Arts

When George Clooney Met Julia Roberts (Don’t Believe the Reports)

Julia Roberts began the interview with a question: “Is George causing problems already?”

Her friend and frequent co-star George Clooney had preceded Roberts on our video call, dialing in from the Provence estate he shares with his wife, Amal. But the room he was sitting in was so streaked with sunlight that Clooney could barely be glimpsed amid all the lens flares, and as Roberts joined us, he was pulling patterned window curtains shut to no avail.

“Are you trying to show how outer your inner radiance is with this flare?” Roberts said.

Clooney peered at her Zoom thumbnail. “You’re one to talk with that soft lens,” he cracked.

“I have a 25-year-old computer!” Roberts said.

Rat-a-tat teasing is how Roberts and Clooney prefer to communicate: “It’s our natural rhythm of joyful noise,” she said. Their rapport has sustained a big-screen partnership spanning several films, from “Ocean’s Eleven” in 2001 to their newest entry, the romantic comedy “Ticket to Paradise” (Oct. 21), which casts them as warring exes who reunite to stop the surprise wedding of their daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) to a seaweed farmer (Maxime Bouttier) she met during a graduation trip to Bali. As her divorced parents team up, their old spark is rekindled; by the end of the movie, they’ve gone from exes to something like XO.

When I spoke to Roberts and Clooney in late August, no light was streaming through Roberts’s bay windows at all: It was only 6 in the morning in San Francisco, where Roberts and her husband, Danny Moder, live with their three teenage children. Roberts had requested the early start so that she could send the kids off to school after the interview, and she noted that she was no stranger to early rising: For one sunrise scene in “Ticket to Paradise,” she had a 3 a.m. call time, the earliest she’s ever had to report to set in her career.

“I had to get there at 1 a.m.,” Clooney joked, “because of the work they do on my face beforehand.”

“All the taping and spackle,” Roberts said, letting loose her famous laugh.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

When you read “Ticket to Paradise,” did you each have the other in mind?

GEORGE CLOONEY They sent me the script, and it was clearly written for Julia and I. In fact, the characters’ names were originally Georgia and Julian. I hadn’t really done a romantic comedy since “One Fine Day” [1996] — I haven’t succeeded like Julia has in that forum — but I read it and thought, “Well, if Jules is up for it, I think this could be fun.”

JULIA ROBERTS It somehow only made sense with George, just based on our chemistry. We have a friendship that people are aware of, and we’re going into it as this divorced couple. Half of America probably thinks we are divorced, so we have that going for us.

CLOONEY We should be divorced because I’m married now, so that would be really bad. Just saying.

ROBERTS Also, George and I felt a lot of happy responsibility in wanting to make a comedy together, to give people a holiday from life after the world had gone through a really hard time. It’s like when you’re walking down the sidewalk and it’s cold outside and you get to that nice patch of sun that touches your back and you go, “Oh, yeah. This is exactly what I needed to feel.”

Clooney and Roberts in a scene from the film, which was essentially written for them. The characters were initially called Georgia and Julian.Credit…Vince Valitutti/Universal Pictures

Is it true that the two of you had never met before “Ocean’s Eleven”?

ROBERTS The funny thing about meeting George was that in the press, people had already pegged us as pals. I’d read about going to a party at George’s, and I thought, “Well, I have to meet this guy at some point because he sounds like a great time.”

CLOONEY I’m fun, man!

ROBERTS There’s some alchemy about us that you can sense from a distance, I think.

CLOONEY I’ve always been drawn to Julia, for a lot of reasons. One of them is that she has forever been a proper movie star but she’s totally willing to not take herself seriously, and that makes such a difference in life because we’ve spent a lot of time together. She’s also a really gifted actress. She works really hard but you never see her sweat, and it’s the quality I appreciate most in my favorite actors, like Spencer Tracy.

Julia, you’re an executive producer of the film alongside George, and you obviously have extensive experience in romantic comedies. What point of view do you bring as a veteran of the genre?

ROBERTS This is a genre that I love to participate in and watch, and I think they are hard to get right. There is a really simple math to it, but how do you make it special? How do you keep people interested when you can kind of predict what is coming?

Has Hollywood had trouble answering those questions? There are way fewer romantic comedies than there used to be, and you’ve said that “Ticket to Paradise” was the first rom-com script since “Notting Hill” (1999) and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997) that you really sparked to.

ROBERTS I think we didn’t appreciate the bumper crop of romantic comedies that we had then. You don’t see all the effort and puppet strings because it’s fun and sweet and people are laughing and kissing and being mischievous. Also, I think it’s different to be reading those scripts at 54 years old. I can’t read a story like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” where I’m falling off a chair and all these things because — —

CLOONEY You’d break a hip.

