Michelle Obama has nothing on Julia Roberts.
On the Monday after the Oscar ceremony, there was the elusive actress, in a fitted black blazer, jeans and rippling locks, with all the presence of a polished but approachable politician, pressing palms and personally greeting each member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – that idiosyncratic group that bestows the Golden Globes – in a conference room of the Four Seasons Hotel.
The line to speak with her was long, its denizens frequently shabby and odd and gushing, but Roberts did not flag, dutifully raining that glorious, improbable smile on every grateful scribe and posing for a memorializing photo.
Unlike her married peers (Brangelina or TomKat), Roberts and husband Danny Moder have maintained a distinctly more selective media presence, and the Oscar-winning actress has emerged from her cocoon only to discuss her new film, “Duplicity” – the first movie she has top-lined since 2003 – which opens today.
It’s a snarky romance-thriller about two former spies in the underhanded world of corporate espionage. She and Clive Owen – the two were last seen viciously battling on screen in 2004’s “Closer” – play charming scoundrels, madly in love but congenitally unable to trust. The film was written and directed by “Michael Clayton’s” Tony Gilroy.
What has preoccupied Roberts for the last few years has been motherhood, namely her children – Henry, 2, and Hazel and Phineas, 4.
“We move as this pack,” says Roberts. “This morning Danny got them ready while I got me ready. Load them up in the car, and here we come.”
At 41, Roberts is almost (miraculously) wrinkle-free, as if age and gravity have decided just to skip this one person. The skin is tawny, the hair blondish for the moment, the only seeming minute flaw an infinitesimally small mole under one eye – only really apparent on a 20-foot screen.
“Duplicity” keys off Roberts’ knowing confidence. There’s a memorable scene when her character saunters languorously down the streets of Rome in a knockout, form-fitting dress evocative of 1960s Italian cinema. All the time, she’s watched by Owen’s spy, a man she once seduced and abandoned.
“That dress took us the whole movie to find,” she says. “There was a look that Tony was going for. This movie has great style, just a real cool sense of itself. We as a country and culture have gotten sort of sloppy. I love the idea of cleaning it up and buttoning it up and having a point of view visually, wardrobe-wise.”
“Duplicity” evinces a kind of genteel cynicism that runs through many of her recent films – with the hipster heisters in the “Ocean’s” films, the brutal, adulterous lovers of “Closer” and most recently the carousing congressman in “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
Films are “how I explore what I don’t want out of my life in a safe place,” Roberts says.
While contemporaries like Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker are still looking for love in movies, Roberts says: “I can’t play those parts anymore. … It just doesn’t work for me at 41, with three kids and happily married. It doesn’t hold the same interest that it did for me once upon a time.”
It was Mike Nichols who initially paired Roberts with Owen in “Closer.”
“She and Clive. … They pick up each other’s rhythms and set up a rhythm together,” he says. “They are made to play together.”
Or, as Owen says, “Working with her … the dialogue feels buoyant and alive.”
In the years since she receded slightly from the limelight, no other actress has quite assumed her crown. Many – like Reese Witherspoon, Aniston and Angelina Jolie – are talented and popular, but they don’t dominate the box office, and the public imagination, in quite the same way.
And who knows if Roberts will return to working with a vengeance after her children have grown up some.
“Now I have more reason to stay home, but I’m always happy to work,” she says. “I don’t really avoid it.”
In the meantime, she pursues ambitious activities such as taking the entire brood to India for a couple of weeks, to visit her husband, a cinematographer, who was working there. How does one survive three toddlers on a plane for 32 hours?
“That’s where not watching a lot of TV or eating junk food comes in handy,” says Roberts with a laugh. Once in the air, she adds, “It’s an unlimited amount of snacks and Netflix.”