The 20 Million Dollar Woman

The first time you met her she was 21 and had a real mouth on her. She smoked. She swore. She kept grabbing your arm when she talked. You asked if she'd left Georgia because she wanted to be an actress, and she said, "Well, and I didn't want to stay in Smyrna and be a dental hygienist." It was the summer of 1989, in Manhattan. Julia Roberts had surfaced in the beguiling sleeper "Mystic Pizza." She'd just finished filming "Steel Magnolias," and was about to shoot a movie with the working title "Three Thousand." ("I'm so scared of it," she said. "I play a young prostitute.") Otherwise she was just looking for work. "I've gone through a phase of meeting people that haven't given me jobs," she said. "But some of them have written me notes--you know, 'It was nice to meet you, and I'm sorry it didn't work out.' And that makes me feel really good. I mean, I figure if they're going to write me a note they won't forget me. I have a big paranoia about people forgetting me." Soon the interview would end and Roberts would walk down Broadway, stopping to buy two bouquets of flowers--one for her boyfriend, Dylan McDermott, and one for you to take home to your girlfriend. For the moment, though, she sat in a cafe and waited endlessly for the check to arrive. Roberts swiveled her head around. "Our waitress has completely f---king ignored us."

Eleven years later, the check arrives after brunch at a restaurant near the Hudson River. Roberts, now 32, fights to pay. You forbid her, even when she brandishes a credit card with an American Airlines logo and pleads, "But I'll get the miles!" It doesn't matter anyway, because the waitress says the middle-aged couple at the next table would like to pay for Roberts's brunch. The actress lets them treat her and thanks them effusively. The man tells her, "You're terrific--just terrific--and you and Benjamin make a lovely couple." Then he shoots you a look: "Write her up good!" Outside, Roberts walks a few blocks with her sunglasses on, but it's getting dark, so she takes them off. A minute and a half later, two shaking young women stop to tell her oh-my-God how awesome she is. Roberts whispers to them sweetly. They chase her half a block, then stop and stand and just watch her go. On the way to her house, Roberts drags you into a lingerie shop and tries to persuade you to buy a nightgown for your wife for Valentine's Day. ("How about this one? Silk. Nice low back. Sexy, not raunchy. Whaddaya think?") Later she takes your arm and crosses Union Square. It's cold. The wind is really going. Roberts knows you were a bit disappointed by the interview over brunch--she's become exponentially more wary of reporters over the years, but we'll get to that--and now she's doing the full-on "Notting Hill" charm thing. Which works, frankly. "So at the expense of making this sound like a really strangely constructed date," she says, "do you want to see me again? Just checking. I didn't want to assume that you did. Or that you didn't. I mean, you don't have to."

It's been a long time since anyone could resist Julia Roberts. Three of her most recent movies--the spunky "My Best Friend's Wedding," the adorable "Notting Hill" and, let's not just kiss her ass here, the toweringly crappy "Runaway Bride"-- made a combined $1 billion or so worldwide. Last week Forbes named her "the most powerful celebrity on the planet" in its Celebrity 100 list. And Roberts recently became the first woman to ever get paid $20 million for a movie, when she signed on for Steven Soderbergh's terrific new film, "Erin Brockovich." (Even Meg Ryan and Jodie Foster are chasing her limo from a distance, each having reportedly made $15 million a picture.) "Brockovich" is what executive producer Carla Santos Shamberg, who launched the project at Jersey Films, likes to call " 'Rocky' in a miniskirt." It's the true story of a broke, gloriously foulmouthed single mom working a low-level job in a little California law firm. Erin discovers that the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric has contaminated the groundwater in Hinkley, a tiny town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Hundreds have since been struck by cancer, among other things, losing their breasts, their uteruses, their children. Erin and her boss, Ed Masry (played by Albert Finney), spark what turns into a record-setting $333 million settlement, and Erin never stops swearing or wearing a push-up bra. After an early test screening of "Brockovich," one audience member weighed in with the following: "The 100th time I saw Julia Roberts' breasts was too much. The first 99 were OK."

