Julia Roberts begins with a question: “Is George causing problems already?”
Her friend and frequent costar George Clooney has preceded Roberts on our video call, dialling in from the French estate he shares with his wife, Amal. But the room he is sitting in is so streaked with sunlight that Clooney can barely be glimpsed amid all the lens flares, and as Roberts joins us he is pulling patterned curtains shut, to no avail.
“Are you trying to show how outer your inner radiance is with this flare?” Roberts says.
Clooney peers at her Zoom thumbnail. “You’re one to talk with that soft lens,” he cracks.
“I have a 25-year-old computer!” Roberts says.
Rat-a-tat teasing is how Roberts and Clooney prefer to communicate. “It’s our natural rhythm of joyful noise,” she says. Their rapport has sustained a big-screen partnership spanning several films, from Ocean’s Elevenin 2001, to their newest entry, the romantic comedy Ticket to Paradise, which casts them as warring exes who reunite to stop the surprise wedding of their daughter (played by Kaitlyn Dever) to a seaweed farmer (played by 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.
No light is streaming through Roberts’s bay windows when we talk: it is only 6am in San Francisco, where Roberts and her husband, Danny Moder, live with their three teenage children. Roberts has requested the early start so she can send the kids off to school after the interview, and she notes that she is no stranger to early rising: for one sunrise scene in Ticket to Paradise, she had a 3am call time, the earliest she’s ever had to report to set in her career.
“I had to get there at 1am,” Clooney jokes, “because of the work they do on my face beforehand.”
“All the taping and spackle,” Roberts says, 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.”
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 favourite 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 romcom 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?
Robert: 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.”
George, I haven’t moved on from that anecdote of the director criticising 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 superpresent 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 any more. 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 any more.
One of the costars of Ticket to Paradise is Billie Lourd, daughter of the late Carrie Fisher. Her father, Bryan Lourd, has been your long-time 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. — This article originally appeared in The New York Times
Ticket to Paradise is in cinemas from Friday, September 16th