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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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About halfway through August: Osage County where Julia Roberts knocks Meryl Streep flat on her ass. It's an iconic moment in a soon-to-be-famous scene. The characters are gathered around the family table for a post-memorial meal and Barbara Weston, portrayed by Roberts, has had enough of her mother, Violet Weston, played with vicious, manic intensity by Streep. Finally, Barbara snaps, bounds out of her chair, and knocks Violet to the ground in an attempt to retrieve her addictive pills.

"I tell you, Meryl's strong!" recalls Roberts. "And I could not get the pills out of her hand. I'm just thankful I didn't hurt her." (The two later sent a photo of the scene to their mutual friend, director Mike Nichols, "for his birthday, with me choking her, like fighting over him. And of course," Roberts hoots with laughter, "Meryl found her light.")

The film, opening on Christmas Day, is director John Wells' adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize–winning play by the same name, a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family that reunites in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, for its patriarch's funeral. Besides the two powerhouse leads, the cast includes a constellation of acting talent: Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, and Abigail Breslin—not to mention George Clooney as a producer.

The brawling scene, which took three days to film (Roberts describes doing it as "no way out but through"), may have covered her in bruises from repeated bangings against the table, but it was nothing compared with The Fish Scene. "I think that was the hardest scene for me," she says softly. As someone who has known and adored Roberts for five years, since we set off around the world to make Eat Pray Love, I will tell you why that scene was the worst for her. Roberts, a mother of three, rarely swears. That's probably why my nickname for her is Lady. Make no mistake, she knows a good dirty joke, but she is very feminine, she raises her children with pleases and thank-yous, and it's rare to ever hear her talk about anything too vulgar or untoward. But in this scene, Roberts says—no joke—around 50 different instances of the word fuck. "Eat your fish … eat your fucking fish, bitch … eat your fucking fish, you fucking bitch." You get it. Roberts wasn't exactly comfortable, but she threw herself into it full force. "Meryl and I and Julianne went over it and over it. The dialogue was very challenging." So challenging—and literary—that the cast, who all lived in a row of condos on an Oklahoma cul-de-sac for nine weeks of filming, would meet at Streep's night after night for dinner to practice. And what does one bring to dinner at Meryl Streep's? "Soup or salad! We'd have potlucks." Roberts pauses. Regarding The Fish Scene, "There was just this obligation to get it exactly right."

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