Julia Roberts--Living Life in the Fast Lane : Film: In just three years, the Oscar nominee has gone from star-struck newcomer to a formidable member of the elite $1 million-a-movie club.


Accompanied by a small army of companions, including her business manager, agent, several Realtors and a reporter, Julia Roberts spent a cold, blustery night recently poking around a stylish little home near the top of Benedict Canyon. Before the slender young actress could field queries about her skyrocketing career, she had a more important decision to make. Should she buy the house?

Peppering the owners with questions, Roberts studied the outdoor Jacuzzi, with its spot-lit fountain. She eyed the kitchen, stopping to stare at a refrigerator with a see-through door. She prowled around the cozy bedroom, which offered a spectacular view of the hills.

The 22-year-old actress playfully fiddled with a video camera trained on the bed. “Geez!” she said, turning to the home-owners with mock surprise. “I wonder what y’all have been taking pictures of. Can you show ‘em on the TV over there?”


After a pair of whispered huddles, Roberts swept out of the house, slid into her new BMW convertible and roared off down the canyon. “Hey, the furniture’s gotta go, but what a great house, huh?” she enthused as she navigated the rain-slicked street. “It’s beautiful.”

Was she going to make an offer? “Make one?” she laughed. “I already did! I’m gonna buy it. They told me if I waited till tomorrow, it’d be gone!”

Roberts let out a wild whoop as she slid through a tight turn. “My boyfriend is gonna die when he hears I bought a house!” She cackled with glee. “He keeps telling me I’ve got to own things. So first, I bought this car. And then he told me I oughta get a house.”

She came out of the next turn, pumping the accelerator and speeding down toward Sunset Boulevard. Buying a $1 million hilltop house gets the adrenaline flowing.

“I remember telling him, ‘Why do I need a house?’ And he said, ‘Well, you gotta have a place to park the car!’ ”

Everything is happening fast for Julia Roberts these days. Barely three years after she first earned accolades for her spicy performance in “Mystic Pizza,” she’s won a Golden Globe and been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in “Steel Magnolias.”


According to the current issue of US magazine, she’s also one of today’s Top 10 screen goddesses, right up there with Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger and Melanie Griffith. More importantly, the Hollywood Buzz about Roberts has catapulted her from a star-struck newcomer best known as Eric Roberts’ little sister to a formidable member of the elite $1 million-a-movie actress club.

“You could definitely say the phone has been ringing,” explains her agent, Elaine Goldsmith, a vice president at the William Morris Agency. “The reaction we’ve gotten has been incredibly positive. People really feel she’s one of a kind.”

It’s easy to see Roberts’ appeal on screen. Whether she’s playing a feathery small-town beauty in “Steel Magnolias” or a sassy Hollywood Boulevard hooker in “Pretty Woman,” which opens today, she has a voluptuous voltage that sends sparks shooting off the movie screen. Enamored by her spunky personality and full-lipped sex appeal, smitten critics have tossed bouquets at her feet.

The Times’ Michael Wilmington called Roberts’ performance in “Mystic Pizza” “a minor triumph,” adding that the actress “shows a priceless movie quality: a real sense of danger and unpredictability.”

In person, devouring a hamburger at her favorite Irish pub, Roberts doesn’t radiate so much sizzle. A willowy woman with keen, inquisitive eyes, long arms and an unruly mane of auburn hair, she has the coltish, Southern charm of a character out of a Truman Capote story.

Told that she appears more diminutive than she does on-screen, Roberts seems mildly chagrined.

“I know, that’s what everyone says--I feel like such a disappointment,” she says. “For months after ‘Mystic Pizza,’ I had 20 different people say, ‘Gee, we thought you were 6-feet tall.’ But I am 5-8. She shrugs. “Even though I always did want to be 6-0.”

Wearing a baggy jacket and faded jeans, Roberts looks more like a poetry major than a budding sex symbol. Spend an evening with her and you’ll discover she’s a free spirit who likes to roam around barefoot, has memorized the entire Elvis Costello songbook and enjoys her privacy (she talks endlessly about her boyfriend, but never reveals his name, though gossip columns have linked her to actor Kiefer Sutherland).

She also takes pride in her ability to keep cool, even in the midst of her tumultuous career rise.

“I’m what you’d call a decision-action person,” she says, sipping a vodka and cranberry juice. “I make a decision and I act on it. If I decide I’m going to have dinner or buy a house, I do it. But the last few months have been really crazy. I can’t have a simple dinner. I don’t even have time to read a book. My whole life’s mapped out for me. I just try to be grateful that I have so much work that I can be worrying about all this.”

