“How are your kids, hon?” a woman asked Julia Roberts after stopping the actress on a Pacific Palisades sidewalk.
She was a familiar neighborhood face to Roberts, and so the two caught up for a few minutes, hugged and parted ways. Here, in the tony enclave populated with Pilates studios and juice bars, this is how most people relate to Roberts — as a neighborhood mom. Someone who hides her makeup-less face behind Ray Bans while running errands; sets an alarm on her phone so she remembers to feed the meter; wears a neon-colored rubber band bracelet because her daughter made it for her.
“The kind of energy I attract is very calm,” said Roberts, 46, settling in for lunch at an empty local cafe. “People don’t come up to me very often. Everyone is always in such disbelief that I can go to the market.”
That’s probably because the type of reception she still receives in Hollywood can be, frankly, terrifying.
When she arrived at the premiere of her new movie, “August: Osage County,” in downtown Los Angeles last week — just days after that quiet afternoon lunch — dozens of photographers descended on her. She was trying to make her way to the red carpet but, with every step, the crowd engulfing her would shift en masse like a flock of birds.
A security detail had to be called in to break up the melee.
Such is the double life Roberts has been leading for the past decade — a Westside mom who also happens to have the world’s most recognizable toothy grin. Even if she no longer graces magazine covers with the frequency she did in the 1990s, she’s managed to remain a movie star. It’s that level of fame that has allowed her the freedom to transition from the romantic comedies that endeared her to millions — “Pretty Woman,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” — to less commercial, more dramatic fare.
Enter “Osage County.” Out in limited release Friday, the Oklahoma-set family drama is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and features an all-star ensemble, including Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Ewan McGregor. She and Streep have both been nominated for Screen Actor Guild and Golden Globe awards for their performances, and the cast received a SAG nomination for ensemble as well.
Even though the four-month shoot would take her away from her family for the first time, the project’s pedigree instantly proved alluring to Roberts, who had seen the Tracy Letts production during its Broadway run.
“I think people like to say that I’m super picky because of how much I lo-oo-ve my kids,” she said, seeming slightly vexed. “But as an actor, I sort of pride myself on the fact that I’ve always been picky. There’s a couple things at play. For one, I’m 46 years old, so falling out of chairs isn’t as funny. I could break a hip. Certain scenarios that worked 10 years ago aren’t as appealing, as applicable, as believable, as original — all those things.”
The subject matter at hand in “Osage County” certainly isn’t easily digestible.
Roberts plays the hard-edged Barbara, one of three sisters who return to their childhood home to aid their cancer-stricken mother after their father commits suicide.
Because the script was so demanding — both verbally and emotionally — Roberts and her cast mates would spend evenings at Streep’s place near the set, running lines late into the night.
“It was nice that Meryl didn’t conceal how much work went into it for her,” she said. “Because people can conceal that, and I’m just not able to hide anything. I’m there going, ‘I am pooping in my pants.’ But I find a certain amount of panic works for me, because the goal must be accomplished. There’s no option of, ‘Hmm, I don’t think I can do it.’ ”
She paused to answer a text message from her husband, the cinematographer Daniel Moder, to whom she has been married since 2002. Together, they have three children — twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, 9, and Henry, 6 — and one was sick.
“The school sends messages like this,” she said, turning her iPhone around, “ ‘It is not an emergency.’ They want you to know straight off the bat not to worry.”
But Roberts does worry about her kids and how much time she’s able to spend with them. The following day, she and Moder were leaving town for separate work trips — “news that didn’t go over well with the children,” she admitted.
Accordingly, she has slowed down her work life considerably and only makes about one movie per year.
“When I met her,” “Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall recalled, “she was worried about dating and how she looked and her career. And now she worries about being a mom. I think she’s good at that part.”
To make sure her time investment is worth it, Roberts often chooses projects because she’s close with her collaborators. (“I always say everybody’s nice at lunch,” she joked. “It’s a comfort to already know who someone will be under the best and worst of circumstances.”)
Her next project, an HBO film about the 1980s AIDS crisis based on the Tony Award-winning play “The Normal Heart,” was directed by Ryan Murphy — the filmmaker behind 2010’s adaptation of “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Over the last 10 years, she’s done two movies apiece with Clive Owen, Tom Hanks and filmmaker Mike Nichols. She even turned in a cameo in Marshall’s star-heavy vehicle “Valentine’s Day” (which turned out to be one of her bigger hits in recent years).
It’s clear she isn’t driven by a film’s box-office prospects — to be fair, a luxury she can likely afford after years of securing $20 million-plus.
Outside of her turn in the hit “Eat, Pray, Love” — in which she brought Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling travel memoir to life — Roberts has seen mixed results with audiences in recent years. Her last movie, “Mirror Mirror,” a modern take on Snow White, made about $230 million less worldwide than “Snow White and the Huntsman,” another version of the fairy tale released in 2012.
That may be due somewhat to the fact that moviegoers no longer flock to a movie simply because it features an A-list star — a reality that Johnny Depp, Will Smith and Tom Cruise were faced with this year. But there’s also a new generation of young actresses now vying for the title of America’s Sweetheart.
“Julia has been a star for 27 years, and there was not even a challenge until Jennifer Lawrence,” said Nichols, Roberts’ longtime friend. He was referring, of course, to “The Hunger Games” star who has captivated the public much the way Roberts did in her “Pretty Woman” heyday.
What they both share, Nichols believes, “reads as confidence but is something else — knowing who they are and sticking with it. Never pretending to be anybody else.”
But Roberts doubts she would have been able to handle the limelight in the era of Twitter and Instagram. She admires the way her niece, 22-year-old actress Emma Roberts, has handled her newfound fame — but still frets about the effect the business has on young people today.
“When (Emma) comes to stay with us, I always think, ‘Please let her be the same’ — and she is still the same magical girl she used to be,” she said. “I think so much of it has to do with your intentions in taking on a business like this. If you have a pure view of what you want to accomplish, I think you can maintain your sense of self.”
Which isn’t to say that Roberts hasn’t perfected her charm offensive over the years.
She’s quick and funny in a way that can make you feel like she’s letting you in on a secret — even when she’s not revealing anything particularly revelatory. She compliments a waitress on her earrings, which are shaped like a pair of cutlery. She apologizes profusely for how many times she’s answered her phone during the course of an interview.
She’s self-aware — but it feels authentic. She thinks maybe it’s because she came of age during a time when “nobody expected me to be anybody but myself, really” — a period before stars were forced to go through media training.
“Thank God I never had that,” she said with a laugh. “I would have failed.”