It's hard to imagine "Erin Brockovich" without Roberts's Roman-candle performance. All her charm is in evidence, as well as a surprising gravitas. People familiar with her salary negotiations say that Universal was reluctant to pay her $20 million, a figure that's become a benchmark for male superstars. Rumor has it that Roberts's agent, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, gently (or not so gently) pointed out an industry double standard. Actors like Adam Sandler and Leonardo DiCaprio were commanding $20 million after a single $100 million hit. Roberts had five. Both sides quickly got on the same page. "Julia earned it a long time ago, as far as I'm concerned," says Stacey Snider, who's the chairman of Universal Studios and who helped reignite Roberts's career by personally pitching her the script for "Best Friend's Wedding." "And I think the studio was actually applauded for doing something that was deserved. It's not like people are saying that giving Julia Roberts $20 million is like curing cancer. All we did was confirm that there shouldn't be a gender bias." Because Roberts was so well liked by the "Brockovich" team--"Oh, God, the crew would hurl themselves in front of subway cars for her," says Soderbergh--the worst her salary elicited was an admiring disbelief. "Julia was on the set 10 weeks," says a source. "I kept thinking, 'This girl is getting $400,000 today!' "

Roberts's career is having such an astonishing heat wave right now that it's difficult to imagine there was a time when Hollywood was ambivalent about her. She became a superstar in "Pretty Woman," but for a couple of years in the early '90s she declined to star in a movie. Roberts returned with the $100 million hit "The Pelican Brief." Then she went years without making a smash--or an unequivocally good flick. "She didn't want to work that much, and there was all that romantic stuff," says a Hollywood executive. "After her relationships with Kiefer Sutherland and with Patric--what was his name?--Jason Patric, there was this sense that she wasn't our darling anymore. Whenever a star with a huge persona stumbles, the studios step back and watch very carefully. It's the same way with Leonardo right now, with 'The Beach' and the nightclubs and the partying. Sometimes it's a case of someone just not wanting to be famous. I think there was a jury's-out feeling about Julia. People were thinking, 'Maybe she'll be our movie star again--or maybe she just doesn't want to do it'."

You ask Roberts about those years before "Pelican Brief," when she was 23 and people were saying she'd fall off the A list if she didn't make a movie fast. Did she feel a lot of pressure? "No," she says. "Not at all." Which, being cynical, you write off as b.s. But if she didn't make movies, she wouldn't have hits and... "And what? Would I vaporize? Hopefully, 20 years from now I can stand really confidently by my career and know that I made all the decisions by myself--that I didn't get feared into anything." You ask Roberts if she got nervous when movies like "Mary Reilly" tanked. You want her to admit to some tiny heart murmur of anxiety. She doesn't. "Every time a movie of mine does well, I consider it a blessing. You've got to. Otherwise you're just asking to be terrorized by the numbers, and I just won't be. I just won't. Math was scary enough in high school."

Friends of Roberts's confirm that she has a lot fewer issues than you'd expect--especially now that she's dating the erstwhile "Law & Order" star Benjamin Bratt, the mention of whose name causes her to blush and look away and makes the artery that runs vertically through her forehead bulge like it's responding to an experimental drug. "I'm far more neurotic than she is," says Richard Dean, a close friend since he did Roberts's makeup on "Sleeping With the Enemy." "I consider her the Anti-Neurotic." In general, people talk about Roberts in a comic torrent of praise. Here's a medley of effusions drawn from a dozen interviews: "She comes to the set every day bright and alive--and she ain't hard on the eyes... She has a kind of incredibly humane directness... She loves to knit... She cooks Thanksgiving dinner all by herself. She gets up, makes the pies. She doesn't really like to have people help in the kitchen... For many years, she's written poetry. She has a really powerful sensory ability... She's one of the few superstars who've never done a TV commercial in Japan... She's an adventurer. She's somebody wild with curiosity. She's like a modern-day explorer!"

At Soderbergh's request, Roberts met the real Erin Brockovich only in passing--they shook hands in the makeup room when Brockovich came to shoot a cameo as a waitress--but the actress has captured her essence. One morning Brockovich and Masry, her boss, sit in the conference room at their law firm outside Los Angeles. They are great friends. They begin swearing almost immediately. "When I heard Julia Roberts was gonna play Erin," says Masry, 67, "I thought, 'This movie is going to be a disaster.' I couldn't imagine Julia Roberts saying 'blow job' and 'f--k.' She's like the Virgin Mary! When I saw the movie I was literally stunned. The only difference between Julia and Erin is that Erin wore her skirts shorter." Brockovich, 39, laughs. "My bras didn't hang out, though," she says. Masry nods. "No, the bras didn't hang out, but some of the girls in the office were really aggravated."

