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When Roberts got the jump on Streep

“I wished I would have known the difference between good manners and still maintaining what I felt personally belonged to me. . .” said Julia Roberts, on advice she would give her younger self.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

“I wished I would have known the difference between good manners and still maintaining what I felt personally belonged to me. . .” said Julia Roberts, on advice she would give her younger self.

Mom’s a drug addict, dad’s a drunk, and Julia Roberts agrees it’s the “feel good” movie of the year: “It kinda does make you feel good when you go home to your own family, right?”

We’re laughing. The Oscar-winning actress is packing serious movie-star wattage and a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in one of the most demanding roles she’s ever played, opposite some of the finest actors in the business, in “August: Osage County,” which opens in the Boston area on Friday. The movie is based on Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play of the same name, about an ultra dysfunctional Midwestern clan that gathers at the homestead due to a family crisis. Roberts plays the angry, frustrated eldest of three daughters to Meryl Streep’s drug-addled mother.

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“I had seen the play, and it was a knockout,” Roberts says. And I got the call about the play being turned into a movie and Meryl Streep playing the mother. I mean, what’s not to be totally like, ‘What? Yes.’ ” She laughs, recalling her eagerness. “ ‘I’ll do it. I mean, you want me to read it? OK, I’ll read it. I’ll do it.’ ”

The radiant 46-year-old superstar is sitting before me in an elegant New York hotel suite wearing black leather pants, killer high heels, and large dark-rimmed glasses, her hair long and voluptuously waved. I haven’t interviewed Roberts in years and am taken aback by the blast of warmth and energy. She has at times been abrupt, impatient with the whole dehumanizing process of running reporters on junkets through hotel rooms. The smile is still blinding, but I can see clearly there’s a change in the air. Roberts seems both softer and sharper — in person and on screen.

“We’ve always known her as wonderfully talented, but something of America’s sweetheart. . . . She’s wonderfully terrifying in the film,” says the film’s director, John Wells. Roberts and Wells met through mutual friend George Clooney, the movie’s co-producer as well as Roberts’s costar on “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve” and Wells’s pal ever since he directed Clooney on the hit TV series “ER.”

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“She was very committed to the whole idea of playing a woman who’s 45-46 years old . . . whose husband has left her to have an affair with someone else,” the director says. “She wore very, very little makeup, we didn’t do anything with her hair, didn’t do anything to especially light her, and the costumes are not complimentary. She was able to bring out that anger, that bitterness, that frustration. . . . I hadn’t really seen Julia being prepared to be that ugly on screen before. It’s a very brave performance.”

Watching “August: Osage County” is like watching the acting Olympics. Alongside Roberts and Streep are Oscar winner Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Margo Martindale, and Medford’s own Julianne Nicholson, currently on TV’s “Masters of Sex” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Here Nicholson plays Ivy, the middle sister, and shares an explosive scene with Roberts and Streep.

Nicholson says she was not prepared for Roberts’s “unending generosity, her optimism and non-jadedness for someone so successful. . . . To be welcomed into that group of actors was just phenomenal.”

“First of all, we’re all a bunch of hams,” says Roberts. “You put a bunch of actors around a table for four days? Loopy and funny — because you earn that, in between all this building, explosive tension.”

That tension gives way at the climax of the movie’s pivotal set piece, during which Nicholson says they were “all on high alert.” During the scene, Roberts’s Barbara lashes out at Streep’s Violet, who has been viciously baiting everyone during a family dinner. Suddenly, Barbara lunges at her mother. Costar Cooper says that though they were all there watching, no one has “any idea how Julia got from one side of that table to the other with Margo [Martindale] in between Julia and Meryl!!”

The scene is a shocker — two titanic actresses brawling. It’s a violent, physical confrontation, and stunt doubles were standing by — which the director says Roberts and Streep both rejected. So how did Roberts find working with the uber-talented and hyper-prepared Streep?

“Just delicious. She’s so great, and she is game for anything,” Roberts says. “She’ll do it a thousand times if you want to do that. I could have jumped on her across that table all day long; she would never say if she was hurt. She’s just committed to . . . making sure everybody feels that they have fully accomplished their intentions. She’s awesome.”

