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Julia Roberts Plays Teacher in "Mona Lisa Smile"

Interview with Actress Julia Roberts

By

Mona Lisa Smile Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts in "Mona Lisa Smile," directed by Mike Newell.

Columbia Pictures
Set in the early 1950s, “Mona Lisa Smile” stars Julia Roberts as Katherine Watson, a recent UCLA graduate hired to teach art history at the prestigious all-female Wellesley College. Upon accepting the job, Katherine soon discovers her students are only in college to prepare themselves to become wives and mothers. Determined to make an impression and shake up the their ordered lives, Katherine begins teaching the young women to rebel against their restraints and to think for themselves.

Why do we embrace teacher stories?
Well, it's an environment that we're all perfectly familiar with, I guess, for one thing. That might be something. I think also it has a good structure for presenting conflict and presenting personalities in a really clear way.

Did you do anything to prepare for playing a character in the '50s?
No.

Did the costumes help get you into character?
All that stuff does make it easier. I'm kidding and I shouldn't be joking so much. It's just that I make jokes right now. I did watch some really nice documentaries on the '50s, which I thought were very informative.

Can you talk about working with Julia Stiles?
I think she's remarkable. I think she's such a poised, bright, interesting girl. She's one of my favorite actors to watch in movies and of these young girls, when we were first developing the ideas for cast, she was the very first person that I absolutely wanted to have in this movie play any part that she possibly wanted to play. She's just really professional and I find her slightly intimidating, but I also find her to be this wonderfully, timelessly breathtaking girl. I mean, I think she could just play any part. I've seen her look so incredibly modern and sometimes she is this kind of sweet, geeky college girl. Sometimes she seems like this Botticelli and then other times she's this very professional, intellectual woman. I could go on and on really. I find her to be remarkable.

What did you learn about art while making this movie?
I don't know that I could say what I learned about art per se. I find art, if you're talking about the art of painting, I find that very fascinating and a very timeless medium for expression. I like the way that it's applied in this particular film. I like the pieces that we chose and the way that they're used as waking the girls up in a way, and having them challenge their ideas of what's beautiful and what's interesting.

Is labeling this movie a chick flick a bad thing?
I don't think we made a chick flick. We just made a movie.

Could you identify with this character?
I suppose you have to identify with any character you play on some level. And I liked the fact that she was someone who had latched onto an idea. She had this strong conviction about an idea that was very new at that point. A lot of people weren't saying, “Look further, expand your mind and explore your options.” It was a new cry for women.

Some of the ideas the women are going through in this movie, which takes place 60 years ago, are some of the same issues that women are going through today. Is that part of the reason it speaks to a generation today?
I think it does have resonance in some common themes and continued struggles. It's nice to remember, and nice to offer up this story in a way of reminding particularly a younger generation of girls who only know their lives as freedom and the joys of choice, to inform those younger girls it hasn't always been this way. A lot of people weren't born into these expected freedoms. It makes me appreciate more the women who have come before me and made me appreciate my life.

Could the movie have touched more on the issues of that day?
This time period was just kind of the calm before the storm. So, it was interesting. There were times when I thought there would be great points to make but it was just a few years too early to get into some of that stuff - about some of the women's issue, the desires. The desires were still just getting formulated, the things we really wanted to fight for. So, it's really in the early stages, which was kind of frustrating because I wanted to get in there and really fight for things, but at the same time it makes it more delicate, more detailed. I just think what the character I'm trying to play is saying is just want more and don't be ashamed of it.

PAGE 2: Flawed Characters and Romantic Comedies

ADDITIONAL "MONA LISA SMILE" RESOURCES
Interview with Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ginnifer Goodwyn
"Mona Lisa Smile" Photo Gallery
"Mona Lisa Smile" Credits, Trailer, and Movie News

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