Born in Smyrna, Ga., Roberts comes from a family of actors. But you get the feeling she didn’t have a storybook childhood. “My childhood was real weird to me,” she says quietly, with a trace of a Southern accent. “I feel like I grew up twice. Once till I was about 10. After that it was completely different.”

She tugs at a strand of hair. “My father died around then, which probably changed me a lot more than I realized. It was just a rough time. My fondest memories are from high school, when I’d hang around with my best friend, Page. We’d have tuna sandwiches and Diet Coke, watch soap operas and talk about what we wanted to do with our lives when school was over.”

Roberts couldn’t wait to get out of school--and out of town. “I knew if I stayed in Smyrna I’d have to go to the University of Georgia or get married,” she said with a wry laugh. “And I gotta tell you--higher education wasn’t for me.”

Instead, she moved to New York and began studying acting. “I gotta admit I really didn’t know what else I could do. I’d go to all these auditions and I remember getting so excited about getting a call-back or just meeting the director.” She laughed, half at herself. “Now I’m asking--is the director going to be there? If not, I’m not going!”

After landing a part in “Crime Story” at age 18, Roberts appeared in a string of low-budget films, including “Satisfaction,” HBO’s “Baja Oklahoma” and “Mystic Pizza.”

“Julia was real smart,” recalled Donald Petrie, director of “Pizza” and the upcoming film, “Opportunity Knocks.” “Before she auditioned, she put a rinse in her hair to make it jet black, like the color of the Portugese-descent character she played in the film. And hey, it worked. It made her look exotic and perfect for the part.”

Petrie was especially dazzled by Roberts’ screen presence. “She has a wonderful spontaneity on screen that really makes her light up. Most actors have that in their eyes. But Julia has it in her eyes--and her face and everywhere. She’s the kind of actress you want to shoot without a rehearsal because she’s so quirky that you never know what you’ll get.”

Petrie said he hopes Roberts doesn’t get “locked into the pattern you see with someone like Kim Basinger” and be typecast as a sex object. Roberts has similar concerns.

“Yeah, in ‘Satisfaction’ I was this boy-crazy peacock. And in ‘Baja’ I was the most gorgeous girl in town. It was like a pattern, always having to look great. That’s why I loved doing ‘Steel Magnolias,’ to play a whole different character.”

For “Pretty Woman,” a Touchstone film which features Roberts as a hooker with a heart of gold, Roberts spent time with area prostitutes researching her part. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “They obviously didn’t want to talk, so I’d take them out to Del Taco--which is where they liked to eat--and got to work with them, watching them work in a strip joint.

“It was sad because you realized that the girl who took off the most clothes on stage got the most money. They have a view of men--and life--that no one should have to live with.”

“Pretty Woman” opts for a glossier version of hookerdom, though Roberts got a dose of raw sexism shooting the film, especially when wearing a revealing outfit for several on-location scenes from the movie. “Just wearing that dress was awful!” she recalled. “I’d get catcalls and stupid remarks from guys on the street when we’d be doing exteriors. It wasn’t fun at all. I felt so offended. I don’t get that in real life.”

Touchstone Pictures president David Hoberman raved about Roberts’ performance. “She’s very magnetic,” he said. “She has that rare ability to invite you into the role she’s playing.”

Still, Roberts had to campaign to get the part. “She was not an automatic,” said Elaine Goldsmith, her agent. “Disney tested her for the part--and she had to wait till the 11th hour before she got it. The studio was reticent about casting her until they’d cast the male lead. Finally, we told them she would take another movie, so they finally agreed and signed her.”

Since making “Pretty Woman,” Roberts has co-starred in “Flat-liners,” a medical school thriller with Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland that is due out this summer. And she’s just began shooting “Sleeping with the Enemy,” where she plays a battered wife who rebels against her oppressive husband.

“She’s no flash in the pan,” says Hoberman, who downplayed rumors that Touchstone is trying to sign her exclusively. “I’d love to tell you she’s committed to a deal, but she’s not. But we’d certainly like to work together again.”

For now, Roberts is laying low, though if she wins an Oscar Monday, you can bet her $1-million asking price will rise. “After ‘Sleeping,’ she’s going to take a break,” says Goldsmith. “If people want her now, they’re going to want her a year from now.”

Roberts is trying to keep in perspective. “I sometimes lose it a little in the middle of a tough day,” she said, driving back home at nearly midnight. “Winning an award like the Golden Globe made me incredibly giddy and happy, but it was also very humbling.

“I told myself, ‘What’s there to get so carried away with?’ I got honored, but it was my work. I put my heart and soul into it. And I know that I have to move on now and challenge myself to do better.”

She flashed a weary grin. “You can’t hang on to a Golden Globe forever.”