There are times when even a pretty woman has to let herself go, and for Julia Roberts one of those moments came at a local pizzeria in Naples, Italy, during the making of her new film, Eat Pray Love.
“I ate eight slices of pizza in 45 minutes,” Roberts recalls. “Sure, the utter deliciousness of it wore off on Slice 7, but there I was, just wolfing it down for womankind across the globe.”
Eight slices? Really?
“I was so excited to be in Naples that I had my character shove an entire slice of pizza into her mouth during the first take,” Roberts explains, laughing. “I didn’t even know why. And there were several takes to go.”
If any of that pizza went to her hips, it’s not apparent on a cool summer morning in Napa Valley, Calif., as the 42-year-old actress settles in for an interview at a posh hotel. Arriving via a limousine, Roberts walks past a bar full of vacationing wine aficionados who don’t look up as she passes, and sits down to talk about Eat Pray Love.
Looking willowy thin in black, pleated pants and a poufy, white-silk Givenchy shirt, Roberts wears her hair dark and flowing over her thin face, and her smile is supersized.
The film, directed by Ryan Murphy and based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert [opened in the US] on Aug. 13. Roberts plays Gilbert, who finds herself trapped in unhealthy habits after a painful divorce and decides to make a radical break with her past, heading on an around-the-world trip that includes extended stays in Italy, India and Bali, where she respectively learns to eat, to pray and to love again. Billy Crudup plays her ex, with Javier Bardem as Gilbert’s future husband, Felipe.
“I gained under 10 pounds for this movie,” Roberts says. “Let’s set the record straight, because I’ve read it was much, much more.
“I packed on the pounds during the Italy part of the shoot,” she says, “but then people said, ‘Oh, you’ll lose it when you film in India.’”
She rolls her eyes.
“Somehow I didn’t get that memo,” she says.
It took a great deal of consideration, Roberts says, before she signed on to Eat Pray Love.
“When I first had lunch with Ryan, I didn’t have any clue if I’d actually do this project,” she recalls. “For starters, I’m a mother of three young children and this was a huge work load. This wasn’t just driving to Sony three days a week to shoot on a sound stage. It was shooting around the world. I didn’t know if I could commit my family.
“And the other issue was Ryan Murphy, who sat there as the most relaxed man in the world,” Roberts says. “I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’”
To her surprise, instead of giving her a hard sell, Murphy told her that he didn’t want her to take the part unless she could jump in with both feet.
“He didn’t want me if I couldn’t give heart and soul,” the actress says. “And now I’m so glad I did the movie, because I leave it as in love with Ryan as I was on that first day.”
The two are, in fact, developing a new romantic comedy to shoot next year.
The biggest selling point, however, was Gilbert’s memoir, which — like millions of other women — Roberts had devoured when it first appeared.
“I read the book before it was hugely popular,” she says. “I’m someone who is easily swayed. I’m always determined not to like something or to like it better than anyone else. When I heard about this book, I didn’t wait for the buzz: I bought two copies and sent one to my best friend in Chicago. I said, ‘This seems special. Let’s read it together.’”
She decided to meet Gilbert herself only after she had sorted out how she would play the character.
“I didn’t want to meet her until we got to the first location, which was Rome,” Roberts says. “It was one of the smarter things I’ve done in the last four years. I knew Liz Gilbert on paper, from the book and the script, which is how it should be. I didn’t want to fall too in love with her and try to be her. It was my job to interpret her as an actor.
“So I waited until we were too far in the process to change my performance.”
Though it increased the cost and the length of the shoot, Murphy decided to recreate the arc of Gilbert’s journey, shooting the film in chronological order.
“For me it was a great luxury to shoot it the way it happened,” Roberts says. “It was almost necessary for the emotional evolution. Plus you can’t start any movie in Bali and then leave!
“Seriously, it was important for us to create the steps Liz took and understand exactly what she got from each part of her journey,” she says. “She needed this wisdom before she could move on.”
The trickiest part of that journey was the first step, in which Gilbert ends what looks on the face of it to be a happy marriage. There is no cheating, no abuse, no conflict — she has simply fallen out of love with her husband.
“More than anything else in the movie,” Roberts says, “that had to feel real. There is often no right and no wrong in a relationship, and no one is right or wrong. Everyone is a little bit of both.”
The actress says that she can understand the search for true love. As is well known, she was engaged to Kiefer Sutherland and to Dylan McDermott, and also had relationships with Liam Neeson and Benjamin Bratt, as well as a previous marriage to singer Lyle Lovett in 1993. They divorced in 1995, and since 2002 she has been married to cameraman Danny Moder, father of 5-year-old twins Hazel and Phinnaeus and 3-year-old Henry.
“I wasn’t searching in the same urgent, persistent way as Liz experienced,” Roberts says, “but I definitely knew that my life needed to evolve until I found a place where I wanted to live in forever — which is the home I have now. I related to her searching and her perseverance.”
Her own search, she emphasises, is over.
“It’s great to finally get there,” she says, “to come home and say, ‘Good. Everyone is here. We’re all good.’”
Roberts took her husband and their children to all the Eat Pray Love locations, which wasn’t for the faint of heart.
“I had this 10-pound box I’ll call my mother’s pack,” the actress recalls with a laugh. “It was filled with medicines and Tylenol and Band-Aids and another nine pounds of snacks. One of my favorite bites in India was the granola bars I packed.”
The sights and experiences of India were not to be missed, however.
“There was an extraordinary village where all of the women wore the most gorgeous, brightly coloured clothing,” Roberts recalls. “They were profoundly stunning. I asked and was told that these bright clothes were only for women who were married — if the husband passed away, then she had to take it all off.”
As for the local cuisine in Italy and Bali, well, it didn’t hurt her efforts to gain a bit of weight for the role.
“I thought I’d hurt myself trying to get my jeans on,” Roberts says with a laugh.
She agrees with Gilbert, she adds, that men don’t mind a few extra pounds.
“I also believe that guys don’t care about what you look like naked,” Roberts says with a laugh. “Anyway, that’s what dimmer switches are for!”
Her scenes with Bardem, who joined the company only when it reached Bali, were among Roberts’ favourites in the film.
“Working with Javier was like getting a puppy,” she says. “I’m serious. I was settled into the role, and he came to the set with so much enthusiasm like a puppy. Javier was like, ‘Let’s go read scenes! Let’s go talk! Let’s go over stuff!’ His excitement was actually contagious.”
Bardem was still fresh from No Country for Old Men (2007), in which his performance as a stone-cold killer earned him an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
“I was terrified of No Country for Old Men,” Roberts admits. “One day Javier pulled out a picture of himself as that character, and I jumped about 10 feet.”
The eating and loving get most of the attention in the film, but praying is a big part of Gilbert’s story.
“It’s your job to figure out how to pray,” Roberts says thoughtfully. “I think you must relate to a creation that’s more than you, or you can’t accomplish other things in life. How you name it is insignificant. What you’re doing to accomplish those prayers is what counts.” — New York Times Syndicated Services
Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2010.