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COVER STORY : Julia and Angst? Yes, Too True : As Julia Roberts tries to broaden her range, she takes on new roles that aren’t exactly ‘Pretty.’ Will her fans still adore her?

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Nothing about this Julia Roberts recalls the radiantly pretty woman whose wide smile and wild tresses made her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

In fact, today that unruly mess of hair, which seduced a nation of men and women alike, has been tinted a deeper red and pressed into a smooth, flat bob to go with the tailored houndstooth slacks she’s sporting during a recent stay in New York City--her home between movies.

And the $12-million smile? That’s being doled out carefully as a reward for asking the right questions--about work, and not about her recent breakup with her high-haired husband, Lyle Lovett. But when she does address the topic, she speaks with a motherly tone--full of hindsight and lessons learned.

At 27, Roberts has soared to the top of Hollywood’s alleged A-list, catching the industry’s attention with “Mystic Pizza” (1988) and “Steel Magnolias” (1989) before snagging the $178-million domestic box-office hit “Pretty Woman” in 1990. She received a best supporting actress nomination for “Steel Magnolias” and a best actress nomination for “Pretty Woman.” But now, with her sleek grown-up look and a new movie in which she plays a wife and mother, she’s doing something Hollywood usually frowns upon: She’s trying to change her image.

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In “Something to Talk About,” which opened Friday, she plays a frazzled woman who realizes that her husband, played by Dennis Quaid, has been fairly publicly cheating on her. She flashes those pearly whites only occasionally, and the movie’s emphasis is on the Angst. This comes on the heels of three films in a row that also generally portrayed Roberts looking more anxious than beatific: “The Pelican Brief,” “I Love Trouble” and “Ready to Wear.”

“Choosing this role had a lot to do with not doing the same stuff over and over,” says Roberts, leaning carefully over a turkey burger and fries at the Regency Hotel for a mouthful. “It’s also about getting older and having increasingly more to offer. You start to mature, and the roles mature with you.

“To keep doing the same thing gets boring for me and ultimately boring for people who go to the movies. They think they want certain things out of you--but do they really?”

She asks this as a rhetorical question, but in fact it’s the biggest concern behind studios’ closed doors. (For a critic’s answer to that question, see opposite page.)

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“Julia’s resisting all the movies her audience wants to see her in,” says one studio executive, noting that Sandra Bullock’s new movie, “The Net,” which capitalizes on its star’s youth and vulnerability, would have been an obvious choice for Roberts. “I wonder how long the audience’s patience will last. Julia wants to be Meryl Streep, but she’s not. She’s a movie star trying to be an actress.”

Callie Khouri, who wrote the screenplay for “Thelma & Louise,” also wrote “Something to Talk About.” She supports Roberts’ deliberate shedding of her old image.

“I think she can do a number of different things. If I were her I wouldn’t want to be limited to one particular type of role,” she says. “She’s just got a wide-open future.”

In the new film, Roberts plays Grace Bichon, a grand-prix horse jumper turned homemaker and mother. She once had visions of becoming a veterinarian (which was also Roberts’ childhood dream growing up at her parents’ acting school home in Smyrna, Ga.). Grace soon finds herself trapped by the men in her life--her philandering husband and her overbearing father, whose horse-farm business she manages.

Khouri says she wrote the role for a mature actress.

“This movie is a departure for Julia--this character is a woman , not a girl. She has all the problems that go along with being married and having a child,” says Khouri, who nonetheless immediately envisioned Roberts in the role. “She’s delicate because of her looks, but on the other hand you feel there’s something titanium at her core.”

Echoing Khouri’s opinion is Lili Taylor, Roberts’ co-star in “Ready to Wear” and “Mystic Pizza.”

“Julia’s early movies were easy--they made people happy. Particularly men,” Taylor says. “I’m sure the money folks aren’t going to like the movies she’s making. People like to see a beautiful woman onscreen--it’s not a threat. But if she did ‘Pretty Woman 2,’ it would be a shame. She has so much more potential.”

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And in fact, those roles may now be impossible for Roberts, who, Taylor says, has changed palpably since they first met eight years ago. “She was a completely different woman,” says Taylor of working with Roberts in Robert Altman’s “Ready to Wear.” “During ‘Mystic Pizza’ she was innocent, almost naive, and had a bit of that sparkle thing in the eye. When I saw her again, she was much older--and wiser. Sometimes you lose that sparkle to gain life experience.”

If the movie-star sparkle is gone, something with more depth seems to have replaced it.

