"It was one of those rare times where you go, 'My face is just too tight already!'" roars Julia Roberts, letting rip with one of her famous laughs. "I wanted to look as much like Joanne Herring [the right-wing Texan socialite she plays in Charlie Wilson's War] as I could. She is very open about the fact that she's had cosmetic surgery, so I was trying to do things with my face to make it appear as though I was 50 but had had some work done. I wore different tapes under my wig and tried to pull my face in different ways. It was challenging, it really was."
Roberts insists that she doesn't "get hung up" on her age, on- or off-screen, these days not since she turned 40 last October anyway. She'd told Oprah Winfrey beforehand that passing the milestone would be a relief, and says now that it actually was, a surprising confession from an actress not yet officially dislodged as Hollywood's biggest female star more than 20 years after her first film.
"Getting older to me is nice. You are released from certain concepts. Plus, as one gets older and more complicated, the parts that come are more interesting, complicated ones. And I'm more intrigued by things that are so removed from my real existence."
We are sitting in what is now the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire hotel, the very same genteel establishment that this then relatively unknown actress stalked in thigh-high boots in Pretty Woman. Today, she wears a simple wrap dress and flat knee-high boots, and has an impressively radiant face given that she has a six-month-old and three-year-old twins at home. If Pretty Woman was a politically incorrect paean to its early-Nineties times, Charlie Wilson's War is Roberts' only overtly political film, though she is having none of that. For her, the film's heart is not the staggering and little-known turn of events two decades ago in Afghanistan when a Texan Congressman supported the rebels in their war against the Soviets but a delicious three-hander character piece between large-living Senator Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), sardonic CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Herring.
"To me, it's about people and heart and passion and chemistry, and the ability to accomplish things. To look at these three people, to see the different concepts of their power and what they do with it, who they are, how they lead their lives is fascinating and inspiring."
In Herring, Roberts has been handed a real-life character even more unlikely than Erin Brockovich, the tenacious paralegal who won millions in compensation for people whose water supply was poisoned by an American corporation. Brockovich won Roberts her first Oscar seven years ago, and Herring, with perceptible parallels, could win her a second, albeit in the supporting category. Like Brockovich, Herring is so colourful that she seems at first to be the creation of a screenwriter's fertile imagination, but is anything but. Instead, she used her money, connections and wiles to further her idealistic aims, of which aiding Afghanistan's mujahedin in their fight against the invading Soviet Union was merely one.
She's not the first Southerner that Roberts has played the first, auspiciously perhaps, garnered her Oscar nod number one in the best supporting category for 1989's Steel Magnolias. But even Roberts, not a woman easily cowed, admits she was nervous about portraying this one. "That great big Houstonian way Joanne approaches things is a little intimidating to me. But I loved that she's so driven by her belief in fairness and justice and religion. She's a true Christian, and what I respect about her is that she has strong beliefs and doesn't deviate from them. We don't see that a lot today."
What is Roberts passionate about then? "About cooking, but also just talking and sharing ideas over dinner. I don't feel that my views are incredibly necessary or interesting. Why should anybody give two shits what I think unless they are my friend or my neighbour?
Publicity has nonetheless
seeped out about Roberts' almost entirely green new home in Venice, California, a still hippie-ish beach suburb not known for its big stars. "That's different. It's to do with our mortality and all of us as a planet trying to rescue ourselves from what we've done. It's a little different from saying who I am going to vote for for president."
She credits her own awakening on the subject to becoming a parent. "Kids are perfect, and you think, 'How can I help sustain their state of bliss?'. Parenthood is a great catalyst for reflection and action. It sounds silly talking to you about composting, but it's something that is manageable in my household, along with three kids and running my house the best I can with 24 hours in a day."
Roberts to her credit appears not to have legions of nannies or live-in staff. "Yeah, it's a challenge. Three kids. I cannot believe I have three kids!"
That megawatt smile, which appears a mile wide on screen, is merely a likeable toothy grin in real life. Even her teeth seem to eschew all things too Hollywood these days, being unblemished rather than the translucent overbleached white so prevalent in young stars.
Roberts, her brother Eric and two sisters didn't grow up rich as her own children will. Does she think about simple privileges like not having to scrimp and save for her children's educations, the ruinous lot of most American parents?
"Of course. I think about my mum, 'How on earth did she manage?'. She never put those burdens on to us, although we knew that money was tight. I can't imagine what that worry must have been like for her, to have to think, 'Will I be able to get the groceries this week?'.
"We live a pretty quiet, normal life. My two three-year-olds, have never experienced anything out with me in the world where they are, like, 'What the hell is going on?'."
Does she even think, then, about such things as the possibility of another Academy Award nomination? "I should be so lucky," she says quietly, warmly, appreciatively.
'Charlie Wilson's War' opens on 11 JanuaryReuse content