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When Julia Roberts climbed to the top of the stairs at Cannes’ red carpet last week, festival director Thierry Frémaux whispered in her ear: “You made it with your shoes on.” This was, for Roberts, a first — the last time she hit the world’s most glamorous red carpet, promoting “Money Monster” in 2016, she’d intentionally abandoned her stilettos.
At the time, the press speculated that Roberts bared her feet as a political statement, given that Cannes has a history of mandating that women wear heels, not flats, at the gala premieres. Was she trying to send a message? “I’ll leave it to everyone to decide for themselves,” Roberts says. “But what was incredible when I took my shoes off — and I did it kind of subtly underneath my long gown, I just stepped out of my shoes and walked up the stairs, and about halfway up, I did think to myself: ‘Hmm, how do I get those back, I wonder? Didn’t think that through, I guess!’ And when I got to the very top of the stairs, this very nice man said: ‘Madam, your shoes.’ He put them down for me. I had no idea who he was, but it was very sweet.”
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It’s easy to depend on the kindness of strangers when you’re one of the world’s most powerful movie stars. And now, Roberts has decided to give back. She returned to Cannes not with a movie, but as the “godmother” presenting this year’s Trophée Chopard, a prize founded by the luxury brand in order to encourage and celebrate the next generation of onscreen talent. (Past recipients include John Boyega, Anya Taylor-Joy and Florence Pugh.)
At an elegant dinner on May 19, Roberts bestowed the prize on two young performers with a long list of credits: Sheila Atim, a stage performer who has recently taken on roles in “The Underground Railroad” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and Jack Lowden, who has worked with Christopher Nolan in “Dunkirk” and Steve McQueen in “Small Axe.” The next morning, Roberts sat down with Variety along with her two newly designated “godchildren” for an interview about their work — and her own.
Julia, last night you said you wouldn’t have flown to Cannes if the careers of both Sheila and Jack weren’t so important to you. Can you talk about that?
Julia Roberts: I think they’re both incredible. They’ve both done so much incredible work already, but it is just that, the hoisting. I mean, none of us are anything if we don’t have those around us, encouraging us, making us feel seen and heard and holding us up to a light. And for me, it’s that humanity. As actors, we love community — it’s like being on a movie set. It’s this little planet of a family that you have for three months or six months.
My favorite moments [at Cannes] have been when the three of us can huddle together a little bit and not be in the mob. And I’m also really homesick, so I’ve become very inside of myself, almost too attached to the two of them.
Are you going to help them with advice? Last night, you made a joke about how they shouldn’t call you.
Roberts: I said, “They don’t need to call me. They’ve got it.” Of course, I would take their calls. But when people say, “What advice would you give to an actor?”, I would say the first thing I would say to any actor is don’t take advice from actors. It would be the worst thing to do because we all have our unique experience. What would work for me maybe wouldn’t work for Jack or Sheila. I’m just excited for them, really — only the enthusiasm for these two is what’s keeping my eyes open right now.
Jack and Sheila, do you remember the first role you auditioned for?
Jack Lowden: I played John, the sort of annoying brother, in “Peter Pan” in a stage production in Edinburgh where I had a harness on underneath pajamas. I was 12, and I would run off stage just before I had to fly and a big bloke would attach a rope to my harness. And I was sort of dangling from the roof when I went, “Yeah, I want to be an actor.”
Sheila Atim: Was that legal?
Lowden: It was legal then. It shouldn’t be anymore.
Atim: The first thing I auditioned for was a play called “Ghost Town.” I’d just signed with my agent Lucy Middleweek, who I’m still with, who’s wonderful. And she called me, she was like, “You got it, your first audition — you got the job.” And I was like, “Great.” I was playing the manifestation of somebody’s OCD, which is quite intense.
Roberts: Right out of the gates.
Atim: Yeah. There’s definitely things I haven’t got, but that was a really nice: “Oh, maybe I could do this for real.”
Julia, do you remember your first audition?
Roberts: Oh my gosh. We’d have to get in a time machine. No, I mean, I’m sure it was a disaster. I’m so deeply thankful for all the jobs that I didn’t get because I auditioned for a lot of really terrible commercials and not quality television. And so, I think it was a lot of good fortune that no one wanted me. I look back on it with real good feelings now.
