On the star mommy track

Michelle Obama has nothing on Julia Roberts.

On the Monday after the Oscars, there was the elusive actress, in a fitted black blazer, jeans and rippling locks, with all the presence of a polished but approachable politician, pressing palms and personally greeting each member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. -- that idiosyncratic group that bestows the Golden Globes -- in a conference room of the Four Seasons Hotel. The line to speak with her was long, its denizens frequently shabby and odd and gushing, but Roberts did not flag, dutifully raining that glorious, improbable smile on every grateful scribe and posing for a memorializing photo.

She then disappeared, and returned with her hair upswept, sporting a green, summery linen top. She did a quick photo shoot (as the great "Slumdog Millionaire" actor Irrfan Khan, a hotel guest, stopped by and introduced himself) and retreated for this interview into an almost furniture-less meeting room. She perched on the only couch, eventually slinging one leg up in that idiosyncratic, long-legged recline, often seen in her movies and magazine spreads.

Unlike her married peers (Brangelina or TomKat), Roberts and husband Danny Moder have maintained a distinctly more selective media presence, and the Oscar-winning actress has emerged from her cocoon only to discuss her new film, "Duplicity" -- the first movie she's actually top-lined since 2003 -- which opens Friday.

It's a snarky romance-thriller about two former spies -- looking to score really big -- in the underhanded world of corporate espionage. She and Clive Owen -- the two were last seen viciously battling on screen in 2004's "Closer" -- play charming scoundrels, madly in love but congenitally unable to trust. The film, written and directed by "Michael Clayton's" Tony Gilroy, is told through flashbacks and purposeful misdirects, leaving the viewer to puzzle out the extent of almost every character's mendacious ways.

But that's just work. What has preoccupied Roberts for the last few years has been motherhood, and the evidence of her other focus -- Henry, 2, and Hazel and Phineas, 4 -- were seen shortly before the interview, hanging out at the entrance of the hotel. "We move as this pack," says Roberts. "This morning Danny got them ready while I got me ready. Load them up in the car, and here we come."

These days, Roberts has the air less of a star who happens to be a mother and more that of a mother who occasionally dips her toe into the world of work. Even in a vaguely sterile hotel room, she emanates happiness, not the manufactured "I'm happy in this public situation" professional facade but that deep-in-your-bones calm that's hard to fake.

At 41, she is almost (miraculously) wrinkle-free, as if age and gravity have decided just to skip this one person. The skin is tawny, the hair blondish for the moment, the only seeming minute flaw an infinitetesimally small mole under one eye -- only really apparent on a 20-foot screen. Roberts insists it has always been there, and she and her minions are forever telling the magazines not to airbrush it out, because that "blands" out her face.

"Duplicity," a kind of sultry kissing cousin to Steven Soderbergh's jaunty "Ocean's" series (which featured Roberts in the first two installments), keys off her knowing confidence. There's a memorable scene when her character saunters languorously down the streets of Rome in a knockout, form-fitting dress evocative of 1960s Italian cinema. All the time, she's watched by Owen's spy, a man she once seduced and abandoned. "That dress took us the whole movie to find," she says. "There was a look that Tony was going for. This movie has great style, just a real cool sense of itself. We as a country and culture have gotten sort of sloppy. I love the idea of cleaning it up and buttoning it up and having a point of view visually, wardrobe-wise."

"Duplicity" evinces a kind of genteel cynicism that runs through many of her recent films -- with the hipster heisters in "Ocean's," the brutal, adulterous lovers of "Closer" and most recently the carousing congressman in "Charlie Wilson's War." These movies are nothing like her own life, which may be the (un)conscious point, says Roberts. "I think of my life as a pretty sunny existence." Films are "how I explore what I don't want out of my life in a safe place."

The radiant grin, the signature of such films as "Pretty Woman," "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Notting Hill," exists off-screen for the moment. While contemporaries like Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker are still looking for love in movies, Roberts says: "I can't play those parts anymore. . . . It just doesn't work for me at 41, with three kids and happily married. It doesn't hold the same interest that it did for me once upon a time."

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It takes two

One notable fact about the shooting of "Duplicity": There were scheduled breaks for . . . breast-feeding. "It was like every 2.5 hours," says Roberts with a laugh. "It was like being Swedish. You felt like the mother is so completely supported in her motherness."

