Cover Story

Cooler Than You Think: Here's What We Know about Julia Roberts

Ten things about Hollywood's biggest and busiest actress

1. Julia Roberts does not look like Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts walks into the conference room of the New York division of ICM, a dash across the hall from the office of Elaine Goldsmith, her formidable agent and confidante. The terrain is appropriately antiseptic and neutral for one whose relationship with journalists is both calm and cautious. (She can deal with individuals; it's the species she's not sure about.) Roberts is carrying a jumbo cup of caffeinated iced coffee. She is wearing a flower-print dress over black tights, a stretchy black unitard, no makeup, and big, proudly ugly black shoes. Julia Roberts once sold sneakers at the Athlete's Foot on New York's Upper West Side, so this choice cannot be an accident. The woman knows footwear.

Her hair, the impermanent colors and styles of which have led her to label it ''mood hair,'' is short, straight, and duo-tone, dark brass at the ends and dark brown at the roots. She is tall (5'9''), and her skinniness — you can almost feel the ribs in her back — makes her look elongated. But she's not scrawny, and definitely not frail. At 26, on a brief break from looping dialogue for I Love Trouble (''It'sagreat technicalchallenge,'' she says between sips, ''becauseItalksodamnfast''), Julia Roberts does not look like a two-time Oscar nominee and the most powerful actress in Hollywood. She looks like an office intern. Even when she smiles and laughs, which she does often and easily, the smiles and laughs are human-size, not Pretty Woman-scale. Aside from her pro forma insistence that ''I'm just a girl like anybody else'' (yeah, right), there's an intelligence built into her dressed-down appearance, a New Yorky levelness and strength that is unexpected and disarming.

''I'm as tough as I need to be,'' she says. ''You know, my feelings can get hurt. If people jump out and attack me, I'll be scared. But I don't need to be treated like I'm fragile and exhausted all the time, and suffering, and having acute bouts of everything.'' As she talks, she runs her hands through her hair, as if she's curious about what it's looking like up there.

''If people want me to be fragile like a little china doll, then that's what they'll see,'' she adds, not sounding particularly concerned. ''It has increasingly little to do with me as an actual person.'' She takes a big swig of coffee and sits at the head of the table.

2. Julia Roberts likes to work. Really, she does. Sure, she took two years off after her planned marriage to Kiefer Sutherland stopped a few feet short of the altar and made no films (other than The Player) between 1991's Hook — in which her tethered-to-the-ceiling role as Tinkerbell was reportedly not a happy experience — and Pelican Brief. But, she says, ''everyone makes it sound as if I took this grand stand. I wish I was that noble and righteous. The fact is, there wasn't anything more interesting to me than my own life.''

Apparently, that has changed. It's hard to look at her packed schedule and not assume that she's making up for lost time. After completing Pelican Brief — which became her fourth movie to gross more than $100 million, a feat unmatched by any other lead actress — she jumped so quickly into I Love Trouble that when Brief went back for reshoots, she already looked different (check out her straight hair at the end of the film). From Trouble, an adventure in which she plays a reporter, she moved to a small comic role in Robert Altman's house-of-style collage Pret-a-Porter, again as a reporter. ''All I'm doing in it,'' she says, ''is being really silly and drunk with Tim Robbins.'' She'll spend the summer in England playing housemaid to John Malkovich's Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde) in the gothic Mary Reilly. ''A spooky, creepy love story-sort of like a Threesome,'' she says, laughing, ''but before.''

After that, she was planning to go to Australia for the outback adventure Tracks; other possibilities included playing patient to Susan Sarandon's analyst in the drama In a Country of Mothers, or acting in and coproducing a remake of The Women with Meg Ryan. But then she recently read Grace Under Pressure, a script by Thelma & Louise author Callie Khouri, about a woman stuck in a bad marriage; the screenplay zoomed onto the fast track when Roberts decided to make it her next project. Time off? Been there, done that.

''Even though when you write it down, it sounds like 'Jesus, where's the nap fit in here?' there is a flow to it,'' she says. ''I like what I do. If I can say, 'This'll be more exciting than two months off,' I'll do it. Even though I get the worst locations ever. Take the smallest town, the hottest time of year, put me in wool — I'm your girl.''

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