The tension between glammed-up Erin and her colleagues punctuates Soderbergh's movie. Now Brockovich talks about the time a woman "lost" her paycheck--"I said, 'You lost my f--king check?' "--and about the time staffers literally measured her skirt to prove it violated an ancient office memorandum and demanded that she be fired. "For years, I would come in on holidays and everybody's office would be decorated but mine," she says. "Sometimes I would cry. They made me feel very, very bad. I wasn't born a bitch. I learned to become one."

When you finally ask Erin Brockovich the most obvious question in the world--what's it like to watch a movie called "Erin Brockovich"?--you get the sense there are dozens of answers. She's thrilled that the plaintiffs' story is being told. But she gets wistful because two of her own children have gone through some heartbreaking stuff since the years that the movie depicts. "It's a million things," she says. "An absent mom, a divorced family, drugs. But now they're getting on the right track." Brockovich says the movie has made for only a handful of surreal moments. One time her 8-year-old, Elizabeth, was on a tram ride at Universal Studios with some friends, saw her mom's name on a poster and shouted, "That's my mommy!" You suggest that Universal make an Erin Brockovich ride for its theme park. You ask Brockovich what it would be like. "A nightmare. It would be one long roller coaster: up and down, and up and down, and up and down." Masry throws his head back and laughs: "I wouldn't get on it!"

At heart, Roberts seems as earthy as Brockovich. Still, she's become so careful with the press, so reluctant to give ground, that interviewing her can be like driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The second day you see the actress, she greets you warmly in her office and says drolly, "I feel no dread when I have to see you." You tell Roberts that she can talk about anything she wants. You ask her to pick a "Jeopardy!" category: career, family or love. She laughs a little, a very little, and says, "Asia for 500, please." Instead you bring up a few touchy subjects, and she answers cautiously. Yes, it's true that she and her brother, Eric, have been estranged for years. Yes, her divorce from Lyle Lovett was painful, but they're friends now: "There was certainly a period of grief. But people always view getting divorced as this great failure, this blight on their lives, and there were just too many positive aspects to our relationship to let it turn into something doomed and regretted." She warned you back in 1989. "I'm not big on regrets," she'd said. "I'm a real fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of gal."

Roberts--who just signed on to make a small-budget caper movie, "The Mexican," with Brad Pitt--talks a while and loosens up. Soon she's turning the tape recorder off every so often to tell funny, scandalous stories. (You hoot when she calls somebody "a whorebag," and she quickly covers her mouth.) Roberts has a wonderfully feisty and combative streak, so you bait her about random stuff just to try and get a rise out of her. You insist she's never been dumped in her life. "F--k, yes!" You insist she's never been insecure about her looks. "What--I'm in a movie called 'Pretty Woman,' so now I can never think I'm unattractive?" You insist that she's never had to do jury duty, never had to wait for a table... She smiles in disbelief. "What I wouldn't give for you to be me for a day, and feel the cold-water shock of perspective. You think it's all dreamy and levitating. You think they carry me on a throne down Fifth Avenue!" You tell Roberts that if you were her for a day, the only person who'd be in for a cold-water shock would be Benjamin. This gets a big laugh, and that artery in her forehead starts jumping.

Roberts softens now. She says that even in relationships she used to demand a lot of time to herself. "Now that all goes to s--t. He left town yesterday, and I've been on the phone six times going, 'Whatcha doin'?' " This morning she said something that made him laugh in this very specific way that she loves. "It's carried me through the entire day." We all know the feeling. There's been a great many times when her laughter has carried us through ours.

GETTING PERSONAL: Just hearing her beau's name makers her beam. 'I've been on the phone six times today, going, "Watcha doin'?"'

ON THE SCREEN: Salary-wise, even Meg and Jodie are chasing Julia's limo from a distance, each having made only $15 million a movie.