The actress opens up about fame, fickleness, embarrassing fashion moments, her Oscar®, her husband, and why she's in "the harbor of my life."Just driving up to Julia Roberts's ranch in northern New Mexico sends me into a state of calm. Yellow and purple flowers line the dirt roads. Majestic purple mountains stand beneath a cloudless blue sky. And when I arrive, there's Julia as I've never seen her: completely at ease, wearing flip-flops, drawstring pants, and a tee, introducing me to her two geese, Bingo and Pajamas, and proud to show me the new tile on her bathroom floor. "I now feel like you officially know me better than 97 percent of the population," Julia tells me, "because you're in my house." Julia's hideaway is a universe apart from her hometown of Smyrna, Georgia, where she was born 36 years ago. In the sixties, her parents began a workshop for actors and writers in Atlanta; by the time Julia was a toddler, she was watching family theater productions. Though the workshop was disbanded after her parents' 1971 divorce, it gave Julia and her siblings, Eric (now 47) and Lisa (now 38), what Julia's mother calls "the family disease"—acting. After moving to New York in 1985 and scrambling for auditions, Julia—who as a child had dreamed of becoming a veterinarian—made her first movie in 1986, playing opposite her brother in Blood Red. (Her sister is also an actress.) Julia's role as a fiery waitress in 1988's Mystic Pizza put her on the movie map; a year later, she appeared in Steel Magnolias and was nominated for an Oscar. The movies that followed are a Hollywood hot list: Pretty Woman (1990), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), The Pelican Brief (1993), My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), Runaway Bride (1999), and Erin Brockovich (2000), for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress. In her newest movie, Mona Lisa Smile, she plays a 1950s art history teacher who inspires her students to see new possibilities for their lives.
Along with Julia's starring film roles came the real-life romances: with Kiefer Sutherland, Lyle Lovett (her husband of two years), and Benjamin Bratt. Now she's found a life partner in Danny Moder, who was a cameraman when they met on the set of The Mexican in 2000. At the time, Moder was married to makeup artist Vera Steimberg Moder, whom he later divorced. In a midnight ceremony on July 4, 2002, Julia and Danny married.
Their ranch, she tells me, is where she is most herself. It is here that I sit down with Julia, comfortable on her living room couch and, she says, finally content with her life.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Julia Roberts
Note: This interview appeared in the December 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: You seem like you're in a great place.
Julia: Absolutely. It's peaceful, and it's a relief. I always say you can't be in a bad mood here. I don't know if it's New Mexico or just the mountains, but you can't be silly in a negative way. You can be silly in a fun, whimsical way, but the petty, trite things that make you go, "Oh, God, it's not the right size" or "Why is this happening like this?"—that kind of stuff doesn't exist so much here. Everything is kind of clear.
Oprah: On my way over, I was reading articles about where you get burritos in town, where you buy cigarettes—and it aggravated me that people here are talking about those things. Does that bother you?
Julia: I get aggravated, because I don't smoke. But I feel like there have been so many times when this environment has protected me. So I look at the stories and think, "These people were bamboozled." Somebody confused them or lied to them to get them to say whatever it is they said, which is all pretty harmless. Around here, I come and go like it's nothing. Los Angeles is such a town of show business, and I'm a terrible celebrity. I find it difficult—it's the beast that must be fed. There's this big wheel of pictures and articles that goes around, and you get pinned on it.
Oprah: Especially now, when you have another great movie coming out, Mona Lisa Smile. You have to gear up for the marketing machine. You don't like doing that?
Julia: I don't dislike it. I just don't think I'm very good at it. I like everybody being nice to everybody. And there's an element that's so unkind, so mean-spirited. It used to be more polite. I couldn't be an ingenue today, because the business has changed. I remember when you could dress for a premiere just by putting on a cute top. Now you have to be perfect and fabulous in every way, or you're ridiculed.
Oprah: And it's no longer about the premiere. It's about what you wore and who designed it.
Oprah: I remember our first interview, back in 1989—
Julia: And I wore the most embarrassing clothes on that show. If I'm not mistaken, I had on this vest that I thought was so cute.
Oprah: It was cute then.
