Profile: Pretty honest woman: Julia Roberts: The mega-volt smile is back in Britain. Phil Reeves says this time she'll finish the job

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The Independent Online
IF NOTHING else, you have to admire her gall. She could have fibbed. She could have dodged the issue. But when you are as powerful as Julia Roberts, why bother?

So when the Hollywood star sat down for a press conference in Pinewood Studios last week, she was perfectly honest about the amount of research she had done in preparation for her title role in Mary Reilly, which has just begun filming in Britain.

Very little. She had not read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the story by Robert Louis Stevenson upon which the film is based. In fact, she had not seen any of the film adaptations of the book - not even Fredric March's Oscar-winning 1932 performance in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - though she was working on an accent for her version, to be shot partly in Edinburgh.

'I am not a big research nut,' explained the 26-year-old star of Pretty Woman. ''I just sort of wing it, you know.' But she liked the script. 'It's really a sort of stomach ache I get when I read a script and want to do it,' she said. 'It started with a stomach ache and I still have it - it's like great monarch butterflies.' She also liked the people - who include John Malkovich, Glenn Close and the English director Stephen Frears. And, although she apparently didn't say as much, she no doubt liked the money. Her role as a Victorian housemaid will earn her a reported dollars 10m ( pounds 6.7m) in 10 weeks, a fee which reaffirms her position as the world's highest- paid female actor.

Julia Roberts' much-publicised return to English soil cannot have been easy. The British film industry has not yet forgotten how Shakespeare in Love stopped in its tracks after she abruptly quit her starring role in October 1992, leaving 200 production staff in the lurch. Although there were reports that she was peeved that Daniel Day-Lewis had not been secured to star alongside her, her reasons were never wholly clear.

Nor, it seems, has the tabloid press forgiven her. 'Julia Roberts turned from Pretty Woman to Potty Woman,' sniped the Sun last week, as it chastised her for giving garbled and evasive answers to questions about the state of her 11- month marriage to the Texan country singer, Lyle Lovett.

This time, she assured everyone, she would not walk out - 'unless I get fired'. There is good reason to believe that she is being sincere. For Mary Reilly is the latest stage in what she must hope will be the culminating triumph of her return after two years' absence from the screen.

Her re-emergence began at Christmas with her role in The Pelican Brief, a poor film based on a John Grisham thriller, but one which won her some critical acclaim. Later this month sees the US opening of I Love Trouble, a romantic comedy in which she stars with Nick Nolte. Then there is her lesser role in Pret-a-Porter, Robert Altman's send-up of the fashion industry in which she plays a drunken reporter.

Her self-imposed exile began in August 1991, not long after she had finished her role as Tinkerbell in Steven Spielberg's Hook. By all accounts, she was in a mess, exhausted by a long stretch of non- stop work. In June, she had broken up with Kiefer Sutherland four days before the couple were to be married at a lavish Hollywood wedding to which hundreds of glitterati had been invited. As the expensive wedding gifts were returned, Tinseltown began humming with rumours that the split was (a) because Kiefer was having an affair with a go-go dancer and (b) because she had taken up with the young actor Jason Patric, with whom she flew to Dublin immediately afterwards.

Moreover, her role in Hook had gone badly. Spielberg had hinted on television that he did not want to work with her again. Some of the film crew had dubbed her 'Tinker Hell' and privately accused her of being an insufferable prima donna and a whiner. For the first time since her ascension to celebrity status, her life was going badly wrong.

Yet none of this was very surprising, given the speed with which she had risen to fame and plunged into the extraordinary pressures of modern-day stardom. She had been nominated for a supporting actress's Oscar in 1989, for Steel Magnolias, and became a household name when Pretty Woman was released the following year. Her performance as a Hollywood hooker opposite Richard Gere won her another Oscar nomination, and helped earn more than dollars 200m for the Walt Disney Company.

Overnight she had proved that she had what Billy Wilder has called 'flesh impact' the ability to draw in an audience however good or bad a film is. At 23, she had won a place in the elite - and mainly male - club of top dollar earners alongside Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and Kevin Costner. She had also become a world-wide name and therefore a topic of interest for gossip columnists across the planet.

A FEW years earlier she had been like any other threadbare actress, pounding the New York streets searching for parts in television commercials. She didn't attend drama school, and had abandoned acting classes after concluding that the tutors were 'talking shit'. She made ends meet by working in a shoe shop. Her immediately outstanding assets were her looks, especially her startlingly wide, mega- volt grin.