“Julia has a kind of honesty and forthrightness to her that you don’t see much,” says Paula Weinstein, who produced “Something to Talk About.” “There’s a truth and vulnerability to her eyes. She can play comedy and make you feel her pain, but never in a manipulative way.”

Such honesty comes, most likely, from the fact that Roberts seems to choose characters that relate to what’s happening in her life--or, sometimes, she says, what she wishes were happening in her life. Her acting becomes a form of on-the-job therapy. It keeps her sane, she says, or as sane as possible with a posse of gossip columnists tracking her every move.

For instance, she turned 20 on the set of “Mystic Pizza,” in which she plays a feisty blue-collar beauty who falls for an upper-crust boy.

“I was so unlike her and in a way aspired to be extroverted like she was,” Roberts says. “I really worked the hair and wore the skirt, and in a way that served a purpose--it was a nice flexing of that outward muscle. ‘Pretty Woman’ was outrageously fun, free and wild. I just sort of spun around and did some stuff.”

Then came “Flatliners,” “Sleeping With the Enemy” and the lugubrious “Dying Young,” a drama about a young woman’s relationship with a dying man. For two long years after that, during a period when she called off her wedding to Kiefer Sutherland, she turned down every script--including 1993’s romantic summer mega-hit, “Sleepless in Seattle.”

“My agent desperately wanted me to do that movie,” Roberts says. “But I had been waiting for so long for something different to come along, and as good as it was, it would have been like starting over.”

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Instead she chose “The Pelican Brief,” based on the John Grisham novel, and then signed onto last summer’s ill-fated “I Love Trouble,” which she now acknowledges was “kind of a disaster.” The movie, in which she and Nick Nolte sparred and flirted as competing newspaper reporters, fizzled instantly.

“If you read the script, you’d know why I did that film,” she says. “It was clever banter--sort of ‘40s-style, hard-driving, a little wacky, a little screwball, a little adventure. But throughout the making of the film those things weren’t supported enough by our leaders. It became a ‘90s movie that didn’t really know what it was,” she says, an edge creeping into her voice. “I know better questions to ask now.”

Roberts has also been schooled over the years in her off-screen pursuits. Through tabloid coverage, her fans tracked the upheavals in her love life from Dylan McDermott to Sutherland to Jason Patric, and finally 1993’s three-week courtship and subsequent 21-month marriage to Lovett, which was pronounced DOA in March. Recently she has been linked with actor Daniel Day-Lewis, though she won’t elaborate on her current situation.

“I laugh at myself sometimes,” says Roberts, of her errors in matters of the heart. “I’ve made some rather similar mistakes.”

But her brief marriage to Lovett and the new movie--in which her character, Grace, agonizes over whether to end her relationship to Eddie (Quaid)--have Roberts acknowledging profound realizations about happiness and womanhood.

“It’s a symptom of childhood, this Cinderella theme that marriage is the beginning of the Happy. People think if you get married you’ll be happy, but it’s not a fait accompli . When you’re a little girl, Barbie and Ken are happy, so are Mickey and Minnie--they’ve been together forever. Of course,” she says, slipping into her native Georgia accent and going for the laugh (which she gets), “they don’t have those important parts.”

To play Grace, Roberts had to face what so many women see only later in life: that they’ve lost their own identities by catering to the needs of a husband and child. While she and Quaid duked it out before the camera, the off-screen Roberts and Lovett were deciding to call it quits.

“The timing [of the breakup with Lovett and the filming of the movie] aren’t parallel as everyone seems to think because it makes for a little juicier lunch conversation,” she says. “It wasn’t this symbiotic everybody-breaking-up-at-the-same-time sort of thing. I’m a firm believer of timing and lessons we learn.”

But despite the breakup, Roberts has only warm things to say about Lovett, who refused to be interviewed for this article. Yet she is oddly reluctant to utter her soon-to-be ex-husband’s name or even the M-word. “I feel like I was sincerely lucky with the situation I found myself in, the joy I felt within that situation,” she says.

The “situation” being marriage? “Mmmm-hmmm,” she hums, moving along quickly. “And the ultimate demise of the marital structure--the outcome of it. It’s actually ridiculously amicable. You’d think people who could be that nice to each other would probably be a couple, but it just sort of wasn’t the way it was intended to be. We found our little niche and then overstepped it a little bit. In fact, I think it can just as often be the weaker choice to stay.”

But nothing about this new Julia Roberts seems weak. She’s perfectly happy, in fact, spending time alone in the Gramercy Park duplex she bought three years ago. Perhaps as a reaction to the generic trailers and Holiday Inns in which she lives the rest of the year, she completely renovated the apartment, curving walls, raising ceilings and painting the walls in soothing blues and greens.