ROBERTS I’d break a hip! Oh, George. But it was nice to read something that was age-appropriate, where the jokes made sense, and I appreciated and understood what these people were going through. That’s what people want to see, your connection to a piece of work. They want to see the heart space that you have for it — not just, “Oh, do something funny because we love that.”

But funny is still important. There’s a scene in “Ticket to Paradise” where your characters drunkenly dance to the song “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” embarrassing their daughter and her friends. Was that choreographed for maximum mortification, or did you just wing it?

ROBERTS People always want to choreograph it, but you can’t put steps to it. You have to just open the box and let the magic fly.

CLOONEY I remember early on in my career, I had to do a kissing scene with this girl and the director goes, “Not like that.” And I was like, “Dude, that’s my move! That’s what I do in real life!” It was sort of that same way here, because everyone had plans for how we should dance, and then we were like, “Well, actually we’ve got some really bad dance moves in real life.” Julia and I have done all those moves before, that’s the sickest part.

ROBERTS Oh, all around the world.

CLOONEY And Kaitlyn and Max were actually horrified, weren’t they?

ROBERTS It was hysterical, they were speechless. If Danny and I were doing that in front of our kids, they would be like, “Yeah, dig me a hole, I’m out of here.”

Billie Lourd, left, Kaitlyn Dever, Maxime Bouttier, Clooney and Roberts in the film.Credit…Vince Valitutti/Universal Pictures

George, I haven’t moved on from that anecdote of the director criticizing how you kiss. I don’t know how you ever recovered.

CLOONEY And we kiss in this. But I don’t want give the whole shop away.

It’s a romantic comedy. I think audiences are expecting a kiss.

ROBERTS One kiss. And we did it for, like, six months.

CLOONEY Yeah. I told my wife, “It took 80 takes.” She was like, “What the hell?”

ROBERTS It took 79 takes of us laughing and then the one take of us kissing.

CLOONEY Well, we had to get it right.

You filmed the movie in Australia, right?

CLOONEY We started in Hamilton Island, with all these wild birds, and Julia had the house down just below Amal and me and the kids. I would come out in the early mornings and be like, “Caa-caa,” and Julia would come out and be like, “Caa-caa.” And then we’d bring her down a cup of coffee. She was Aunt Juju to my kids.

ROBERTS The Clooneys saved me from complete loneliness and despair. We were in a bubble, and it’s the longest I’ve ever been away from my family. I don’t think I’ve spent that much time by myself since I was 25.

CLOONEY And also, when Danny and the kids did come visit, that meant they had to fly into Sydney and quarantine for two weeks by themselves before she could see them.

ROBERTS So close and yet so far. When we first got to Australia and we were all quarantining, you kind of go a little bit cuckoo. I remember right around Day 11, I was like, “Who am I? Where am I? What is this room that I never leave?” It’s a funny thing. I hadn’t really anticipated all that.

CLOONEY That’s why they invented alcohol.

ROBERTS Or chocolate chip cookies.

CLOONEY That too.

Julia, this is your first movie role in four years. You’ve said that you consider yourself a homemaker, but your children are all teenaged now — do you think your work-life balance will change when they are grown and out of the house?

ROBERTS I just take it all as it comes. I try to be super present and not plan, and I don’t have any upcoming acting jobs. Getting back to a routine feels really good. And I love being at home, I love being a mom. Being in Australia was really challenging because of all the Covid regulations, and I think it’s a real testament to friendship and to the creative environment we were in that it wasn’t even harder, because I’m not built to be one person anymore. It’s just not in my cellular data.

George, you recently took several years off from movie acting, too. When you have that lengthy period of time between roles, is there any anxiety as you are about to start up again?

CLOONEY If you don’t get that nervous feeling in your stomach every time you start work, then you’re way too confident for this job and it’ll show in your performance. The minute you think you’ve got it or you know what you’re doing, then you really shouldn’t be doing it anymore.

One of the co-stars of “Ticket to Paradise” is Billie Lourd, daughter of the late Carrie Fisher. Her father, Bryan Lourd, has been your longtime agent, George, so I would imagine you’ve known Billie since — —

CLOONEY Since she was born.

Is it wild to share scenes with an actress you’ve known since she was a baby?

ROBERTS Wilder still to be holding her baby while she’s on the set. How about that? Life just going right along.

CLOONEY Yeah. Fun being 61, let me tell you. It comes fast, man.

Sixty-one but still willing to do a shirtless scene — opposite an angry dolphin, no less.

ROBERTS And looking fine, thank you very much!

CLOONEY That was a pretty quick shot, I’ll tell you that. The dolphin looked better.

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