Julia Roberts is a Southerner. She was bought up in Smyrna, a town on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, where she claims to have spent an ordinary childhood. Like many other kids, she hung around the shopping malls, played high school sports and got a holiday job making popcorn in a cinema. There were, however, several scarring experiences. Her parents separated when she was four. Five years later her father died of cancer, a loss which she has said 'altered every philosophy of life I've ever had'.

The family had a strong theatrical bent. During the Sixties, her parents ran an actors' and writers' workshop, before being forced by financial problems to find easier ways of making money. (Her father took to selling vacuum cleaners; her mother became a secretary.) Julia's elder brother, Eric, is a film actor with lead roles in Runaway Train - for which he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting role - and Star 80. Her sister, Lisa, also has aspirations, so far unfulfilled, to film stardom.

Eric is widely believed to have brought an end to Julia's 18-month struggle to find work in New York by helping her get her first movie role - in Peter Masterson's little- known 1988 thriller, Blood Red. Thereafter her career gathered momentum. She co-starred in the (dreary) teen comedy Satisfaction, featured in a forgotten cable televison film called Baja, Oklahoma, and caught the eye of a few critics with her performance in Mystic Pizza. As the film credits stacked up, so did her relationships. By the time she was living with Kiefer Sutherland, she had already been through liaisons with Liam Neeson and Dylan McDermott, her co-star in Steel Magnolias.

Despite her withdrawal from the Hollywood fray, Roberts has not been able to escape the headlines. Her marriage to Lyle Lovett holds a particular fascination for showbiz columnists and Beverly Hills gossips.

The union of a hauntingly beautiful woman and a country crooner described by one journalist as having a hair-do like a 'thatch of nuclear-irradiated alfalfa sprouts' has proved too much for them to take. It challenged the assumptions of a society in which appearances are all-important. So when Julia was spotted last month in New York hob-nobbing over a late-night bottle of champagne with the actor Ethan Hawke, tongues wagged with happy fury.

Maybe the tongue-wagging merely substitutes for hard information on the real Julia Roberts. It is commonly pointed out by her detractors that her success has been built on a narrow base - principally Pretty Woman and Steel Magnolias - and that many of her other films have been decidedly unimpressive.

Yet the highly respected director Robert Altman has described her as a 'very, very smart' actress who knows precisely what she is doing. 'If Julia played basketball, she'd be Michael Jordan,' he told this month's Vogue magazine. When she was studying her role in Pretty Woman, she spent hours talking to real-life prostitutes from Hollywood Boulevard.

In interviews, she comes across as a mite earnest, even though her comments are punctuated with energetic expletives. She prefers to be called an actor, rather than actress, and hates the word 'star'. She disapproves of nudity on screen. She doesn't own a car, does her own laundry and lives in what she refers to as a normal Manhattan apartment (she prefers New York to Los Angeles' claustrophobic movie world).

She claims to find her pay cheques ridiculously large although she is pleased to have struck a blow for female actors. She prefers ripped jeans, a leather jacket and cowboy boots to glamour-gear. Oh, and she believes that the press lies much of the time - but she doesn't bother to correct the stories, as that only adds grist to the mill.

She also has a sense of humour. This was demonstrated in an unusual incident on the set of Sleeping With the Enemy, described by her unauthorised biographer, Aileen Joyce, in Julia: The Untold Story of America's Pretty Woman. There was an all-night shoot in North Carolina. Roberts, who was playing an abused wife, was shivering and soaking wet in only an undershirt and a pair of knickers. She had an idea. 'Drop your trousers,' she told the crew, 'If you are not going to take (them) off, you can't stay in the house.'

Half the crew refused, and walked off the set. But the rest complied, and carried on filming, protected from the chill only by their underpants. 'It had nothing to do with acting, and everything to do with getting everybody as naked and cold as I was,' Roberts later remarked, with some glee. 'It was the bonding thing, you know.'

Now, as her comeback gets under way, she must bond with her fans anew. But perhaps comeback is the wrong word. 'I am not coming back from anywhere,' she told a recent interviewer, adding - with her customary Southern bluntness - 'I was waiting for a ******* good script.'

(Photograph omitted)