Julia: It was the eighties, so I even had things on my vest. Just to say you wore a vest is bad enough, but to admit there were things on it is worse.
Oprah: Since then, you've maintained yourself as a very big star—America's sweetheart. Does that label mean anything to you?
Julia: No, because it's all a projection, and projection is very changeable. Projection comes not so much from what I'm doing but from the point of view of the person perceiving me. So it's like a joining of two things, one of which I have no control over or understanding of.
Oprah: The first time you heard you were America's sweetheart, did it mean anything to you then?
Julia: I somehow thought it meant I was tiny. Doesn't the word sweetheart sound so sweet and tiny? [Laughs.]
Oprah: So when you hear things like "Reese Witherspoon is America's new sweetheart," what do you think?
Julia: Somebody else is always going to be the next sweetheart. It's all contrivance: Label them as fast as you can so you can keep them all straight. A while ago when Sandra Bullock was first making movies, the press started this whole rivalry between us. She was supposed to be the next...
Julia: Around that time, this really nice and funny guy, a writer, seemed to get that he's part of the whole machine, too. He wrote an article called "The Next Julia Roberts," which I thought was so funny because in his story, I am the next Julia Roberts. He turned the whole thing on its head.
Oprah: Do you like the label "biggest female box-office star"?
Julia: That seems so huge. And it makes me laugh. Not like "Oh-ho-ho-ho" but like "That's so crazy."
Oprah: Crazy but true.
Julia: And how do we know it's true? Because that's what we're told. I was watching television one day and heard, "The number one movie at the box office is..." and I thought, "What if they didn't tell us?" What if they didn't say who got paid the most? What if they didn't say this person is the prettiest or the most stylish? How would we know? We'd just have to formulate it for ourselves.
Oprah: Yes, and it used to be that way. Imagine what it's like to make a movie that opens on a Friday, and by Saturday morning at 6, you're sitting by the phone to see whether you've been successful or not.
Julia: Oh, but I hope people don't do that.
Oprah: So you're not one of those movie people who live or die by the box office?
Julia: You can't. It's the X factor. You can't hold on to it. I've had people call me with numbers, and I say, "I can't even tell by the tone of your voice whether this is good or bad news." You just have to let it go.
Oprah: And you have?
Julia: Whatever happens is going to happen, whether you're sitting by the phone anxious and worried about it or not.
Oprah: So you just do the work you love to do. And at the end of the day, if people love it, they love it; and if they don't, you're okay with that.
Oprah: That's a very mature attitude.
Julia: It's not that I don't get at all bothered by a movie I've been in that I watch and say, "Well, it could have been better." I see that maybe I didn't work hard enough or the vision we worked toward wasn't executed. I do feel that disappointment. But my greatest sense comes from the experience of performing in the movie. When I have a great experience, that becomes a perfect movie. If it makes a nickel, it's still perfect. The same is true with a movie that's a bad experience. If it makes a bejillion dollars, I will hate it till the end of time.
Oprah: Have you had a few bad experiences?
Julia: Yes, but then I forget how horrible things were. I sort of selectively let it fall away until I begin telling a story about a movie to friends who worked with me on it, and they're like, "That's not at all how it happened. You were in tears and they were yelling." I'm like, "Oh, God, that's right. That was bad."
Oprah: I tend to do that, too. I just take the lessons from the bad stuff. Are you one of those people who, after you learn a lesson, you say to yourself, "I won't let this happen again"? Or does the lesson come back wearing a different pair of pants?
Julia: Some of the bigger ones have to come around again. Making movies is not rocket science. It's about relationships and communication and strangers coming together to see if they can get along harmoniously, productively, and creatively. That's a challenge. When it works, it's fantastic and will lift you up. When it doesn't work, it's almost just as fascinating. Why isn't this working? What in the personalities produces the power struggle? Who's afraid of something? There have been times when I've been miserable, and I can see a person who's making it miserable for everybody else. I think, That's who I don't want to grow up to be—that person. So I think I've applied that. It's not that I'm sweet as pie every day at work. But I certainly take work as a joyous responsibility.
Oprah: I see what you're like at home, and I like you here. What are you like at work?
