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In Notting Hill, Hollywood's hottest actress plays the part she knows best: movie star. By Stephen Schaefer.

Julia Roberts, the most famous, highest-paid actress of her generation playing Е a high-paid, world-famous movie star? It may not sound like much of a stretch, but the 31-year-old Roberts Ч who portrays film diva Anna Scott alongside Hugh Grant's modest, struggling London bookstore owner in this week's Notting Hill Ч begs to differ. As she goes about doing publicity for Notting Hill, which was written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and Funeral), Roberts is keenly aware that parallels will be drawn between her and her infamous, drop-dead gorgeous, and (most importantly) temperamental character. But she's cool with that Ч kind of. Roberts, whose recent mega-deal for Erin Brockovich put her on a par with the Hollywood Boys Club Ч the $20 million-a-picture gang that includes the likes of Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Jim Carrey, and Will Smith Ч supposedly still rides the New York subway and says celebrity really hasn't changed her all that much. That's why the actress understandably wants the world to recognize that she is giving a performance rather than doing a walk-through in Notting Hill. But while taking the role of Anna Scott may have been a risky choice for such a high-profile star, everyone seems to agree that the risk paid off for Roberts, who gives one of the best performances of her career in the film. While the numerous apt similarities between Roberts and her character may be mostly superficial, Anna does share the actress's bumpy travails as a public figure. In Roberts' decade-long roller coaster ride with fame, her professional hits and flops have always been overshadowed by her string of broken engagements (Kiefer Sutherland and Dylan McDermott), relationships (Jason Patric, Daniel Day-Lewis, Matthew Perry), and her divorce (Lyle Lovett). Her current romance with the stunning Benjamin Bratt is no exception, particularly since his leaving Law & Order has some wondering what the couple plans to do next. (The pairing of the real-life loves during May sweeps brought the show its highest ratings in three years.) Mr. Showbiz met Roberts in the swank confines of London's legendary Dorchester Hotel on the eve of Notting Hill's world premiere there. Demure in a black pantsuit with a simple jeweled necklace and her hair tied back in a loose ponytail, Roberts exhibited the quiet confidence of a star who knows she's beginning the summer with what smells like a big, fat hit.

How would you describe Notting Hill?

I would say that it's a charming story about all the possibilities in life. And the different forms they can come in.

How did you decide to say yes to the movie?

From Page 1, I knew this was going to be terrific. Richard Curtis — I don't know how the man sleeps! He's so great with words, and I think he's a hopeless romantic. He phoned me from London and as he described the idea before I got the script, I thought, "That sounds terrible. I don't want to go to England and be a movie star." Then I read it and I fell in love with it.

You're playing a movie star and yet Anna Scott is not you. How so?

Almost in every way she's different from me. Particularly early in the movie. She's just a different person. I say all of this with love, and it sounds like criticism, but she is a person who is going along on momentum as much as anything else. She's going with the flow as opposed to being the instigator of the flow. And with that I think her thoughts are incomplete about who she is and this career she has and whatever status she has in that career. She's unsure about all that stuff.

She's most like me at the end of the film when she's come to an understanding and has a stronger sense of what she wants in her life. She's a much clearer person at the end. This movie takes place over a nice period of time [two years], so you can chart some real growth and change.

How different can it be playing a movie star and portraying yourself?

Incredibly, actually, incredibly different. The best way that I can equate it is to say that journalists all share the same job, but dare I say that you are all very different people? The same is true for actors. So she is as much like me, or we share as many things in common as two journalists might do. If you sat and chatted for a while [with another reporter], you might realize, "Oh, that happened to me. He was so rude to me, and I didn't know what to do." But it doesn't mean that you really are alike at all.

That is how I felt with her. Much to my surprise when I really started dissecting the piece and investigating the kind of person that she was, I realized that we didn't really have much in common at all — except for a face and work.

When the Average Joe sees this movie, he'll come away seeing how terrifying it is to be in the eye of the paparazzi storm. How do you do it?

It's not something I have to deal with in my everyday life, but when you go to a premiere or you go somewhere where it's a paparazzi situation, if one imagined oneself being attacked with flash pops and people shouting very near to you, it would make sense.

Do you think stardom and fame doesn't change people?

To me it's not really fame that changes people. I think what changes are perceptions of an individual, more than the individual. I speak from a small scope. I can't speak for every person who's experienced fame.

So many celebrities self-destruct. It just seems too much to handle, yet you've done just fine being in the public spotlight. How do you think you've managed this?

A good gene pool? I don't know why. I feel a small amount of pressure right now. Pressure is something that is a choice. You allow it to participate in your life or you don't. Yeah, I have moments of pressure, but pressure I like. I like the pressure to do a good job and find a script.

Does it get easier being Julia Roberts, a famous person, the longer it continues?

I've grown more relaxed over the years just because practice brings on more of an understanding of what you're about to walk into. As opposed to the first time you do it.

In the film Anna attends a dinner party where the person with the most pathetic life story gets the last brownie. She responds by saying things like, "I've been on a diet since I've been 19, which means basically I've been hungry for a decade," and: "One day not long from now my looks will go and they'll find out I can't act and I'll become a sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous once." Those seem to be legitimate worries about the character's future as a popular actor.

