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November 11, 2013

Natural Wonder: Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts has been stealing scenes for more than two decades, and this month is no different with an Oscar-worthy performance in the dark comedy August: Osage County. Here, she talks to friend, director, and collaborator Ryan Murphy about holding her own against Meryl Streep, the pleasures of being a grown-up, and the perils of social media.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Cedric Buchet

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The intensity Roberts shows in August: Osage County and, truth be told, in our upcoming HBO collaboration, The Normal Heart, in which she plays wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, is something that absolutely thrills me. I had bought the play from playwright Larry Kramer in 2010, and Brookner is one of the most ferocious advocate parts ever written in the history of theater. Roberts, the only one I really considered, spent months researching, and when she showed up, she knew everybody's lines. She had practiced in the wheelchair. She had even researched breathing patterns of people with polio. But I have told her over and over and over that my favorite thing about her considerable gift is when she channels her badass Erin Brockovichanger (the 2000 film for which she won the Best Actress Oscar). No one—and I mean no one—is better at conveying moral outrage and advocacy than Roberts. Her temples throb, the veins pop, she is entirely and stunningly alive.

She laughs when I tell her that, and also when I tell her repeatedly, "You need to work more, you're too good not to work," and then she'll say something charming about needing to be with her children, which is entirely understandable.

"The thing that struck me most about her," says Nicholson, who plays sister Ivy Weston in August, "is she's very grateful and proud of her career, but the thing she's most proud of now is really and truly her family. I would go into her trailer, and she would be sewing sleeping bags for Hazel's dolls. It's all about her family in such a beautiful way."

Maybe, just maybe, with the one-two punch of August and Normal (due out next spring) and with the kids getting older, Roberts is planning on working more. Tell her that, and what does she do? Laugh, of course. But then, this, about the Great Roles that are now coming her way: "I think the reason why I've been able to enjoy my career is that I always knew, for some reason—even when it was about getting a job to pay your bills and stuff—I always knew that it will surface, it will come. The things that are correct for me will come to me at the time that I am interested in them and have the capacity, the understanding, to do them. When I miss out on a part, I can be bummed I didn't get it, but then I see who got it, and I think, Oh, well."

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