Julia Roberts was never a big podcast fan. It wasn’t until she listened to Homecoming by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg that she became an addict. “I hadn’t heard very many podcasts [when I started listening to Homecoming] and I certainly hadn’t heard one that consisted of one continuous storyline. I was very taken with it,” says Roberts, down the line from LA. Even from 12,000km away, you can hear the warmth in her voice and feel her trademark smile.
In the TV adaptation of the podcast by Amazon Prime, Roberts checks her smile to play Heidi Bergman, a single woman who is overcome with paranoia and haunted by resurfacing memories of her time as a caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center for returning war veterans. When a Department of Defense auditor tracks Heidi down four years after leaving the facility and starts asking questions about her work, she realises things were not as they seemed. Dun dun dun...
For someone who made a name for herself in the lighthearted rom-coms Pretty Woman, Notting Hill and My Best Friend’s Wedding, Roberts relished the opportunity to embrace her dark side and embody a complex character. “I do love this genre. I had forgotten how fun it was to read a good suspenseful thriller that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” she says. “Throughout the entire time, I felt excited to come to work on a regular basis to freak everybody out.”
It’s a skill America’s darling proves remarkably good at. Roberts is captivating in Homecoming, channelling both vulnerability and strength. For director Sam Esmail (of Mr. Robot acclaim) she was a natural choice for the lead role. “Heidi is such a complicated character. She comes from a morally and ethically grey area. She’s constantly being put into compromising positions. For someone to play that part, she really needed to have all these layers at the same time, to love the audience and let them have access to her. Only someone like Julia, with her level of craft, could do that,” says Esmail.
It’s been a big year for the 51-year-old icon; as well as fronting and producing Homecoming, she stars in the upcoming film Ben Is Back, playing the mum of a drug-addicted son. Roberts, who is the real-life mum to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, 14, and son Henry, 11 (with husband Danny Moder), tapped into her maternal instincts for Ben Is Back, as well as conducting extensive research into the tragic effects of drug addiction. “Sadly there was no shortage of material for me to investigate – drug addiction is so pervasive in American culture,” says Roberts. “I didn’t want to meet any mums. That just wasn’t how I wanted to do it. But I discovered that there are a lot of online forums and articles devoted very specifically to mothers and their plight with children with drug addiction problems.”
After 30 years in the industry, Roberts hasn’t lost any of her passion for her craft. What excites her after three decades and 54 films? “It’s my dream job. From the first day that I was ever on a set performing to the last day shooting on Homecoming, it’s a dream,” she says.
Right now, Roberts is taking a well-earned break from her first love. “I can’t learn any more lines for the next six months,” she says with an easy laugh. Instead, she’ll be bingeing her new favourite podcasts, including Serial, This American Life and “the one about how stuff works”.
'Homecoming' is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video and 'Ben Is Back' hits cinemas on January 31.
This article appeared in this month's February issue of Marie Claire. On sale now.