I don't think of those concerns. She wants that brownie. I don't have those concerns, and I never have. [That's] not to say I won't wake up and feel the insecurity she expresses there. It's left to the audience to [decide] what is true and how much she wants that brownie.

Is it difficult keeping up the celebrity look, as Anna suggests?

I actually think that is a very funny line, and it is something I have never done. I have never been on a diet myself.

There's another scene in Notting Hill where Anna is talking to someone at a dinner party who has no idea who she is. Has that ever happened to you?

Just a couple of weeks ago I had that happen. A woman asked me at a dinner party what I did for a living, and someone attacked her for not knowing who I was. And she didn't have a clue. Quite frankly, I was really impressed. That she didn't know. That she's got another kind of life.

In another scene the paparazzi show up unexpectedly and Anna starts screaming and yelling. You've said, "I wouldn't have behaved like that"?

I wouldn't behave that way, no. I thought that was kind of a little ridiculous, but I could understand that for her — and I say that without judging her. She was fully entitled to that moment, and that's how she felt. I found a way to understand that behavior. But for me to react that strongly and to be that hysterical about something, it has to be something that really means something to me. It would have to be a rift within my own family or a problem that I was struggling with in my life, as opposed to some external situation.

Is it true that you didn't want to yell and scream while playing Anna, and they talked you into it?

Well, first of all, Roger Michell, our director, is one of the best directors that I have ever worked with; he was really wonderful about knowing when to remind me that I was being judgmental and to remind me that that was not my place. My job was to come and give life to this person and not judge that life. It really taught me a lot of lessons about how it is that we all judge each other all the time, unconsciously or consciously. But we really do, and it made me realize that it really is not my place to judge anybody and how they react in a situation.

So you did as you were told?

Yeah, good worker girl.

In a sense this role could be ricocheting off the rest of your career, because people are always going to use it as a reference point.

Because it's easy, and we are all tired, so why reach for more? No, but I say that with complete understanding. I think that the contrivances that Richard came up with so cleverly in our movie — the press conference, the press junket, the paparazzi — I think is used to great effect to show something in a sometimes really extreme or big way.

Because in a movie you have a limited amount of time, so you need people to be able to comprehend the moment immediately (or as quickly as possible) so that you can then move on to the next thing. I think that he uses the idea of a famous individual quite beautifully in that way, to be able to illustrate differences and points quite rapidly and cleverly. That is one of the things that I loved about the piece when I read it.

Scripts like that don't come along very often, what are you looking for these days?

Well, really the same thing I have always looked for, once I got beyond the "just looking for a job" phase of my career. It's really always been the same thing, which is to sit down and read a script and turn the last page and just feel it. I just know it one way or another, and I always finish scripts. I can't stop in the middle, even if I think it's crap, because I think at some point something fantastic is going to happen and I would have missed it. I just know [when a script works for me]. It's just a sense and a feeling and it's just a yes or a no when I turn the last page.

Are you getting more and more of those scripts at the moment? You seem to be moving from project to project — has there been an upgrade in quality?

For me it has always been like when it rains it pours; either I read a ton of really good scripts or I read 10 really bad scripts. But I'm working with pretty much the same consistency that I have worked in the last five years, with a picture and a few months off and a picture … the way they come out can sometimes seem a bit more rapid than the way they were made. So maybe that was it.

How do you stay so centered?

I just possess knowledge, and I just know who I am and what I want and why I want it. As an adult you get information and that helps inform the person you are and life's lessons do so as well. But I think I've always had that.

Did you have much input into Richard Curtis' screenplay once you said you'd do the film?

Richard is pretty much a genius, but there were a few things, a few pieces of dialogue I tweaked to make more American. He was making me sound far too charming and intellectual.

Anna ultimately makes a movie based on a Henry James work, which is suggested by Hugh Grant's character. Has your life ever consciously affected your choice of a film?

I don't think it consciously has. But when I've finished a film and reflected on how everything was at the time, and the time it took place and how it entered my life — that all seems perfect.

Can a goddess like you and a mere mortal live happily ever after?

Thank you. Under any conditions, if two people connected at the heart, it doesn't matter who you are or where you live. There are no barriers if two people are really connected.

Was it some kind of coincidence that you have had your love life splashed across the page and so has your character? Was that written after you came onto the project?

This is all Richard; this has nothing to do with me. You can't herald me for it; you can't blame me for it.

Do you find some aspects of fame difficult?

I accept it all. To compartmentalize and say, "This part is really great," and "This is a drag," is to qualify it, and it is all one thing. Certainly there are situations that require greater patience than others, but one must accept it as a whole.

You are very silly and easy to tease according to Hugh.

He's so much fun. He would tease me relentlessly. We had great rapport and we give as good as we get, there was a nice banter that went on. I have a much better aim with food than he does and that was my claim to fame on the set. [Smiles.]

Have you ever had any fan encounters like the one in the film where Anna is mistaken for Demi Moore?

