By Jason Lynch
April 17, 2006 12:00 PM

It’s a fact: Even if you’ve been in more than 30 movies, even if you have an Oscar, even if you earn millions of dollars per picture and have traded onscreen smooches with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Richard Gere, you can still be just a kid from Smyrna, Ga., when you make your Broadway debut. Which is why, on a cold night in February, just before rehearsals for the play Three Days of Rain, a giddy Julia Roberts led the play’s producer, Marc Platt, out in front of New York City’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre so she could get her first look at the marquee. “It was a thrilling moment for Julia,” says Platt, a longtime friend. “We looked at each other, and that smile lit up all of 45th Street—because she saw her dream coming true.”

For the past year and a half, Roberts has pretty much reserved that megawatt smile for an audience of three: husband Danny Moder and their 16-month-old twins Hazel and Phinnaeus. After she became a mom in November 2004, Roberts, 38, found work that could accommodate a busy family schedule: appearing in the Dave Matthews Band video “Dreamgirl” last May, doing voice-overs for a pair of upcoming animated films (see box) and narrating Three Days in September, a documentary airing on Showtime May 25 about the 2004 Chechen terrorist attack on a Russian school. Nesting on her New Mexico ranch, Roberts spent her days tending to the kids, doing Pilates and knitting up a storm. “The kids bring her such a sense of fulfillment and joy,” says Platt. “It’s wonderful to see.”

Still, says Platt, who has known Roberts since her Mystic Pizza days in the late ’80s, “since she was a kid, Julia has wanted to work on Broadway.” Last spring one of her agents suggested she read Richard Greenberg’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Three Days of Rain, and after meeting with the revival’s director, Roberts jumped on board. In the play she tackles two challenging roles: no-nonsense Nan, who gathers with her tormented brother (Paul Rudd) and a friend (Bradley Cooper) to read her father’s will, and Lina, Nan’s emotionally unstable mother. “I like to be unpredictable,” she told Playbill. “I think it’s just being a mom now. I think my tastes are even pickier than they’ve ever been. To pull your focus away from your family life, it has to be great.” Says Platt: “The girl’s got her priorities straight.”

In other words, family comes first. No matter where she is with Moder and the kids (in addition to their Southwestern spread, the couple have homes in L.A. and Manhattan), Roberts spends plenty of time dancing around with the pair and playing peekaboo with Hazel, who has white-blonde hair and is “really cute,” says Julia’s niece Emma Roberts. The Aquamarine star adds that Hazel looks like a tiny version of War of the Worlds’ Dakota Fanning, “with these huge blue eyes, and the little boy”—that would be the red-haired Phinnaeus, whom Roberts and Moder call “Finn”—”is adorable too.” Julia “is always taking the kids to the park, to music or art class,” says Platt. “She’s a get-down-on-the-floor kind of mom. She’s utterly devoted to them.”

Which is why she had only one request for Three Days of Rain’s producers: hold the four-week rehearsals in a locale close to her New York apartment, where the family has relocated for her three-month run. Otherwise, her time on Broadway has been perk-free. Making a reported $35,000 a week—only a fraction of what she would earn working on a movie for the same period— Roberts applies her own stage makeup, eats tuna heroes and salads from Subway with the cast during rehearsal breaks and takes curtain calls side-by-side with her costars. “She’s one of the guys,” says Platt. “She just wants to be one of the actors. Not a movie star.”

She does get singled out when Hazel and Finn visit during rehearsal breaks. “As soon as her kids came into the room, you hear this little girl go, ‘Mama, mama, MAMA!’ and the moment they see her, they go running into her arms,” says Platt. During each performance, the knitting maven pulls off an impressive feat of multitasking. “She’s actually knitting something for her son, and it’s part of the scene where she’s onstage knitting,” says Platt. “She can get her knitting done right in the middle of work.”

Offstage, of course, she is even more focused on the kids. “If she has a two-hour break,” says Platt, “she runs home to be with the kids.” Finding herself with a few minutes to spare between a Three Days cast photo shoot and rehearsal, “we passed a baby store and she jumped at the opportunity,” says Platt. “She spent 15 minutes buying clothes for her kids.” It also helps that the well-behaved Finn and Hazel are several months away from the terrible twos. For now, “they’re fabulous 1½-year-olds,” Roberts told Playbill. “They’re just adorable. I can’t imagine them being terrible. They’re very well-adjusted.”

As for her marriage to Moder, friends say it’s as strong as when the pair tied the knot in a midnight ceremony on her New Mexico ranch in 2002. “They’re one of those couples that seem like they’ve been together forever,” says Platt. “They are so comfortable and devoted to each other.” Roberts stayed at home while the cameraman shot films like Friends with Money and Freedomland. Now Moder has been returning the favor, reading the male parts in Three Days while Roberts memorized her lines. “I hear there have been some really excellent readings of the play at the Moder household,” says Platt. “They seem to be the best of friends. It’s so clear how happy they are together.”

So far Three Days’ audiences are responding to Roberts just as warmly—her first lines each night are drowned in applause. And like Hollywood imports Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington and Hugh Jackman before her, Roberts’s star power means big box office: Its 12-week run is nearly sold out, and scalped tickets are going for as much as $600. Says Shubert organization head Gerald Schoenfeld, a Three Days producer: “We are delighted to have her.” Roberts, too, is elated, but exhausted. “I joked to my husband,” she told Playbill, “[telling him] ‘I will, in the next six months, work harder than I have in the last five years combined, including childbirth!'”

When she finishes Three Days in June, Roberts will go back to full-time parenting. And Hollywood? This fall she’ll film the drama Charlie Wilson’s War with Tom Hanks but isn’t reuniting with pal George Clooney for the upcoming Ocean’s 13. Not that she minds. “She laughs a lot,” says Playbill staff reporter Harry Haun, who interviewed Roberts before her Broadway debut. “I got the impression she’s gotten to the top of the mountain and now she’s interested in doing good work.”

And being a good mom. “Julia is very careful about how she manages her time so she can raise her children, which is what she wants to do more than anything,” says Platt. (And does Roberts want to raise more children? Her rep declines to comment.) “Her perspective is, ‘I want to be a great mom, I want to do interesting work when I can, I’m determined to do it all and make it work.’ And she will.”