From the world's highest paid actress to devoted mother and housewife, priorities have changed dramatically for Julia Roberts since her first film more than 20 years ago. So what was so special about the international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love that she was persuaded to leave her domestic bliss and go back to work? John Hiscock finds out. There is a room upstairs in Julia Roberts's home in Malibu that she calls her "little quiet room". It is there she keeps her personal oddments, sewing machine, her knitting basket and where she retreats from the world when she feels the need. But, she says with a laugh, she doesn't spend much time up there now; being a housewife and mother, as well as continuing to act takes up all her time. "I don't have the luxury of sitting around any more," she says. "I must have had bags of spare time before I had children but I don't know what I did with it and I didn't appreciate it. But it's such a terrific trade-off - I don't have time to get a pedicure but I sure am happy. Who cares if your feet look bad?"
Julia Roberts is clearly in a good mood when I meet her in a beachfront hotel suite in the Mexican holiday resort of Cancun. Outside, her three children, the five-year-old twins Hazel and Phinn, and her son Henry, three, play with their father, Danny Moder, the cameraman Roberts married eight years ago. "Of course my life has changed and I don't work a lot, so I get a lot of that special time for us to just nurture and cultivate our everyday life and the things we take enjoyment in. But I was never really one to work too much, anyway. I never really did years of movie after movie after movie."
The 42-year-old actress is in Cancun with her family to talk about her new movie, Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 memoir about her year-long global search for sustenance and serenity after a wrenching divorce. The actress's husband and children were with her throughout the four months she spent filming Eat, Pray, Love on locations in New York, Rome, India and Bali. "For me to make that personal commitment to do that much work and travel to all those places, not alone but with 150 crew and my whole family, really shows how much I still love what I do," she says.
"It was an endeavour that took me away from my home life so I was proud that the passion was still vibrant in me. The scope is so massive that it was more work than I would normally want to be doing. But I was excited about trying to portray my character's real passion for her life and for the people in it and for the places she goes to. "When it was finished I was really exhausted but I loved every second of it."
She read the book when it was first published and enjoyed it so much she sent a copy to her closest friend so they could read it together and discuss it at night over the telephone. "I feel so fortunate that I got to read it before it became the phenomenon it did because there was nothing already in my head about it," she says. "I didn't think of it in terms of a movie at that time because the scope was so massive."
Eat, Pray, Love gives Roberts the chance to display the deep emotions of a woman seeking answers to life's big questions. Her journey around the world becomes a quest for self-discovery and in her travels she discovers the pleasure of nourishment by eating in Italy; the power of prayer in India and, unexpectedly, the inner peace and balance of true love in Bali. The Oscar-winning actress says it is the most taxing role she has ever undertaken because she is in every scene of the film and her character's emotional and spiritual journey resonated with her - so much so that she is now reported to be a practising Hindu, making regular visits to the temple with her family to chant and worship.
"I can certainly relate to what she has gone through and there are things in the movie which everybody can relate to? trying to clarify your life and understand your own compass for where you want to go and who you want to be. These are things we all go through and I think you sort of fine tune it every decade of your life. "I used to take off on a vacation every year by myself as sort of a reset button to sit and evaluate what had gone by, to read a great book, maybe get a sun tan and, you know, just collect myself. It's important to do that. You don't necessarily have to travel, but just take the time for yourself to exhale.
"When I was in my twenties I took two years off work, which was a really nice, empowering decision that I made for myself and did a lot of travelling, so that was probably akin to doing what [Gilbert] did." Julia Roberts has a wide smile and an infectious laugh. She is simply turned out in a summer dress and is friendly and happy to talk about herself, which has not always been the case. Fiercely intelligent, she has a sharp tongue and on occasions has been known to belittle interviewers whose questions she felt inappropriate. The influence of marriage and family has clearly mellowed her.
