In Amazon’s half-hour psychological thriller, based on the popular Gimlet Media podcast, Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker who works with a young military veteran, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), at a secret government facility whose aim is to help transition soldiers back into civilian life. Or, at least, that’s what they say their objective is. The story is told in two distinct time periods: 2018, when Heidi is working at the facility, and 2022, when she’s making due at a rundown diner and approached by an investigator inquiring about a complaint filed by Walter. Homecoming marks the first series regular television role for Roberts in her storied, three-decade career.
“I am the same worker bee,” the Oscar-winning actress told ET’s Keltie Knight in October. “I found a great script and I wanted to do it, so where it landed was of very little consequence to me.”
Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, who directed the entire 10-episode first season, opened up about working with Roberts as his leading lady on the eerie drama. The 51-year-old actress said that one of the major factors that led her to sign onto the project was Esmail’s involvement, a fact that “flattered” the auspice.
“It’s surreal because I have to be honest with you, I was really nervous before I talked to her. When I heard she was interested and when I first Skyped with her, the nerves just kind of went away in the first few minutes we started talking,” Esmail told ET. “Like we were old friends. I don’t even think we talked about the show for 30 or 45 minutes. We were just talking about each other’s lives. I was getting married [to Emmy Rossum] and she was talking about her family and it turned into this weird moment where I can say for a fact that Julia Roberts is one of my good friends.”
For most of Roberts’ career, she’s been known as America’s sweetheart, and Esmail said that Homecoming “demystifies” the public perception of her movie star wattage.
“She is not sequestered in her trailer. She is hanging out on set with us. She’s paling around with the camera operators and with the grips, and when she is on set and we’re doing work, she’s prepared, ready to go,” he said. “Not only can I give her notes, I can probably give her more notes than I can typically for other people because she is so impeccable at her craft. She is so at the top of her game that she can do all that — juggle props, go up and down stairs in heels and still take on 20 notes. It’s mind-blowing and so impressive to watch.”
Also impressive to watch is James, a Canadian actor on the rise (he also headlines Barry Jenkins‘ Oscar contender If Beale Street Could Talk), whose banter with Roberts is thrilling and intriguing to watch over the course of the season. James, who was in the middle of filming Beale Street when Homecoming came to him, recalled his audition experience being one of nine guys reading opposite Roberts.
“I’m still scratching my head,” James confessed to ET, thinking back on the whirlwind few months in late 2017 that led him to this point. “I felt good about it. I didn’t really know where I stood. Julia definitely made me feel comfortable and I thought it was a good read.”
“We read together. He walked out of the room and I was like, ‘Well, that’s the guy, right there,” Roberts recalled. “Somebody go stop him in the parking lot. See if he’s available in February!”
Both Roberts and James had only glowing things to say about their time working on the first season, crediting Esmail for creating a creatively vibrant environment where ideas and innovation were embraced.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a set like this. The minds, the powers that be from Sam Esmail to our writers Eli [Horowitz] and Micah [Bloomberg], who are on a genius level to our DP Tod Campbell,” James said. “I was just blown away by the set-ups every day when I came into work and where are they going to put the camera today.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen the caliber of creativity and professionalism and joy and truth that Stephan brings — it’s unique to him and it’s incredible and it made a situation that, on paper, was really daunting and overwhelming and not for the faint of heart,” Roberts said. “We were always smiling at the end of the day.”
In July 2017, Amazon gave a two-season order for Homecoming (the podcast’s second installment already premiered) and while it’s unclear if Roberts will be back to lead the sophomore run, Horowitz and Bloomberg are hard at work on crafting the new episodes. Esmail insisted that there is no internal pressure to modify the season two plan, depending on how the first 10 episodes are received.
“Honestly, the way we did the first season was to try to keep it intimate and really talk about these people and their journey together,” he said, “and that’s the way we’re going to approach the second season.”
Homecoming is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.