I’m sure those directors are kicking themselves now for not casting Julia Roberts in their commercial.
I couldn’t believe that “Money Monster” was your first Cannes. I would have thought the festival would have invited other Julia Roberts movies.
Roberts: I think things were invited. But it’s terrifying here, and I get very nervous. I’ve been in a state of complete nerves for three days. This all kind of — it’s a beautiful chaos. [To Jack]: You were so calm yesterday on the red carpet, I turned to him for comfort. I was like, “Is your heart beating a hundred times a minute?” And he was like, “No, I’m good.” I was like, “Oh, I need to find somebody else to talk to.”
Lowden: I’m going to regret that for the rest of my life. But it’s amazing to watch you here and what you have to deal with. And we were saying that in the hotel lobby, and the grace you have is sort of absolutely just remarkable.
Roberts: Oh, thank you. I’m glad I like my name because it gets shouted in my face a lot here. I think it’s a nice name. Thanks mom and dad.
There’s been a discussion at Cannes about the theatrical experience and encouraging audiences to go see movies. How important is it for you as actors for audiences to see your work in a movie theater versus streaming it at home?
Lowden: I don’t really care. I think it’s a wonderful thing to see something at cinema obviously, and you’ll always want that, but that the work is seen is probably the most important thing. And not everybody can go to the cinema. There’s a big disparity between rural and urban. I come from the countryside and to go to the cinema is a real effort. If it means that people can watch a film they’d not normally watch because they can get it on their phone —
Roberts: Maybe not watch it on your phone. Maybe on your laptop or your TV.
Lowden: I think I’m really good on a phone. I think I look better farther away.
Roberts: I will tell you — you don’t look as tall.
Atim: I think the accessibility that people have found through streaming is really beautiful. But what I will say is that I recently just wrapped a film, which is quite epic in scale and I hadn’t seen any of it, but there was a clip of it in my reel last night and it threw me. It’s a story that had not been told before at all, “The Woman King,” about this all-female African army in 1800s pre-colonial time. And of course, if somebody’s not able to get to the cinema, I’d love them to be able to watch it on a phone. But to be able to sit [in a theater] and have that kind of moment — I think it’s good to encourage that where possible.
Julia, how do you feel about this?
Roberts: I do think that nothing truly replaces being in the dark and just energetically having that experience with strangers, bringing that collective feeling together with people you don’t know. There’s something so unique and special about that, and it’s why we got into this business because of that feeling. I mean, my husband just took my two sons to a movie theater to see “The Shining,” which of course happened because I was out of town. Even when he texted me, I was like, “I’ve changed my mind. It’s too scary. Don’t take them there!” And it scared them mightily and they loved it. And to have that experience in 2022, to watch a film that’s so outstanding and to be a teenager and to have that, it’s special.
I think during the lockdown of the pandemic, the only tears I shed were after having a conversation with a friend of mine and having a moment where I thought, “Wow, that experience might be gone forever.” And I just had a little cry because it’s one of my favorite things to eat popcorn and watch a movie in the dark, in the space with people.
What was it like to go back to the movies?
Roberts: Really weird. I mean, we all had our masks on and it was great to walk to the theater and it was exciting, but it was a very strange feeling and people were definitely scattered apart. It wasn’t the shoulder-to-shoulder sense of we’re-all-in-this-together. It was like, “We’ll be in this. Can you be over there?” But now I think it’s getting there. We’re all kind of limping our way toward normality.
I wanted to ask you about reuniting with George Clooney on the upcoming movie “Ticket to Paradise.”
Roberts: Christ. I knew this would come up. Watch, the real acting happens now. Ready? [She puts on a big smile.] George, isn’t he great!?
Is it a romantic comedy?
Roberts: It is a romantic comedy. He plays my ex-husband. I think it’s so funny and George is so funny and George and I together, it’s probably going to be terrible because there’s too much potential for it to be great, it’ll just implode on it itself. I think that should be the commercial for the movie: “It’s probably going to be terrible.” I’m so glad my publicist is on a plane right now.
In “Gaslit,” you play Martha Mitchell in a limited TV series. In the retellings of Watergate, her story has gotten lost over time. Why do you think that is?