Julia: I'm similar at work. Work has to be fun. We're all there, and everybody's important. The stand-by painter who's trying to get this little spot covered before we shoot—he has to be heralded and respected. We're a team. And I like that. I feel a responsibility, realizing that I'm literally in the center of the movie set, to keep things energized and moving along and keep people as happy as they can be.
Oprah: This place doesn't feel like some little celebrity hideaway—I can tell you really live here, you seem so at ease.
Julia: I'm so lucky to be crazy happy in my life. And I think it's not so much that I'm happier now than ever; it's that I'm more content. I'm in the harbor of my life.
Oprah: That's the quote of the day. Fantastic. Why are you so content?
Julia: A huge part of it is my marriage. My husband, Danny, has really shined the light for me. Because of being married, I've met people and experienced all these little things that have nurtured my life—not so much changed it, just nurtured it in a way that's astounding.
Oprah: So you've proven the theory that the rich, famous person can marry someone who isn't so famous—and that can be successful?
Julia: Yes. The jobs don't get married. The people get married. It sounds clichéd and I've said it a thousand times, but I do think that I am fundamentally the same relatively simple person I've always been. I just have this flashy, wacky job that confuses people into thinking that I'm somehow ultrafascinating.
Oprah: It's all about appearances and covers and what people think. But they're not seeing you barefoot on your sofa.
Oprah: Or showing off your bathroom with the new tiles. People don't realize that the image is just a small piece of your life.
Oprah: So what has Danny brought to you that you didn't have before?
Julia: He makes me feel my most comfortable self. I don't alter myself in any way.
Oprah: I got it. He makes you more of yourself.
Julia: He does. And he points out aspects of myself, good and bad, that maybe I don't pay attention to. He shines light, so I can really see what's there and not shy away from it.
Oprah: Now I see how the relationship can work—but in the beginning, it must be intimidating for anyone to approach you. I can't imagine how I could break that wall if I were a cameraman on your movie.
Julia: On the set, I get pretty relaxed. These guys see me at 5 in the morning, when I come stumbling onto the set like "What the hell is goin' on?" In those circumstances, you can see what a person's really made of. Some great friendships can be formed because you see one another at your best and worst.
Oprah: I think some of the best bonds in the world are made while making movies.
Julia: Absolutely. You go through what it would take a lifetime of normal circumstances to see in a person—stressed-out, maxed-out, exhausted, not knowing which end is up. And you rely on each other so much. So I think that had a profound effect on our friendship. Danny is such a great listener and a great communicator. He majored in psychology in college, and I remember saying to my sister one time that he can basically fix all my problems. Perfect!
Oprah: Did you have a friendship first?
Julia: For a really long time. I could see how wonderful he was, but we were both in relationships at the time, so we were just friends.
Oprah: What did it feel like to fall in love?
Julia: It was horrible. You don't want to lose your friend. Or what if he doesn't love you? You start playing out all these crazy scenarios. I talked to him on the phone a few times [after breaking up with Benjamin Bratt] and did the whole thing of, "Oh, hi, how are you? I'd love to chat, but, you know, I'm just out the door." We went through that little stage.
Oprah: You knew he was married. What effect did that have on you then?
Julia: Huge. But he sorted his whole thing out, separate and apart from me. And I sorted my life out, separate and apart from him. I think that's the only reason we were able to ultimately fall in love with each other and be together.
Oprah: So you didn't cause the breakup of his marriage.
Julia: No. I'm an easy person to point the finger at—"She did it"—and I see that. I don't begrudge people the easy finger-point. It just doesn't happen to be so.
Oprah: You've fallen in love before, right?
Julia: Yes and no. I've had that sort of first-enamored, butterfly-like feeling. But it wasn't connected to reality. When you look at the perils that Danny and I have already gone through, it had better be tethered to something solid, or else it would disintegrate.
Oprah: What do you mean by perils?
Julia: The way the press made it a bit of a circus. He'd never dealt with that, certainly.
Oprah: Did you prepare him for it?
Julia: I didn't anticipate the zoo.
Oprah: Even knowing everything you know? Because we know about every single guy you've ever dated—
Julia: And some that I haven't dated. We think we know.
Oprah: Why did you wear that T-shirt? [Julia was photographed wearing a shirt that read A LOW VERA. Some thought this was a reference to Danny's ex-wife, Vera.] What was that about?
