Julia Roberts caused controversy between the producers of Shakespeare In Love

Julia Roberts
Photo: Presley Ann (Getty Images)

In retrospect, pairing two late ’90s juggernauts like Julia Roberts and Shakespeare in love. It actually seemed obvious at the time too, as producer Edward Zwick reveals in a new essay about the making of the film Air mail. The film was actually greenlit because of Roberts’ casting: “The more opportunity of having the Beautiful woman wearing a corseted dress got the studio excited enough to cough up the dough,” Zwick recalls. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, given the film’s eventual success), it was all downhill from there.

First, Roberts insisted on pursuing Daniel Day-Lewis as her leading man (“He’s brilliant – he’s beautiful and intense. And so funny!”), despite the actor informing the production several times that he was engaged Jim Sheridan’s IN Father’s Name. Roberts’ attempts to woo Day-Lewis with two dozen roses and a card that said “Be my Romeo” didn’t change his mind.

While in London, Roberts broke off meetings early and failed to show up for a chemistry reading (at least in part because she insisted that Day-Lewis take the role). When she did show up, it was a “disaster,” according to Zwick. She “barely acknowledged” Ralph Fiennes (“He’s not funny”) and during the week she reportedly turned her nose up at attendees such as Rupert Graves, Colin Firth, Sean Bean, Jeremy Northam and her soon-to-be Notting Hill co-star Hugh Grant. “Julia found fault with all of them: one was stiff, another was not romantic, and so on.”

After two weeks of rehearsals, Roberts — “looking resplendent in full period costume — had a final test with actor Paul McGann. Except “it was clear she hadn’t worked on the accent,” and “there was no magic,” according to Zwick .

“I sensed Julia’s discomfort and tried to be encouraging, but she must have sensed my uneasiness and I made the tragic mistake of underestimating her insecurities,” he writes. “Having only recently been catapulted to the dizzy heights at the top of the Hollywood food chain, she must have been terrified of failure. But I would never be able to talk her off the edge. The next morning, when I called her room, I was told she had checked out.”

Very much in the style of Ongoing Fraud, Roberts had dropped the entire production and fled back to the United States with no intention of returning. After investing heavily in a Roberts-led production, Universal tried to woo her without success. Just as well: Gwyneth Paltrow ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, and the film won several additional awards, including Best Picture. The legacy of the film is somewhat tarnished Harvey Weinstein’s ruthless tactics to boost prizes chances, as well as his personal history of attacks that extends to Paltrow herself. (In his essay, Zwick says Weinstein threatened to fire him from the film.)

As for Roberts, “I never spoke to Julia again,” Zwick says. “Instead, I have observed from afar how her work grew in depth and stature. I bear her no ill will. She was a scared 24-year-old. I wasn’t much older and tried to act like an adult while watching the Globe Theater being torn down. And with it my dreams of greatness.”

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