In fact, Streep suggested that all the actors live together during rehearsals; they did, often sharing potluck dinners. According to Roberts, they were “constantly congregating after work to rehearse.” The results paid off onscreen in a role that required Roberts to go deep.

“I didn’t find a lot of commonality with this character . . . her frustration, her fury,” she says. “The more I looked into how to excavate her, the more complicated and difficult it all became. It was very hard work. And I didn’t do it for it to be easy — but I didn’t realize it would be quite so difficult.”

It’s not as though the actress hasn’t been up for a challenge. Her talent was acknowledged almost immediately out of the gate: an Oscar nomination for 1989’s “Steel Magnolias” and the blazing global stardom following the release of 1990’s “Pretty Woman.” Over the next decade we’d see her in a smorgasbord of roles, from an abused wife (“Sleeping With the Enemy”) to Tinkerbell (“Hook”) and an Irish housemaid (“Mary Reilly”); in romantic comedies, thrillers, historical dramas, and a musical; and directed by, among others, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, and Steven Soderbergh. She crowned that stretch with a best-actress Oscar for her performance as a one-woman crusade against toxic waste in Soderbergh’s 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.”

The next years would find her branching out again: in a fairy tale playing the wicked queen in “Mirror Mirror,” earning some withering reviews for her first role on Broadway in “Three Days of Rain,” voicing the woebegone spider in “Charlotte’s Web,” and trotting the globe as the voice of a generation of self-actualizing women in “Eat Pray Love.”

Along the way she met her second husband, Danny Moder, a cameraman on the set of “The Mexican” with whom she now has three children — two boys and a girl — and a very private life that includes some serious knitting and horseback riding.

I’m curious about where the boundaries are, what of her public self and which of her movies does she want her kids, especially her daughter, Hazel, to see.

Julia Roberts with Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County.”

Claire Folger

Roberts with Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County.”

“I would like her to see all of them at some point!” Roberts says. “But movies I look forward to seeing with her? ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ — I think that will be a gas to watch together, and she has a wicked sense of humor. ‘Mystic Pizza’ — really a sweet movie about three nice, independent girls looking for their place in the world.”

My mind reels back to the young woman I first interviewed all those years ago, before “Pretty Woman.” I had never witnessed such a buzz around anyone before, someone who wasn’t quite “someone” yet. There were people rushing around her, speaking in hushed tones, as though they knew who she would become before she did. I will never forget the layers of doors I had to walk through to get to the room where she sat, how nervous she seemed, how flawless her skin, the tiny mole under one eye that one director reportedly wanted her to remove. She didn’t.

I ask Roberts now what advice she would give her younger self, and she hesitates, saying she doesn’t want to give anyone advice, not even her niece, Emma Roberts — the young star of “Nancy Drew,” “We’re the Millers,” and TV’s “Family Guy.”

“She doesn’t need my advice. I give her dinner, and good hugs, and sleepovers,” Roberts says. “I couldn’t advise anybody now. . . . I don’t know what it would be like to be 20 and acting in the Internet age.”

But I press her, and Roberts finally says, “I wished I would have known the difference between good manners and still maintaining what I felt personally belonged to me . . . that I didn’t have to just be nice and answer everybody’s questions.”

And then I realize that the aforementioned abruptness, which has earned her a reputation among members of the press as an occasionally prickly personality over the years, was a young woman navigating her boundaries in the face of intense scrutiny.

“I’m a very happy, optimistic person . . . I go to sleep at night and I just feel like. . . ” — she acts it out in front of me, closing her eyes and breathing deeply — “Everything’s good. I don’t think [Barbara, her character in “August: Osage County”] has ever gone to sleep feeling that way.”

I try to draw her out a little more, but she sits composed. It’s clear: Time’s up. I stand to leave and wish her well in junket hell. She smiles and says she’ll make the best of it, and as she reaches out to warmly wish me a great holiday, it’s also clear that Julia Roberts — family and professional life fiercely intact — long ago took her own advice.

Joyce Kulhawik can be reached at Joyce@JoycesChoices.com
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