The 47-year-old mother of three plays a woman who discovers her daughter has been murdered and left in a dumpster. “It was just one of those scenes. You knew it was part of the reason she was doing the movie and yet it was something she was really dreading,” explains writer-director Billy Ray, who earned an Oscar nomination for the Captain Phillips screenplay. “She was going to have to go to a place that was going to be very painful.”
Roberts not only delivered. She performed the emotionally demanding scene in just two takes. “It was completely staggering,” Ray recalls. “Nobody [on set] could believe what was going on.” And that was just on take one. He had her do one more that “was equally as staggering if not more so,” just in case he needed the extra material in editing. “When it was over I went up to her and I just said, 'As a human being I can’t ask you to do that again. I just can’t.’ And she said, 'You’re a director. You’re not supposed to be a human being.’”
Roberts plays Jess, an FBI investigator whose star is on the rise along with teammate Ray’s (Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave). Nicole Kidman plays their district attorney supervisor, Claire. After Jess spends 13 years fanatically searching for her daughter’s killer, Ray finds a new lead. But no one is prepared for the earth-shattering secret that they learn.
The film is adapted from the 2009 Oscar-winning foreign film by Juan José Campanella (itself based on a novel), with one twist: Roberts’s part was originally written for a male actor. “She saw the potential in there and didn’t ask me to rewrite the part too terribly much in order to make it a woman,” says Ray. “She just dove in.”
It’s also the first movie that has co-starred Oscar winners Roberts and Kidman. “You always want big stars as long as they're great actors,” observes Ray. “In the case of Julia and Nicole, you get both.” And it was a sight to witness the two powerhouse actresses play off of each other. “There was enormous respect, great camaraderie, and, in my opinion — I don’t know if either of them would ever admit to it — there was a very healthy, kind of athletic level of competitiveness,” says Ray. “They both had such regard for each other and they both wanted to do their best because the other was in the movie.”
Including Ejiofor, Ray says he was beyond thrilled with the cast, recounting a tense scene when they’re all in an elevator. “I can’t believe those three actors are all in one frame in a movie that I wrote and directed,” he confesses. “A year ago I would have been happy just knowing those three people. And then I get to go make a movie with them!”
Update: Secret in Their Eyes opens in theaters nationwide Nov. 20.