“I’m a homebody, really,” says Roberts, tucking her feet under her. “I like to be home, be around my stuff.” She’s decorated the apartment with pillows and quilts she makes on movie sets. (Sally Field taught her to needlepoint on the set of “Steel Magnolias,” and a standby painter taught her to knit on “The Pelican Brief.”)

“A whole bunch of us learned together and we all became possessed--that first sweater, you know, is just so colossally exciting,” she says. Julia Roberts the Homemaker also cooks better for 10 people than she does for just two, is best friends with her older sister, Lisa, and sleeps on the couch when her friends come to visit.

Kyra Sedgwick, whose onscreen rapport as Roberts’ sister is a surprise treat in “Something to Talk About,” marveled at her co-star’s warmth. “After the second day on the set, she knew everyone’s name. She’d come in every single morning, smile and say, ‘Hello, So-and-So’ to every member of the crew,” Sedgwick says. “She’s constantly cracking jokes, even in the midst of a huge crying scene. She feels she needs to let everyone off the hook for a minute. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t need to take on, but it makes her feel comfortable knowing everyone else is OK.”

The film marks another departure for Roberts, whose role as a mother is the dominant one in the film. She has no children, though she was photographed kissing hundreds of them on her recent goodwill trip to Haiti on behalf of UNICEF. She was instantly protective of first-time actress Haley Aull, 10, who played her daughter, Caroline, in the movie.

“Julia is physical--touches you a lot in a really nice way,” Sedgwick says. “From the moment Julia saw the little girl on the set she went straight to her, kneeled down to her level and started talking to her.”

And while her fans might not take her for a domestic type, they will really be in for a surprise when they see her later this year in Stephen Frears’ “Mary Reilly” with John Malkovich. In the period piece, due out at Christmas, Roberts plays Dr. Jekyll’s homely maid who discovers her employer’s terrible secret about his assistant, Mr. Hyde.

In the role, Roberts is swathed in long-sleeved, high-necked servant gear and a bonnet atop a scraggly wig. Without makeup or even eyebrows (she bleached them), her celebrity presence vanishes and she becomes a humble, rather unremarkable-looking waif.

“This role does not call for any ounce of glamour I could ever possess,” says Roberts proudly. “I was thrilled to pieces to get to do something where no one was at any point going to say, ‘Could you just give us a smile?’ ”

According to producer Norma Heyman, there was some initial resistance to hiring Roberts. “She was a movie star, so undoubtedly people were concerned,” says Heyman. “But she just bewitched Stephen. She’s an extraordinary creature. I remember her walking past me on the way to the set. You just wanted to put your arms around her and say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ She just exudes vulnerability and a need for affection in this role.”

Roberts became so used to the Victorian look (which included chopped, bleached hair under her wig) that she decided to try it out in New York when the five-month shoot in Ireland had come to an end.

“I looked like some kind of bizarre mod alien. My friends were like, ‘What the hell has happened to you?’ Then, when I went and got myself all pasted together, my eyebrows colored in, I felt like Groucho Marx.”

She’s in Dublin this month, filming Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins,” opposite Liam Neeson (another former flame, with whom she worked on 1988’s “Satisfaction”) as the 1920s Irish freedom fighter assassinated by his supporters. After that, she’ll do a still-untitled Woody Allen movie starring Tim Roth, Drew Barrymore and Alan Alda.

But don’t look for a directing credit any time soon. “I’m pretty content with my job; it keeps me pretty busy,” she says, chuckling modestly at the understatement. “I have absolutely no aspirations to direct whatsoever.” In fact, she has already passed on directing a one-act play she wrote for her sister, who is also an actress. “When things start to really slow down for me,” she jokes, “I can always fall back on my playwriting skills.”

For the time being, her private life will remain private, but the heart-shaped Irish claddagh ring on the fourth finger of her right hand (she will only say that it’s a gift from “a friend”) suggests she’s involved. The heart’s point is aimed back toward hers. “Yep, my heart’s pretty full up these days,” she says, admiring the ring with a faraway look, but giving no specifics.

Would another marriage be in the cards? “Well, you can never say never. I believe in love, if that counts for anything. And I’d like to have kids one day. If I’m married when that happens, terrific. If I’m not, that’s fine, too.”

Would she at least take it a little more slowly next time around?

“Life dictates the pace,” she says. “I think all this taking-time-to-work-it-out makes perfect sense. It’s horribly logical. But, babe,” she says, slipping briefly into an unguarded 27-year-old’s voice and reveling in it, “gotta go, gotta get there. Gotta have it.”


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