LONDON — Julia Roberts walked across the lobby of the Dorchester Hotel and didn't cause a ripple. Her dark brown hair was skimmed tightly back, librarian style, and her black sweater, pants, and flats made her blend into the young London crowd.
The night before had been just the opposite. At the premire of her latest film, "Notting Hill," her hair was lush and wavy, and she wore a designer gown and a 24-karat smile.
The paparazzi flashed so many pictures, and called to her so loudly, that Ms. Roberts says she was seeing lights popping for the first 10 minutes of the movie.
What's more pressure - not being recognized or being bathed in the limelight?
"I believe pressure is a choice," Roberts answers thoughtfully. "You allow it to participate in your life, or you don't. I find the more normal I make my life, the better it is.... The pressure to do a good job, or to find a script I feel is appealing - those are good pressures."
The popular actress fondly reminisced about her recent trip to her hometown of Smyrna, Ga., for her mother's birthday. "Mommy is great. We all stayed at her home, ate her cooking, and had so much fun," she says. "My sisters and girlfriends even went to the mall. We really blended in, giggling as we remembered some teenage experiences. We were just like everyone else."
No one picked her out as a movie star, until she stopped to look at shoes.
That's when a teenager looked her in the eye, and asked, "You're not Julia Roberts, are you?" Roberts flashed that famous smile and answered, "Yes, I am."
The fan replied, "No, you're not."
Roberts: "Yes, I am."
Fan: "No, you're not!"
Roberts: "OK, then."
In her current film, "Notting Hill," in which she co-stars with Hugh Grant, Roberts plays a famous movie star. Naturally, comparisons have been made between her life and that of her character. Roberts is quick to point out that "in almost every way the character I play, Anna Scott, is different from me - particularly early in the movie."
Roberts was referring to a scene in the film where Mr. Grant, playing the owner of a small bookstore, takes this superstar to his little sister's birthday party. After dinner they pass around a plate of homemade brownies. As her character eyes the treat, she says, "I've been on a diet since I was 19, which means basically I've been hungry for a decade."
Roberts laughed, "Now you know she's a different person from me, and comes from a different place! I think she's most like me at the end of the film. It's then that my character has a stronger sense of what she really wants in her life, and why she wants it, and I just think she's a much clearer person."
"Notting Hill" refers to a trendy, slightly bohemian suburb of London, where the movie was filmed. It reunites screenwriter Richard Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy, who produced the hit "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
"I think I'm pretty tough on myself in a constructive way," Roberts says. "In this movie, I felt my goal every day was to try to impress Roger [Mr. Michell, the director] as much as I could. He's so astute and precise in what he wants. He was helpful to me in not letting me put my values, my standards, and my reactions into a scene."
Roberts found it great fun working with Grant. "We had these food fights!" Imagine filming a romantic scene and then having a cookie-throwing spree. "I did have a much better aim than he," she confides.
The actress first met Grant in 1992 in London when she was discussing starring in "Shakespeare in Love." She first read lines with Rupert Everett (who later worked with Roberts in "My Best Friend's Wedding") and then with Grant.
The project never got off the ground, and this year Gwyneth Paltrow received an Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love," a radically different script from the one offered to Roberts.
Following "My Best Friend's Wedding," a bankable hit ($21.7 million on opening day), and now "Notting Hill," Roberts has crashed through the glass ceiling on actresses' salaries in Hollywood. She's the only actress to join a few male stars who can ask $20 million a picture.
After a few misfires, she seems back on track in selecting what films to appear in. She's already completed "Runaway Bride," which opens July 30, rejoining her "Pretty Woman" pals Richard Gere and director Garry Marshall.
"Getting a project going takes time," she says. "It was four years to get "Stepmom" into production. It's been nine years since we filmed 'Pretty Woman.' "
Roberts' career has had its hits and misses. And her private life has been anything but private: her broken engagement to Kiefer Sutherland; her romance with Dylan McDermott, one of her leading men; and her divorce from Lyle Lovett.
Maybe that's why she's so closemouthed about her year-and-a-half friendship with Benjamin Bratt, who played Detective "Rey" Curtis for four seasons on NBC's "Law & Order" until leaving the drama series this spring.
Asked about her recent guest appearance on the series, she says, "I begged to get on that show. When I did 'Law & Order,' I found out what hard work is....
"There's no relaxing in a dressing room between takes. They are either filming another scene, or moving into a different neighborhood of the city."
Roberts spends a lot of time in her Manhattan apartment. She's a regular at many Greenwich Village restaurants and loves to shop in SoHo. She has a house in the Hollywood Hills and also owns a home surrounded by 50 acres in Taos, N.M.
She confesses to being a Martha Stewart at heart, since she knits sweaters and crochets rugs, bakes nine-grain bread, cooks the holiday meal - turkey and Southern-style cornbread dressing - and loves to have small dinner parties. On the other hand, she's athletic - she jogs, bowls, swims, and plays tennis. She is also a whiz at puzzles and charades.
Her "Runaway Bride" director, Mr. Marshall, knows Roberts well, and says she likes to take career risks to challenge herself. That's why after two romantic comedies she's selected the Steven Soderbergh project, "Erin Brockovish," a "suspense-type movie," as her next movie.
A few weeks ago Roberts attended a dinner party. One of her tablemates asked what she did for a living, and she replied, "I'm an actress." The hostess overheard and abruptly told the innocent woman, "Everyone knows who she is!"
"I could see this woman, not having a clue who I was, mentally accessing every piece of information she'd ever gathered in her life," Roberts says. "Quite frankly I was impressed. I thought. 'Her life is really more interesting than anybody else's at this table. She doesn't know who I am because she's too busy living her own life."
Roberts adds, "In reel life, the goal is to entertain. In real life, it's to give joy to your family and friends."
And what brings her the most joy? "To make my mother proud."
Some notable Julia Roberts films
1999 Runaway Bride (opens in theaters July 30) Notting Hill (opens today)
1997 Conspiracy Theory
My Best Friend's Wedding
1996 Everyone Says I Love You
1995 Mary Reilly
Something to Talk About
1994 I Love Trouble
Ready to Wear
1993 The Pelican Brief
1991 Dying Young
Sleeping With the Enemy
1989 Steel Magnolias
1988 Mystic Pizza