Gilroy wrote "Duplicity" almost eight years ago on assignment from Universal. The film became regenerated when Owen came to a party during the filming of "Michael Clayton" and George Clooney suggested casting Owen in "Duplicity."

"I didn't offer it to [Owen] that night," says Gilroy, but "I did stick around and had a couple of drinks with him, and I saw something there I had never seen before. George was right." Owen quickly became Gilroy's "co-conspirator" on the project. They both wanted Roberts.

The reason: the chemistry between the leads.

It was Mike Nichols who initially paired Roberts with Owens in "Closer." "She and Clive. . . . They pick up each other's rhythms and set up a rhythm together," he says. "They are made to play together."

Or, as Owen says, "Working with her . . . the dialogue feels buoyant and alive."

Getting Roberts to sign on for "Duplicity" wasn't exactly easy. Although she loved the script's "intrigue and humor," she was pregnant. "I said to my husband, 'I don't know why I'm reading this. I'm going to have a baby.' I respectfully passed and told them I'm not into working right now," she says.

Time passed. The project recrystallized, and the duo asked again. There was no answer until Gilroy, who lives in New York, got a call seemingly out of the blue that Roberts "wants to see you tomorrow," he recalls.

Gilroy went to Roberts' apartment. "The kids were watching 'Mary Poppins,' " he says. "It was like a daycare center down there. We sat in her kitchen and had tea, and she said, 'If you want to do this next year, I'd really like to do it.' Talk about changing up your life plan in a positive way."

"He was so charming and bright," Roberts says. "I remember saying to him, 'When we get on set, are you going to be the same person that you are in my kitchen?' " says Roberts. The answer was yes and Gilroy had his leading lady.

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All in the family

There is a certain refrain in conversations with Roberts: family. It's clearly the lens through which she now sees life, and even when she talks about working with Owen on "Duplicity," her favorite memory is watching him reunite with his wife and two daughters in a shabby bowling alley in Queens.

"I looked at the four of them, and thought, 'That is an impenetrable club. They are four people moving together in this whole world,' " remembers Roberts. "It was so touching to me, the way their four heads moved together. That's how I feel about my family."

In the years since she receded slightly from the limelight, no other actress has quite assumed her crown. Many -- like Reese Witherspoon, Aniston and Angelina Jolie -- are talented and popular, but they don't dominate the box office, and the public imagination, in quite the same way. And who knows if Roberts will return to working with a vengeance after her children have grown up some. "Now I have more reason to stay home, but I'm always happy to work," she says. "I don't really avoid it."

In the meantime, she does ambitious activities such as taking the entire brood to India for a couple of weeks, to visit her husband, a cinematographer, who was working there. How does one survive three toddlers on a plane for 32 hours? "That's where not watching a lot of TV or eating junk food comes in handy," says Roberts with a laugh, because once in the air, "it's an unlimited amount of snacks and Netflix."

"They were pretty absorbed by [India], walking around the streets and the monkeys jumping on rooftops. They rode on elephants, saw the Taj Mahal. It was pretty amazing."

As for their exposure to the poverty, Roberts says, "My daughter would say to me, 'Where is that baby's mommy?' For her, it's not about there's a child eating garbage off the streets. It's because the mom's not standing right there. I said, 'Well, Hazel, look at that child, she doesn't even have pants on.' I don't have to say anything awful. It speaks for itself."

Roberts, who used to live in Venice, moved about a year ago to Malibu, where there is undoubtedly more privacy. A protective mama bear clearly lurks inside the star.

"I've never taken my kids to an event or a premiere. We appreciate privacy. We don't hide, but we want to keep our family to ourselves. I don't want my kids photographed. They're my children. They deserve my privacy. They belong to me. I share them in ways I choose to share them with people that I pick," says Roberts, enunciating each word as if to control her anger over the issue.

When fans come up to her in a restaurant, for example, and say " 'I saw a picture of you and your kids,' it makes me sick to my stomach," admits Roberts. It's clear that she's still seeking a balance between her fierce need to protect her children from the spotlight and a down-to-earth acceptance that "we're all essentially the same person. We're all variations on a theme." As her husband tells her, "For the most part, people are trying hard. They mean well."

Roberts sighs and then smiles. "I have tried to teach myself to leave a little room for that."

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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