In Julia Roberts's new film, Mirror Mirror, a modern-day retelling of the unsuitably old-fashioned story of Snow White, her evil queen character tries everything imaginable to stave off ageing: bird droppings, maggots, garra rufa fish, you name it. In real life, Roberts, 44, endorses a simpler solution: "Happiness and the love of a good man," she announces, leaning forward from a squishy Santa Monica hotel sofa to knock on the table. "My husband thinks I'm pretty, that feels good. My mum is still beautiful. I have all my teeth. So far so good. But really, one shouldn't linger too long in front of the mirror."
Roberts still looks like her very Pretty Woman self; long chestnut curls, face pliable, not very lined for her age but not suspiciously unlined either. She also credits "a lot of Lancôme" but no obsession with off-the-wall treatments. Kombucha mushroom tea has recently re-reared its head as a "magical" potion in Hollywood, alongside the even more unsavoury likes of cow placenta. "Cow placenta?" she repeats, incredulously. "Can you imagine going into Whole Foods, and saying, 'Do you have any cow placenta?'" And she throws her head back and laughs that iconic Julia Roberts laugh. "I love that the queen is so blatantly psychotically possessed by this idea in a time where people can really be so out of sync with what is truly beautiful about them."
These days, Roberts insists her life isn't all about Hollywood either. "I feel I have another profession other than acting. Acting has kind of become my favourite hobby, I'm a great domestic artist now." She and second husband, cameraman Danny Moder will celebrate 10 years of marriage in July. But they are spending an awful lot of time living at their more career-friendly Malibu oceanfront spread rather than their New Mexico home, and Roberts' slate is chock-a-block with both starring vehicles and projects she is producing. She's about to start a Hollywood production of Larry Kramer's acclaimed play about the incipient days of Aids, The Normal Heart, and after that will play Meryl Streep's daughter in another stage-to-screen adaptation, Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County. Jesus Henry Christ starring Toni Collette and Michael Sheen, on which Roberts was executive producer, is released in the US next month. As a producer, she has another seven projects in development, and is scheduled to star in none of them.
If Mirror Mirror appears a calculated casting-against-type effort on her part, it was not intended as such. Roberts simply confesses to a professional crush on Tarsem Singh, famous as the Hollywood visionary behind artistically sculpted outings like Immortals and The Fall rather than funny, at times quite facetious "family" outings like Mirror Mirror. He saw no one else but Roberts in the role. She saw no artistic appeal especially in playing evil. "To me, everything has its challenges – being funny, being nice, being mean. It's all the same on the day. You are trying to do it the best that you can because it's going to last forever." Her children, twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, seven and Henry, four, haven't seen the film. "They are a little young for that still, but I think there will be a day where they probably will think it's quite amusing."
Viewing of any description isn't particularly big in the Roberts household, but book reading is, fairy tales included, with gory bits excised. "Look at Rapunzel. That story is so savage. The prince falls out of the tower, and his eyes get gouged out. I read that story to my kids one night and well, very quickly it becomes The End and, 'That was a short one!' We call it parental editing."
As unthreatening as Roberts is in person, today, it's easy to imagine a young actress like Lily Collins, 23, being overawed to have her as "stepmum". "I just gave her a huge hug when we met," says Roberts, "and that was done with." Or not. "She was so amazing to everyone," reports Collins, clearly still overawed. "She treated everyone just the same. It was all about being part of this team. The other thing that struck me was even at work, she's a mum first. Her kids are so well-behaved and sweet and that's all a testament to Julia and Danny."
So what does bring out the "evil" in Roberts? "People who are late and people who are stupid. That's a terrible thing to say, I know. And if you show up late with a really stupid excuse." And her own imperfections? "I'm sure I have hundreds, but to advertise them would really kind of put me in a bad position. What I will say is I'm never late."
Things one might imagine would keep Roberts up at night – the image of showbusiness as dog-eat-dog for example – do not concern her. "I'm so not competitive, I never have been really. I think that there's a place and part for everybody. I have never felt that aggression towards anybody younger, or anybody my age doing something else. It's just not part of my DNA I don't think. I believe the parts we play are part of the sort of destiny of ourselves as actors."
'Mirror Mirror' opens on 2 April