Roberts: I think because she was female, so they just sort of deleted her. I mean, Nixon despised her. And he even said if it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there would’ve been no Watergate. And I think history gets so easily rewritten in the masculine form. I mean, my beloved Alan Pakula; “All the President’s Men” is such an amazing film and there are no women in it.
For her, she was really a one-of-a-kind to be married to John Mitchell and to be so devoted to him. And she really was the perfect housewife with her outfits and her hair pieces and how charismatic she was. But she also had her truth, which was in opposition to her husband’s truth and her husband’s boss, who happened to be the president, and she was not shy to speak her mind. Yeah, I adored her. I loved playing that part and I loved doing it with Sean [Penn], who’s a great friend, and we just beat the crap out of each other in that show. It’s so crazy.
Did you stay in character between takes?
Roberts: No, no.
Have you ever stayed in character?
Roberts: No way. Are you kidding? It is too much. You have to put the bag down.
Atim: I actually find it more useful to come in and out. You refresh, you have another go, you try again. And I think also just for your mental health as a person, we have to remember to try to create a delineation between our work and what we do.
Roberts: I mean, I admire people that do that. It looks exhausting to me and I secretly think: “Oh, I wish I could do that. I wish I could be that intense.” I’m just kidding.
Sheila, can you talk about joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Sara in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”
Atim: Marvel has just become this huge thing that has kind of taken over cinema, and I’m in a superhero film. Do you know what I mean?
Roberts: It’s so rad.
Lowden: Are you a superhero in it?
Atim: Oh, I can’t tell you. Maybe now I can that it’s out. I can do magic, a little bit. I had a really wonderful time working with Benedict Cumberbatch and Benny Wong in particular. And that was my first experience doing something on that scale with green screen and blue screen and fantasy.
How did it feel for the movie to come out and be No. 1 all over the world?
Atim: You know what’s crazy? I live in East London, and I’m still adjusting to people recognizing me. And for the first five years of my career, I just did theater and then started to branch into TV. And now I’ve got people in Sainsbury’s be not sure if it’s me and then kind of following me through the aisles, like, “Are you in ‘Doctor Strange.’” I’m like, “Yeah,” with my milk in my hand. And what I love is sometimes they don’t ask for a photo. They just want to confirm it and go, “Cool.”
Roberts: It’s so sweet that you’re having such a sweet experience right now.
Atim: At the moment, it’s fairly benign.
Roberts: I used to get things like this. A woman would come up to me in a grocery store, and I used to cut off my hair every few years, just to give it a good chop. Like, mothers who feel like I go to school with their daughters or something: “It’ll grow back.” It’s kind of that thing, where you go, “Yeah that’s what hair does traditionally.”
Jack, what was it like working with Christopher Nolan on “Dunkirk?”
Lowden: Yeah, mad.
How did you find out you were cast?
Lowden: It’s rigorous. It’s multiple rounds of auditioning with him, because he does absolutely everything. He seems pretty poker-faced, too. I had no idea if he liked me at all. The quite amazing thing is, in one of my auditions, it was with Harry Styles. I was just mental all of a sudden — Christopher Nolan and Harry Styles and me. And me and Harry Styles had to pretend to be in a boat, we sat opposite each other in chairs. And I forgot one of my lines and Harry gave me my line. I went, “Oh cheers.”
But yeah, working with [Nolan], he’s a genius. When I’m in the cockpit in the plane, Chris sat straight sat on top of the cockpit while I’m trying to get out, because he wants to hold the canopy door shut. I’m trying to get out and I’m just looking straight up the legs of Christopher Nolan in khaki trousers, and I’m pretending I’m fighting for my life. It’s Chris Nolan in front, moving the thing, going, “They’re behind you, they’re behind you.” And, actually, to get the shadow to cross my face, he just attached a paper plate to a stick and just stood there himself, and I was pretending that it was a plane.
So that was a surreal experience. And then, just Big Stylesy.
Atim: Did you call him Big Stylesy to his face?
Lowden: Not to his face. I’m going to start it. [To Roberts]: You’re crying.
Roberts: I loved it, honestly. I keep thinking, God, if he was a really, really top-shelf director, he would’ve drawn a plane on the paper plate. Or cut it out in the shape of a paper plane or something.