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Julia Roberts rules the screen

Published Aug. 7, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

A chunky diamond solitaire rides Julia Roberts' slender finger. "It's a love ring," the star of the hit Pretty Woman says, being very careful not to call it an engagement ring. "This was a gift to me. It came to me with no questions, no statements. I thought it was a pretty nice present."

The ring was given to her by actor Kiefer Sutherland, the leading man in her life and her co-star in the upcoming Flatliners, which opens nationwide Friday. They have been together for "some time," she says.

But when asked if there is marriage in her plans, she remarks: "Why fix it if it's not broken?"

That's about as revealing as Roberts is willing to get. If this were the 1920s, she would be characterized as sweetly coy. In the '90s it's more archly equivocal.

Roberts is dressed in a pale yellow flowered summer dress with a sash tied in the back. She looks pale, thinner than she seems on the screen, and has just had her chestnut hair cut.

She concedes her hair has been every color in the book, and when she is pressed about a subject she doesn't want to discuss, she volunteers: "Why don't we talk about my hair?"

Roberts still has to get used to her newfound fame and the sudden attention showered on her since she gasped her last breath in the movie Steel Magnolias.

Just two years ago she starred in the little female-targeted Mystic Pizza. She followed that up with the role of Sally Field's dying diabetic daughter in Steel Magnolias, earning a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination.

"I didn't win," she says. "But I was there. I had the dress."

Roberts, who has been working for the past four months in Spartanburg, S.C., has been away from the hoopla that developed after she and Richard Gere hit pay dirt with Pretty Woman.

"It was a nice surprise," she says. "You never know. We were doing the big "winging it' thing on that movie, so there were a lot of times when I didn't have dialogue and they said, "Just be funny.' So a lot of it was spontaneous and improvised."

She liked her character in Pretty Woman because she was so full of energy, Roberts says, leaning her bony elbows on the oak table at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

"I hadn't played this character before or after, and this was the part I played after playing in Steel Magnolias, and that (change) couldn't have been more drastic. I don't think I was consciously looking for an extreme, but at the same time, it was a nice kind of relief _ not to die or be sick."

She says she's pleased people like the film, which is still a big box office ticket in many cities. "Everybody kind of loves love and loves romance. And everybody likes to be swept off their feet. And anybody who says they don't, doesn't call their mother."

When she was making Steel Magnolias, Roberts says, she became closest to Shirley MacLaine and Field.

"I keep the closest contact with Sally now. And Shirley I talk with every so often. I think Shirley helped me on a life level, not some weird voodoo level. She's really great. People think she spews all this spiritual stuff, but she doesn't. You find yourself dying to ask questions about all this stuff. She's very well-spoken and she had a great way of simplifying the most dramatic crisis _ down to, "This is what this is, so fix it or f--- it.' That's Shirley's philosophy."

Field was more like a friend and a mother, Roberts says. "We had the most scenes together, so she was the one who was really there for me. I owe Sally a lot. She's a very dear friend of mine."

Roberts says she doesn't examine the implications of her swift success. "I'm just real grateful, and I think when I read a script _ like when I read Flatliners _ I know I have the feeling I can now lend something to it _ that I can now make the words move around.

"I think the recognition I've gotten has given me the ability to say, "You can do this, Julia. You don't have to be scared of it.' But also fear is a good element. Because it gets you up and gets you going."

But she does have a healthy skepticism about the attention she's attracting. She admits the sudden celebrity has included "a couple of bumps. But it was nothing I couldn't deal with."

There are two sides to notoriety, she thinks. "As much as it is nice to have people write nice things about you and like your work there's gonna be somebody around the corner who's going to stick it to you. So it's just a matter of checks and balances."

At 22 she is already a veteran of five motion pictures and an HBO movie, Baja Oklahoma (1988). She spent four years in New York looking for work, she says, but she doesn't want to talk about that.

She never wanted to be a movie star, Roberts insists. "I want to be an actor. That's what I am. That's what I do."

She probably couldn't have been anything else. Her mother and father were actor-writers and ran a workshop for fellow performer-writers.

Roberts is actor Eric Roberts' (Runaway Train) little sister. She has two sisters, one older and one younger. She grew up in Georgia, but there is no trace of a Southern accent when she talks. Eric, who is 12 years older than she, has not given her career advice, she insists.

"We talk about brother-and-sister things," she says. "And he's a great deal older than I am. When he had his struggling times, I was not really aware of it."

Her father died of cancer when she was 9. And that had a profound effect on her, she says. In Flatliners she plays one of a team of medical students who begin experimentation with near-death experiences. Her movie character is haunted by the same type of unfinished business Roberts had with her dead father. That hit close to home.

"I would rather have him here, but at the same time I can't deny that his death changed the course of my life. And at some point it has altered every philosophy, every thought I've ever had. It's unavoidable. It's all applicable."

Roberts just finished Sleeping with the Enemy, a film about an abused wife who plots her escape. "I keep getting parts that show me the horrors of the world," she says with a smile. Flatliners, which takes its characters over the precipice between life and death, made her think about mortality: "I think it makes you really appreciate things a lot and embrace the fact that we're given this life and we should do something with it."

In spite of the professional high Roberts is enjoying right now, a family and children are still important goals, she says. "People use terms like "family' as if they are so _ kind of light. And they're not. They're these extraordinary, wonderful happenings in our life that are so difficult to achieve.

"That's the stuff that's really important because movies come and go, they burn in a fire, people don't like them _ whatever. But a family, that's it. That's where it all starts and ends."

Luaine Lee is a free-lance writer living in Southern California.

1990 Luaine Lee. Distributed by Special Features/Syndication Sales

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