Five years after leaving her hometown of Smyrna, in Cobb County, to begin an acting career, Georgia native Julia Roberts achieved international celebrity with her starring role in the 1990 film Pretty Woman. Today an established Hollywood icon, Roberts is an Academy Award winner, the owner of a production company, a philanthropist, and one of the highest-paid actresses in the film industry.
Family and Childhood
Julia Fiona Roberts was born in Atlanta on October 28, 1967, to Betty Lou Bredemus and Walter Grady Roberts. She belongs to the fourth generation of Robertses to live in the Atlanta area, beginning with her great-grandfather, John Pendleton Roberts, a farmer.
Her father took an early interest in the theater. While a student at Emory University in 1952, he acted in productions on campus and elsewhere in Atlanta. He joined the air force in 1953 and, while stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, was cast in a military production that included Betty Lou Bredemus, who was also in the air force. The two married in 1955, and their first child, Eric Anthony, was born in 1956.
In 1957 the couple left the air force, and Walter enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1960 the family moved to Decatur, Georgia, where Walter began working with Atlanta’s Academy Theater and the Harrington Scenic and Lighting Studio. In 1964 Walter and Betty Lou began production on a local Saturday morning children’s television show called Bum Bum and His Buddies, which they financed themselves. Later that year they founded the Actors and Writers Workshop, which ran for six years. During this time they had two more children—Lelisa (called Lisa) Billingsley in 1965 and Julia (called Julie) in 1967.
During its years of activity, the workshop was the only integrated theater company in Atlanta. The four children of civil rights activists Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. participated in the company’s classes and productions, and the Kings financially supported the enterprise. Their oldest child, Yolanda, performed the lead role in the workshop’s final production, The Owl and the Pussycat, in 1970.
Faced with mounting financial difficulties, the workshop closed in 1970, and the Robertses filed for divorce the following year. Julia moved with her mother and sister to Smyrna, while her father and brother continued to live in Atlanta. Both parents remarried, and in 1977 Roberts’s father died, after being diagnosed with throat cancer.
Although as a child Roberts hoped to become a veterinarian, as a teenager her interests began to shift, especially in light of her brother’s early successes as a professional actor. After her 1985 graduation from Campbell High School in Smyrna, Roberts joined her siblings in New York City, where Eric had lived since the mid-1970s. Her first role was a nonspeaking part in the film Firehouse (1987), followed by a small speaking part in the drama Blood Red (1989) alongside her brother.
Roberts soon landed her first major role, Daisy Arujo, in the independent film Mystic Pizza (1988), written by Atlanta native Alfred Uhry. Her next film, Steel Magnolias (1989), proved to be a significant critical and box-office success, especially for Roberts, who received a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress as well as an Academy Award nomination. In a 1990 interview, Roberts credited the other women in the cast, veteran performers Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Darryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, and Dolly Parton, with supporting and mentoring her.
During the 1990s Roberts became one of the most recognized Hollywood actresses, and her swift rise to fame began with Pretty Woman (1990), a romantic comedy directed by Garry Marshall and costarring Richard Gere. Roberts’s winsome performance as the broke, wisecracking prostitute from Milledgeville helped the film earn more than $463 million worldwide. Once again Roberts was awarded the Golden Globe, this time for Best Actress, while receiving another Oscar nomination. Her performance in Pretty Woman established for moviegoers a particular persona, characterized by a huge smile, raucous laugh, expressive vulnerability, and sharp comic timing, with which Roberts continues to be associated.
The tremendous success of Pretty Woman was followed by the dramas Flatliners (1990), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), and Dying Young (1991). These films did moderately well at the box office, but her next film, director Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), met with a disappointing reception. Some critics questioned Roberts’s dramatic range in their reviews of these films, and her romantic liaisons with leading men began to generate negative publicity. Weary of the intense media scrutiny that accompanied her sudden celebrity, Roberts left the film industry for a couple of years. She made only one film appearance in 1992, a cameo role as herself in director Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire, The Player. She later played a more substantial role in Altman’s 1994 film, Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear).
Roberts returned to filmmaking with the 1993 adaptation of John Grisham’s novel The Pelican Brief, playing the part of a law student at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. That same year, Roberts married Texas musician Lyle Lovett; the couple divorced in 1995. Roberts continued to star in a string of dramatic films over the next few years, including Something to Talk About (1995), which was set and partially filmed in Savannah; Mary Reilly (1996), Roberts’s first major box-office failure; Michael Collins (1996); and Conspiracy Theory (1997). Although she also played comedic parts in the screwball comedy I Love Trouble (1994) and in writer-director Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Roberts did not return to the romantic-comedy genre that had made her famous until 1997.
Return to Comedy
Roberts’s return to form in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) resulted in the biggest box-office success for the actress since the release of Pretty Woman. Two more well-received romantic comedies, Notting Hill and Runaway Bride, followed in 1999. Roberts’s portrayal of two seemingly autobiographical characters—an international movie star in Notting Hill and a woman known for breaking off marriage engagements in Runaway Bride —garnered significant media attention. Runaway Bride also reunited Roberts with her Pretty Woman collaborators Richard Gere and Garry Marshall. While none of these three films individually earned the box office dollars of Pretty Woman, they collectively made approximately $1 billion worldwide, thereby confirming Roberts’s continuing popularity with audiences.
During this time, Roberts also launched her own production company, Shoelace Productions, which produced Stepmom (1998), starring Roberts and Susan Sarandon, and Maid in Manhattan (2002), starring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes.In 1999 Roberts appeared in the PBS special In the Wild: Orangutans with Julia Roberts, which was filmed in Borneo, and the following year she spent several weeks in Mongolia filming the special “Wild Horses of Mongolia with Julia Roberts” for the PBS series Nature.
A full decade after her emergence as one of the most popular and bankable stars in Hollywood, Roberts received the film industry’s highest accolade—an Academy Award—for her performance as the title character in Erin Brockovich (2000). Roberts was named Best Actress for her portrayal of a single mother and legal assistant who helps to convict a California power company of illegally dumping toxic waste, which poisons the residents of a small town. Directed by Atlanta native Steven Soderbergh, Erin Brockovich was based on a true story and allowed Roberts to capitalize on her proven combination of sass, vulnerability, and sex appeal in the context of a socially redeeming biopic. The result was a worldwide box office take of more than $256 million. Already the highest-paid actress in the industry at that time, Roberts received $20 million for her work in the film, becoming the first woman ever to reach this benchmark of success previously reserved for male actors.
In 2001 Roberts appeared in The Mexican, a crime caper costarring Brad Pitt. During filming she met cameraman Danny Moder, and the couple married in 2002. Over the next several years, Roberts starred in the comedy America’s Sweethearts (2001), produced by Shoelace Productions, and took smaller roles in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Full Frontal (2002), as well as in actor George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002). In 2003 her production company, renamed Red Om (“Moder” spelled backward), produced Mona Lisa Smile, in which Roberts plays an art history professor, and in 2004 she appeared in the critically acclaimed film Closer and in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, the sequel to Ocean’s Eleven.
In April 2006 Roberts made her Broadway debut in a limited run of playwright Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain.
In addition to her professional work, Roberts has promoted a number of charitable causes over the years, serving as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador to Haiti in 1995 and testifying before Congress on behalf of the International Rett Syndrome Association in 2002. Roberts also worked with Red Om on a series of television movies based on the popular American Girls book series, and in 2008 the film Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opened in theaters.
Roberts and her husband have three children: twins Phinnaeus Walter (named for her father) and Hazel Patricia, and Henry Daniel. The family lives in New York City and on a ranch in Taos, New Mexico.