Not so long ago Julia Roberts was the world's highest-paid actress, commanding US$20 million (Dh73m) a picture and living in the spotlight of film premieres, parties and photo shoots. But nowadays it takes a special script and an extremely persuasive filmmaker to entice her to leave home, family and her two dogs Myrtle and Louie. "My life at home gives me absolute joy," she says. "There are some days when as soon as you've finished cooking breakfast and cleaning up the kitchen it's time to start lunch and by the time you've done that you're doing dinner and thinking there has to be a menu we can order from. But then there are some days when it's just so creative and so much fun and my kids will help me and, as with anybody who's a mom or a wife, it just becomes a part of your day. Some days it's super-fun and some days it's a chore.
"My mom used to make everything. She had a great garden and composted and made everything from scratch - peanut butter, bread, jelly, everything. I don't know how she did it because all those things take time and love and labour. She was a great cook and she raised me on really good foods and produce from her garden so that's how I know how to handle food and prepare fresh things and yummy things."
Julia Roberts has been a star since her first film, Mystic Pizza, more than 20 years ago. Since then she has made 30 films, collected three Oscar nominations and one win - as best actress for 2000's Erin Brockovich. She has made such crowd-pleasers as Pretty Woman, in which her performance won her an Academy Award nomination, The Pelican Brief, Notting Hill, Runaway Bride and My Best Friend's Wedding, but has also made a number of flops. Not many people remember Something To Talk About, I Love Trouble, Full Frontal and Mary Reilly.
Four years ago she achieved her long-held ambition of appearing on Broadway in the play Three Days Of Rain. Although the reviews were lukewarm, the play was sold out for its entire 12-week run and she says she would like to give Broadway another try. "That's a hard place to be, on stage eight times a week," she reflects. "It's relentless, but it's also magical and amazing. I would absolutely do it again, for sure."
She met Danny Moder on the set of the movie The Mexican in 2000. Moder, who was married, filed for divorce and they were married on July 4, 2002 in Taos, New Mexico. It was a marriage cynics said would never last, particularly given the actress's previous history of broken relationships. She had just ended a romance with actor Benjamin Bratt and her previous boyfriends had included her co-stars Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dylan McDermott, Matthew Perry and Kiefer Sutherland, whom she left for his best friend Jason Patric only days before their planned wedding. She also had a short-lived marriage to the country singer Lyle Lovett.
This time, she says, is for good. "We occupy a space of love and trust and we're best friends and we support each other in every way. We understand each other and we have a happy life together and that is my great fortune." She and her family divide their time between their solar-powered house in Malibu, an apartment in New York and a sprawling ranch in Taos. Although she has graced the covers of virtually every glossy magazine in the world at one time or another, Julia Roberts insists she does not worry about making herself look glamorous. "When you've got four people to get dressed and get out the door, you don't really spend a lot of time on yourself," she says. "I was never one to do my hair and make-up just to go to the market anyway, so it's not that different. If I get a little eye cream on, I feel I'm ahead of myself.
She is happy she became a star when she did because she believes it would be very different now. "It has to be very confusing and difficult to be a young woman in Hollywood today," she says. "The focus is so surgical on these girls, on everything they wear and every detail of their lives in a way that's kind of negative. I don't know how they handle it. It's got to be hard. "Showbusiness itself has changed and it's not really treated in a treasured, magical way any more. Everybody wants to know how the tricks are done and what the actors do 24 hours a day. It kind of takes a little bit of the fun away from the experience of going to a movie."
She has just finished filming a small but significant role in the comic drama Larry Crowne for her friend Tom Hanks, who wrote, directed and stars in the film. The two became friends while filming Charlie Wilson's War together. Hanks says of her: "Julia is great fun and a wonderful actress. I really like her and have great respect for her. I called her up and asked her if she could have faith in me as a director and fortunately she could."
Larry Crowne was filmed in and around Los Angeles, allowing Roberts to return home to her family every night. "I love the creative process but I guess the biggest difference now is that I don't have all that time alone to study and prepare, so I'll just be going to work on jobs that I like and with people I admire and who I'm interested in." Like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love Julia Roberts embraces spirituality and finds solace in meditation. "It's a definite aspect of my family life and more than anything else, a constant sense of gratitude is really the spiritual foundation of my daily life. I'm so grateful for everything? my family, all the opportunities I've had, the enriching relationships? just everything."
Eat, Pray, Love is in cinemas from October.