Screen legends

Julia Roberts grapples with Meryl Streep in ‘August: Osage County'

 Roberts (L) and Streep
Roberts (L) and Streep
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Julia Roberts has a line in August: Osage County, the all-star adaptation of the Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize winner, that sums up the cheery worldview on display in this dysfunctional family free-for-all.

“Thank God we can’t tell the future,” Roberts’ character, the oldest and seemingly most together of the three Weston sisters, sighs. “We’d never get out of bed.”

“That was really the one line of mine that just knocks you out,” Roberts says. “Because it’s so true, and it’s so heartbreaking. But you really can’t live in that thought … You just can’t.”

And Roberts, who delivers one of the strongest performances of her career — literally going toe-to-toe in a living-room rumble with Meryl Streep — is not about to wallow in such doom.

Roberts and Streep received best actress nominations for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards — Streep, for lead actress, Roberts for supporting. And SAG nominated the entire cast in its outstanding performance by a cast category.

Streep is matriarch Violet Weston, presiding over an unhappy family reunion. She pops pills, puffs cigarettes and has an unkind word for everybody. Oh yes, she has cancer, too. Roberts is Barbara, the daughter who’s moved away but who finds herself in the grim throes of a breakup. (Her husband has found another, younger, woman.) Barbara and Violet stare daggers at each other; it’s all contempt and painful memories.

“The whole time we were shooting,” says Roberts, “I just pictured Violet in this kind of crow’s nest on a boat, like she had this secret place where she could climb up and see everybody’s goings-on, all the conversations, and just collecting all that information to slaughter everybody with. … She’s vicious!”

Roberts says she was undaunted by the prospect of working with Streep.

“She’s amazing,” offers Roberts, no Oscar slouch herself. “But it’s not daunting to be in Meryl’s presence, to work with her, because she’s so inviting. She doesn’t hold you away to witness. She invites you into her orbit.

“It takes a little time to get your bearings when you’re that close to her all the time, but she really does everything that she can in a very authentic way.”

Set in small-town Oklahoma, August: Osage County is an actor’s marathon, a gabfest of finely tuned phrases. The actress says she and her castmates were constantly running lines, rehearsing, reconsidering their scenes.

“I would come home some nights with no voice from screaming all day,” she recalls. “But the amount of work we had was a saving grace, because you couldn’t really allow yourself to collapse into thinking how sad and mean it all really is.”

“Sad” and “mean” are not words that define Roberts, whose screen persona is generally sunny, saucy, plucky, resilient.

So wrapping her head around the character of Barbara, with her control issues, her coldness, her philosophy of dread, was harder than she anticipated.

“I think that, for me, at the center of all things is a true sense of optimism and happiness. And that just can’t be found in this circle of people. … So it was challenging to try to find who (Barbara) really is, as opposed to just saying, ‘Well, I'll go in there and I'll just start yelling and I'll yell all this stuff, and seem really mad.’ ”

Stephen Rea

Philadelphia Inquirer

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