I was trying to remember and on the edge of my brain I feel I have. But the only thing I consciously remember is the thing when someone comes up and says, "Are you Julia Roberts?" And I say yes, and they say "No!" And short of pulling out ID, I just let it go.

When did you first realize you were getting famous?

I was at the movies with my mom and had gone to the [restroom] and someone said — in a loud voice — "Girl in stall number one! Were you in Mystic Pizza?" I paused and stopped peeing and said, [lowers her voice to a whimper] "Yeah?"

You had the female lead in Shakespeare in Love at one point early on; when Gwyneth Paltrow won the Best Actress Oscar for it, were you at home watching and stomping up and down, screaming, "That's my Oscar!"

No! [Smiles.]

What prevented you from doing Shakespeare in Love?

Well, [that] was years and years ago, and the film never came to pass, as many films don't. It was a fun experience. [That] was when I first met Hugh, we met briefly when I came to London and had an English holiday and met these great English directors.

What is the difference between working in America and working in London?

Tons of tea. But also, now don't get me wrong I love working in America and I love my countrymen, but I actually think that the — how do I put this? — the acting itself, the purpose that we are all gathered, is allowed to be paid a bit more respect here [in England] than at home.

At home we are confined to a lot of union rules and a kind of time structure, which isn't always the most convenient thing for the performing. Here, if it's lunch time and if we're right in the middle of something and it's really cooking and going along really well, we'll keep going until we come to a natural stopping point. Then I will go to lunch — and I love that. At home, [we have] our union rules and time and, "Six hours and you have to eat" — that kind of stuff, which I understand. But sometimes you can be mid-scene, and they say, "That's lunch! One half-hour" — and there is nothing you can do about it.

So you and Richard Gere are getting back together for Runaway Bride?

We really had a good time working together. It was something we all thought, "Wouldn't it be fun?" But to find something that three people agree on is a tall order. When I was sent the script of Runaway Bride — which I'd read years ago in a completely different form — and I heard Richard liked it, I thought, "I have to read this if Richard likes it, even though we never agree on anything." We figured, "What the heck?" And we went off.

What was it like to work with Richard again?

Oh, it was terrible. [Laughs.]

Is Gere as serious as Grant is silly?

No, he is not serious at all. Not to say he is a frivolous individual, but to work with and to spend time around him, he is not serious. You can't be too serious on a movie set, it's long hours, it's tiring, it's a lot of hard work. I feel I am silly all the time, just to stay really alert and energetic.

Do you know what you're going to be doing on Dec. 31st?

I don't have this millennium madness like everybody seems to have.

Your next film, Erin Brockovich, is directed by Steven Soderbergh. What is it about?

I play Erin Brockovich. She is a secretary at a law firm and kind of happens upon a file that leads her to an investigation where she uncovers a civil action suit against PG&E. So it's a true story and would probably be classified as drama-suspense movie.

About your $20 million payday: Do you feel it's one small step for Julia Roberts, one big step for womankind?

The business is the business, and it doesn't hold a lot of interest for me, but I can appreciate a closure to the gap — which is completely gender motivated — and in that regard I find that kind of cool. The amounts that any of us get paid in movies are ridiculous. I think we all know it, but it has become a mechanism, a machine of the business that kind of moves on its own, so one has to be … you are almost forced into a place of, you know, having to participate in that.

Since that moves along, the movies I make that have big budgets, because of the way the business is structured — salaries and budgets and what have you — there is no reason for me not to get paid what people are willing to pay me.

Do you see yourself in a low-budget film?

Sure, when I consider a movie, it's not the budget that I consider, it's the movie [itself]. I mean I have had people ask me to do movies that I have turned down and they come back and say, "Well, what if we pay you this amount of money?" Did the script get any better? I don't think so.

So it's not about the money. It is about the piece; it's about the words and the people that are making the movie. So to me the money is a complete non-issue. My agent is somewhere in the world going, "Aieee!"

What do you think of television now that you've done Law & Order?

The Law & Order episode was such hard work. I played a woman called Katrina Ludlow, and I think she's heavily misunderstood. Some would say she's bad.

Is she a murderess?

I would say no. It was fun to do. I can't wait to see it. On a movie if you go through four pages of dialogue in a day, that's a really good day. I'd walk [on the set] in the morning with 10 pages, with me just yakking words that would never come out of my mouth. And I'd have these things to say and I'm [in] such a rigid posture, and I stand in front of Benjamin and become apoplectic, and it's nerve-wracking. I begged for the job.

What about the filmic reunion between you and Rupert Everett?

Rupert has been writing a script for us, but he's going off and making a movie with Madonna. But I have faith Rupert and I will be together again.

Do you ever go back home?

I was back for my mom's birthday in good ol' Smyrna [Ga.] and it was fun.

Has your life changed so much that when you go back to Smyrna it's as if you're an alien?

The only friend I see with regularity from home, who now lives in Chicago and who is my best friend, is Paige Amsler. We have the same relationship we had when we were 15.

In five years do you think you will be working as much?

I have no idea, I don't know what I am doing tomorrow, I just kind of go day to day. If I project five years into the future, then today is wasted.

End Of Interview.
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