concerned me. It's a private matter that for some reason he and his wife have decided to make more public than I think it should.

You reportedly gave money to his former girlfriend in their child-custody battle. His wife, Eliza, has been on "Hard Copy." She questioned the parenting skills of your mom and dad, saying, "There was tension in that home."

Eric tells his stories, and his wife tells her stories. What I find most fascinating about Eric's wife and what she says about me and how I feel about things and what I do about things is that I've never met her. It's fascinating to listen to someone speak with such authority about me when I wouldn't have even known what she looked like except I saw her on TV talking about me. There's your exclusive authority interview, do you know what I mean? It's too bad. My brother knows specifically what our problems are. He's very clear. He can choose to relay them however he sees fit. I've decided just to take the Nancy Kerrigan approach. There's always a lot more respectability in being quiet, as opposed to Tonya Harding's "Look at me, I'm here, I'm here, I'll tell you anything."

When's the last time you bought a supermarket tabloid?

Never. At one time I was going to show something to a girlfriend, but I was too embarrassed to pick it up.

Was it something printed about you?

No. Oh, no. I just realized that to buy it, I'd lose some self-respect.

So you tell us about yourself. Describe Julia in five words.

Five separate words? Vivacious [laughs]. Well-intended. Is that two words? No, that's a hyphenated word. This is hard [thinks]. I only have two! Oh, that's so pathetic pathetic is not one of my words. [She gazes around the coffeehouse at the people passing through.] Now I'm starting to look at people and pick words for them. This is so hard. OK . . . wife. Actor. And curious.

During this talk, you've alternated between sweetness and anger, clarity and frustration.

I don't get angry very often. I lose my temper rarely. And when I do, there's always a legitimate cause. Normally I have a great lightness of being. I take things in a very happy, amused way.

What do you throw when you're angry?

I don't throw.

You've never grabbed for a glass or a dish?

No.

You still trust people?

Oh, sure. I guess it's a blessing and a curse, but I just think it's part of my nature.

What would you like most to change about the public or media perception of you?

I don't mean to come off angry, it's just that I don't feel I should have to explain myself. I've done nothing wrong. I've never called out for this kind of treatment.

You could always lie in interviews. The Beatles had fun making up stuff.

Yeah, I always want to do that, but I don't. I'm always afraid it'll get picked up by everybody, then I'll have to say, "I was just kidding!" Still, it would be lots of fun to just bullshit [laughs].

You're only 26 years old. In what ways do you expect and hope to grow?

From watching people and friends older than me. I think a person has to have a grace about life and should see it as a noble pursuit of the days. Try to embrace them as opposed to getting through them. I have a really good life. I have really good friends, and I like my work. I'm a very fortunate person. I don't question why things are the way they are. If I start examining things too closely and dissecting them, I can drive myself crazy.

But the river of bullshit still flows....

No, Because I know the truth. Lyle knows the truth. It comes down to perspective. Are you secure in your truth?

What would you pay good money to be able to control? I would pay good money for all people to hold one another in a higher regard, to have more self-respect and therefore be able to give more respect to other people. [Pauses, then smiles broadly] I would pay good money for the benefit of the doubt.