Julia Roberts Does TV: Inside the Movie Star’s Big ‘Homecoming’ Debut
The Oscar winner and director Sam Esmail take us inside their new Amazon psychological thriller, which, she says, just happens to be a TV show.
Julia Roberts is in a TV show. That’s a big deal. She knows it’s a big deal, that megawatt smile of hers, that Oscar-winning charisma of hers, that indelible laugh of hers, all on TV—though, to be fair, there is not much laughter in her new Amazon series, Homecoming, which is available for bingeing starting Friday. That huge, massive, movie-star Julia Roberts-ness of it all, all harnessed into the small screen. Wouldn’t it burst?
Hey, TVs are pretty big these days, she laughs. (As in the laugh. It’s iconic for a reason.)
Still, she knows it’s a big deal because no one will stop asking her about it. She’s asked about it in press conferences. In interviews, it’s the first thing she’s questioned about. She’s on magazine covers talking about it. OK, the magazine covers aren’t necessarily a new thing—though shooting them while wearing couture and dangling off a sheer cliff and then talking to Oprah about it is.
“I get it because I see that the press, as it were, sees a clear delineation between movie actor and TV actor,” she says. “For me, I’m just looking for the best part. This just happens to be a moment in my career quite joyfully where the podcast came to me, and I met Sam, and it all kind of came together.”
That podcast would be the source material for Homecoming, a psychological thriller in which she plays Heidi, a caseworker at a facility that welcomes home soldiers and helps them transition to civilian life. And that Sam would be be Sam Esmail, the celebrated creator of the USA drama Mr. Robot, who directs Roberts in every episode of the series. The TV series. That movie star Julia Roberts is appearing in.
I ask Esmail if there’s something different about directing scenes and thinking about how to frame shots when the face you’re framing is that of Julia Roberts, arguably one of the most famous and recognized in the world. “He used to draw mustaches on me on the monitor all the time,” Roberts cuts in, laughing again. “In terms of her coming to TV, that was really kind of irrelevant to our conversations,” Esmail says earnestly, once the raucous response to his leading lady’s joke calms down. “To be honest with you, that wasn’t even brought up.”
Both claim that the idea of Roberts joining the red carpet of A-listers leading from the cineplex to the small screen was never the big deal to them that the rest of us are making it out to be. Though it’s not without its benefits. “In terms of just working with ‘a Julia Roberts,’ the benefit is that I can ask her to do more and to dig into it on a more granular level because the skill and craft is off the charts,” he says. “The benefit is that I can make her work harder.”
He made good on that opportunity, too.
Roberts jokingly refers to the show as “A Tale of Two Heidis,” alluding to the fact that, in some ways, she’s playing two characters—or at least two complexly subtle different versions of the same one.
In the present day, Heidi is a sleek, passionate employee of the Homecoming Transition Support Center, where she is helping launch an experiment to help veterans deal with—and maybe even forget—their most disturbing memories from serving abroad. But that sunny, determined demeanor slowly darkens and cracks as she discovers more nefarious motives from the corporation behind the center. The show then spends half the narrative in a flashforward to 2022, to a frazzled, clearly broken Heidi, who has no memory of her time or of her work at Homecoming, a twist that shocks and disturbs her as much as it does the audience.
Roberts and Esmail spent a lot of time considering hair and wardrobe that would differentiate the two Heidis, which then led to work on her mannerisms and personalities so that the two performances would be distinguishable, but still of the same character.
“All these dots start to connect and tiny things start to become very meaningful,” Roberts says. ”And you LEGO the shit out of all those ideas and suddenly you’ve built something.” Esmail practically applauds: “I love that. LEGO the shit out of all those ideas.”
Roberts had some help with her block-building. Esmail takes care to make the two time periods visually distinctive, using flatter lighting and a cooler color palate for the flash forwards and, in a bold directorial move, changing the aspect ratio (the size of the scene on your screen) as well. Present day Heidi is shot in a full frame, filling your entire screen. But 2022 Heidi is shot in a square 1:1 aspect ratio—literally a box.
“We chose the aspect ratio because we felt like Heidi doesn’t see the whole picture,” Esmail says. “And she’s also kind of boxed in because of that. So we take all those things from the filming perspective again to coincide with what Heidi’s going through.”
That Homecoming is so visually remarkable shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has seen Esmail’s work on Mr. Robot, a show that made headlines for that very quality. But the stylish approach is arguably unexpected given the source material. The Homecoming podcast was structured as a series of phone calls and taped conversations between Heidi and her clients. Roberts likens it to an old-school radio play, a genre that thrived because it was meant to be heard not seen—storytelling on a budget. But Esmail thought the classic Hitchcockian tone of the podcast lent itself to ambitious filmmaking.
So, across 36,000 square feet of two connected soundstages on the same Universal Studios backlot where Hitchcock filmed Psycho, Esmail’s crew erected a two-story set of the Homecoming facility, complete with resident bedrooms, a cafeteria, and the centerpiece, a massive octagonal atrium. The building was designed so that the roof could be raised to the soundstage’s 50-foot ceiling, allowing for a camera rigged to a telescoping crane to film the actors and the set from above, making them look like ants under a microscope.
One such scene is in the first episode, in which a camera rises above the set and tracks Roberts as she walks through nearly the entire facility in one take. Esmail had allotted several days on the schedule to shoot it, piece by piece. As he tells it, because the crew and Roberts, especially, were so good, they finished the entire first day’s schedule before 11 am. So they decided to shoot the second day’s schedule—and finished that by lunch. “I wish I could tell you war stories,” he laughs about the experience. “But it went off better than anyone expected.”
That’s not to say the shoot was easy, particularly for Roberts. She shudders as she brings up, in an ominous, haunted tone, the “11-page oners,” scenes scripted as 11-minute conversations between two characters meant to be shot in a single take.
“At a certain point I was like, wait, everyday is like this?” she says. “It becomes such a huge mountain to climb that for me, there is such a sense of pride at the end of every day we accomplished the oners.” She gets reflective, alluding to but not specifically answering that why-is-Julia-Roberts-doing-TV? question she keeps getting asked. “There’s something really nice there, in this sense of doing my dream job and there is this whole new element of accomplishment.”
The fact of the matter is that this is different. TV is different. Production for TV is different. The audience for TV is different. The press for TV is different. Roberts, who is also on the circuit promoting her fall Oscar contender, the drama Ben Is Back, must recognize that. So does it all feel different?
“I would say the feeling of the last couple of days just being kind of energetic feeling of happiness,” she says. “I mean you know, when you walk into a room and are like how do I get through the next 18 minutes without insulting this person because their show…” She pauses, ultimately deciding to be blunt, “...sucks.” She lets that linger before continuing, “I don’t think anybody was having that challenge walking into the room.”
And with that, a buzzer dings. Our time is up. In fact, she tells me, our conversation wraps up the entire junket. Julia Roberts is in a TV show, and she’s finally done being asked about it.