Julia: You know what that was about? It was private.
Julia: I stand by my T-shirt.
Oprah: Duly noted. And the people involved know the reason, is what you're saying.
Julia: Yeah. When people do bad things intentionally, they know they've done them. But it's not to be cared about. That's the problem with the tabloid press; they dramatize these things until there's a state of frenzy. People see frenzy and they go, "What?" Then they clamor toward the frenzy. We all do it. It's a primal, natural response.
Oprah: You're right. When I was in South Africa, there was this big tabloid headline: WORLD EXCLUSIVE: OPRAH DUMPED BY STEDMAN. It said that I went home crying to my father and that we'd had a big fight and there were witnesses, blah blah. It said I care more for the dogs than I do for him and he'd had it. Then it says my best friend, Gayle, is the reason for the split! I thought, "God, this is really something." Oprah dumped. Gayle said, "Don't pay any attention to that. You need to let that just roll off your back." But when I told her she was the reason for the breakup, she goes, "Well, you need to sue those people!"
Julia: You can't even look at those papers, because the brain is a sponge. That information penetrates.
Oprah: Yes. The perception I think a lot of people have of you is that you're fickle about men. You went from Kiefer Sutherland to Lyle to Benjamin. I've heard some people say that you just kind of, you know, always fall in love with these leading men.
Oprah: What's your response to that?
Julia: How nice for me. And in some lands, we call that one's 20s.
Oprah: That's exactly my theory. Because the truth of the matter is, if you're any normal person who's allowed, let's say, seven men in your whole life—you go out with somebody for four months, that doesn't work out—it's not broadcast all over the world.
Oprah: Then you go out with somebody, it works out for two years, and then you move on. And that's not broadcast all over the world. And it's sort of ingrained in people's minds that, well, she was with him and now she's with somebody else—I've said, you know, if I hadn't been with Stedman all these years, I would be labeled a total slut.
Julia: Yeah. I just have a great life. I know great people. I've had great relationships—all different kinds of relationships. I am so lucky to be on the little golden path that led me to all this.
Oprah: How lucky that you can fall in love more than once in your life. But now this is it.
Julia: The shop is closed!
Oprah: How do you know that for sure? Is there something inside that resonates?
Julia: Every cell in my body says yes. We're together constantly. Part of the reason why some of the relationships I've had in my past worked for so long is because when you're making movies, a huge gap of time can pass when you don't even see the person. Danny and I are together 21 hours a day.
Oprah: He worked on Mona Lisa Smile. Do you like it when he's on the set?
Julia: It makes me really, really nervous.
Oprah: Is it harder to step into character with him there?
Oprah: He could be looking through his lens at you.
Julia: No, no. It's fun, and I just hope I don't totally screw up every scene he's shooting. There was a day on Mona Lisa when I was in a Ukrainian library in Manhattan, in this kind of twirly skirt. Fabulous. I'm walking down this tiny winding staircase, and thinking about how I'm a grown woman who comes to work and has other people dress me and tell me what to say. I thought, "This is kind of silly, what I do." It's really bizarre. And it struck me in this really profound way that what I do, ultimately, is play games. When Danny's there looking at me, it kind of brings this awareness out. He knows me better than anybody, he can see what I'm putting on.
Oprah: How do you choose your roles? I hear you get offered every major script for every major female character.
Julia: The question is, Do I read them all? I'm just kidding. I choose totally by instinct. And the only time I've ever gone against my instincts, I've regretted it. It was only really one time.
Oprah: That was?
Julia: I shouldn't say. It's not nice. It wasn't a bad experience, it just wasn't where I should have been. Sometimes people think of actors as marionettes—everybody else makes the decisions for us—and, you know, really, making this decision [of which roles to take] is the only thing you lay claim to.
Oprah: You're absolutely right. What was it like to stand onstage and get that Oscar for Erin Brockovich?
Julia: I thought Ellen Burstyn was going to win, so I had a great weekend before. My sister and her husband were there, and it was something I wish everyone could experience just once. We went to the [pre-] Oscar parties, and everywhere you went, everybody seemed happy.
Oprah: And every celebrity is there.
