January 5

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

The former Academy Award winners are getting Oscar buzz again for their roles in the adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

By Steven Rea
McClatchy Newspapers

NEW YORK — 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.

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Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston in “August: Osage County.”

Photos from The Weinstein Company

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Meryl Streep, seated, is ornery matriarch Violet Weston, presiding over an unhappy family reunion, and Julia Roberts is one of her three daughters.

movie preview

“AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY,” starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin and Dermot Mulroney. Directed by John Wells, scripted by Tracy Letts, based on his play. A Weinstein Co. release. Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material. Running time: 2:05

“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 in “August: Osage County” – literally going toe-to-toe in a living-room rumble with Meryl Streep – is not about to wallow in such doom. Wearing glasses and a beaming smile, the actress has taken a day to do interviews for her film, which has already opened in New York and Los Angeles, and goes into wide release Friday.

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 – Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham and Roberts and Streep – in its outstanding performance by a cast category, the Hollywood guild’s equivalent of a best picture honor.

Streep is Violet Weston in the John Wells-directed take on the 2007 play. She’s the malignant matriarch 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 and married but who finds herself in the grim throes of a breakup. (Her husband, McGregor’s Bill, has found another, younger, woman.) Barbara and Violet stare daggers at each other; it’s all contempt, and painful memories, between them.

“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, with her 17 Oscar nominations, her three Academy Awards, her legendary ability to transform, to inhabit a role.

“She’s amazing,” offers Roberts, who has three Oscar nominations and one win (for “Erin Brockovich”). “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. ... She makes you comfortable.”

Set in small-town Oklahoma – “in the middle of nowhere close to anywhere” as Roberts nicely puts it – “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 with one another, 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, who has ventured to dark places in a few of her films (“Sleeping With the Enemy,” “Closer,” the more tortured stages of the journey of self-discovery that was “Eat Pray Love”) but whose screen persona is generally sunny, saucy, plucky, resilient.

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