Julia: Everyone you can think of. It was starting to bum me out a little bit, everybody saying I'm the favorite, but when a friend said, "There's always an upset," that's when it became perfect for me.
Oprah: The pressure was off because he didn't think you'd win, either.
Julia: Yes. So I proceeded to have the best time ever.
Oprah: Were you panicked about what to wear?
Julia: Well, no. I had been on vacation, and I came back very relaxed. I didn't know anything about what people were writing or saying or doing. My team had orchestrated the full Barbie Dream House—the hotel room with tons of dresses in it. I tried on one dress after another, got opinions, and took pictures of the ones we liked the best. All the designers were waiting by the phone. Talk about high-class problems.
Oprah: I call this walking in very tall cotton.
Julia: Everybody was so generous, and I had more dresses than I've ever seen. And there was this one dress that my girlfriend Debbie Mason, who's a stylist, sent over, and I put it on, and it was perfect. So fun! Even later, when I was walking down the red carpet, people are screaming and everything else, and it was just exciting. You turn and see all these famous people, like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, two of the nicest people on the planet Earth.
Oprah: That's funny, because people are so excited about seeing you. You're Julia Roberts!
Julia: Tom and Rita's son is sitting next to them. So at one point I say, "Hi, I'm Julia." Tom goes, "Oh, this is Chester." When I reach out to shake his hand, he goes, "I just met you outside." I thought, "My head wasn't on my shoulders outside, Chester." I didn't exactly have it together. I realized I was orbiting, because I can't even remember Chester, whom I met seven minutes ago.
Oprah: Oh, God, that has happened to me. That is a horrible moment. So your name is called, and then what?
Julia: I was so excited, but then I got to the stairs. You know how when you put on a dress and you have to always do a sit-down check? When I sit down, will it bend at this widest point? I hadn't done a stair check. I couldn't really bend, so I had to go up kinda sideways.
Oprah: And all that time you're thinking, "What am I going to say?"
Julia: No. I was just trying to get up the stairs. That took my mind off the fact that I'm actually going to give an acceptance speech.
Oprah: So you hadn't prepared one.
Oprah: Because you thought you weren't going to win.
Julia: I think you miss out when you prepare. You miss out on making an ass of yourself. I lost it up there. I was happy—I mean, you know, hell, I just won the Academy Award. Never thought that was going to happen. It's insanity. You've got to roll with it.
Oprah: Did you get off and think about the people you didn't thank?
Julia: Yes. Like Erin Brockovich?
Oprah: When you're up there, you don't even know what you're saying. I remember last year when I got the Humanitarian Award at the Emmys, I turned around to walk off the stage with Tom Hanks and I said to myself, "Did that really just happen?" It's out-of-body. What's it like once it settles in?
Julia: It certainly didn't settle in that night.
Oprah: What does an Oscar mean to an actress? Is it validation? Is it honor?
Julia: Well, it's a total honor. It's thrilling, and on the one hand, it means a lot of things, and on the other hand, it doesn't really mean anything. It's a moment in time.
Oprah: What did you love about making Mona Lisa?
Julia: I thought I was so lucky to meet all these young girls who had parts. [Her costars include Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.] There's a great crop of supertalented actresses now.
Oprah: So you're playing their teacher, their mentor. Did you mind taking on the role of an older woman?
Julia: It was great. I'll do anything for the best part.
Oprah: Would you ever be naked in a movie?
Julia: No. That's just not part of my experience.
Oprah: Even if a role calls for it and you had to do it?
Julia: I don't have to do anything, and I've never felt the pressure.
Oprah: What do you see for yourself in the next five years? Do you want children?
Julia: Danny and I will definitely have a family. I can't wait to have kids, Oprah; I just can't wait to hold a baby in my arms.
Oprah: Big family?
Julia: We'd like enough for a team.
Oprah: Sounds like a lot of work.
Julia: But this is coming out of the mouth of the girl who doesn't have any kids. So I might have one and go, "Okay, so we're done with that."
Oprah: Right. Well, thank you for having me in your home today. I really feel richer for having talked with you.
Julia: Thank you. I'm so glad you came.
P.S. We shut down the mikes and went off to the kitchen for margaritas and an extended chat around the kitchen table. What fun!