September 17, 1990 12:00 PM

He had expected that the interview would be relatively uneventful, says director Joel Schumacher, recalling the preproduction process for Flatliners. But that was before the afternoon last year when Julia Roberts came to call. “She came to my house on a Sunday in little short, short, cutoff jeans, barefoot,” says Schumacher. “She was in a man’s T-shirt, no makeup, and her hair piled up on top of her head. I watched her for two hours, while she told me why she had to do the film. And I was just mesmerized. I kept thinking. ‘Where has she been ?’ ”

A scant four years before, the answer was simple: Julia was in her hometown of Smyrna, Ga. (pop. 32,246), a peach-pit stop on the highway northwest of Atlanta. But now, a mere 22 years old and still in the first chapter of her career, it is universally apparent that Roberts’s four-headlight smile has incandescence enough to light a clear runway to Hollywood. “When she enters a room, it’s like somebody just turned up the lights,” says Steel Magnolias screenwriter Robert Hading. “And it gets a little dimmer when she leaves.” Whether playing the fiery Portuguese waitress in 1988’s Mystic Pizza, the gold-hearted hooker in this year’s blockbuster Pretty Woman, or a cerebral medical student in late summer’s Flatliners, she has already managed to make a once-in-an-era kind of mark. And it was her performance as the doomed Shelby in Steel Magnolias that won both a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination—for her third major performance out.

Roberts’s luminous onscreen presence has catapulted her into the select $1-million-a-picture club, but her appeal seems to go beyond sheer box-office clout. Her rangy good looks—guileless gaze, cushioned with that impossible PlayDoh mouth—have put her on two most-beautiful-woman-in-the-world lists and on too many magazine covers to count (including, purportedly. Gentleman’s Quarterly as its first woman ever.) She even placed her imprimatur on a fashion trend when she cut her long, auburn locks this past summer. Nearly every move she makes seems only to enhance her, intentionally or not: Her blooming romance with Flat-liners co-star Kiefer Sutherland, for example, merely added to the film’s cachet.

It docs seem incredible that five years ago the only role she’d ever played was Elizabeth Dole in the Campbell High School annual mock-election campaign, a fact that resounds in the description of her Magnolias role given to a hometown reporter last spring. “Challengewise.” she said, it was “like taking the S.A.T.s every day.” And when the phone call came at 5 A.M. to tell her about her Academy Award nomination? The biggest thrill, she said, since making finalist in the Miss Panthera beauty contest at Campbell High: “It was that kind of feeling of’ Oh. my God, I can’t believe they picked me.’ ”

But if other kids in Smyrna were heading for nearby Georgia Tech. Roberts waited only three days after collecting her diploma to move to New York City. Bunking with actress sister Lisa, two years her senior, the 5 ‘9″ Julia was snapped up by Click, a big-time modeling agency—but not for long. “Her weight [116 lbs.] was fine, and she has an incredibly photogenic face. ” says Click’s Frances Grill. “But I don’t think she really gave it her best shot. Her focus was to become an actress.”

And she had just the connection: older brother Eric, then 30, who’d already picked up an Oscar nomination of his own for 1985’s Runaway Train and was set to begin filming the following year on Peter Master-son’s low-budget drama Blood Red. Eric, says Masterson, “just said. ‘I’ve got this sister. Is it okay if she plays my sister?’ He just said that she was good.”

As she soon proved. That summer, after landing a part in an episode of the NBC-TV series Crime Story, she won roles in three movies, playing a rocker in the teen turkey Satisfaction, a rebel in HBO’s comedy Baja Oklahoma and—the charmer—as Daisy in the quirky Mystic Pizza. “Julia walked in,” says co-producer Mark Levinson, “and she was very much like a light at the end of the tunnel.” By the time Pretty Woman appeared this year, even the New York Times gave its enthusiastic seal of approval. “Ms. Roberts, as noted, is a complete knockout,” wrote critic Janet Maslin, “and this performance will make her a major star.”

Those were heady heights indeed for a girl who never enrolled in acting school. “I don’t think lessons would have made much difference,” says screenwriter Robert Harling. “She’s just one of those people who’s got it.” The “it.” according to colleagues who’ve watched her suffer through her parts, can be a grueling method very much of her own devising. During one Magnolias scene, for example, “she came as close to death as you can while you’re still alive,” says Harling. “After every take, they’d have to pick her up and help her back to her trailer. She would just go all the way.”

Though once quoted as saying Roberts was “a sobbing mess” between tough takes, even Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall backs away from criticizing her: “Julia didn’t need more or less [coddling] than anybody. She had to run a gamut of emotions from light corned• to almost being raped and getting smacked. After shooting that, you’ve got to be there for her to make sure she remembers it’s just acting.”

It is indisputable that, no matter how unconventional, Roberts’s technique works. During the filming of Magnolias, which he based on the death of his sister at 32 from diabetes. Harling tried to keep his mother away from the set for Roberts’s final scene. “I told her, ‘Julia is in a coma with all these tubes and everything. Why do you want to go see that?’ ” he says. “Then I finally realized why she wanted to go: She’d become so attached to Julia that she wanted to see her get up and walk away.”

If Roberts is a natural, then it must have something to do with what her mother. Betty Motes, calls ”the family disease.” Betty and Walter (they divorced in 1971. five years before Walter’s death) ran an acting workshop out of a sprawling house on Juniper Street in Atlanta. Even as a baby, little Julie (she became Julia only when she discovered a Julie Roberts already registered in the Screen Actors Guild) was a crowd-pleaser while her parents played Shakespeare in Piedmont Park. “We had a show-mobile and we’d go into all the black neighborhoods,” says Betty. “Julie would be there in her stroller, and I can still see kids coming up and stroking her soft hair.” Lisa and Eric had early acting ambitions, but “all Julie ever talked about was being a veterinarian.”

But by the time she was in high school. Julie was known for a certain dramatic flair. “When we got bored. Jules could be real creative,” recalls longtime friend Joan Raley. “She could muster up tears in a second to get out of homeroom, and I’d have to follow her out to help her.”

“You want to really know what I remember about Julie?” says Maddox Kilgore, another high school classmate. “She had this absolutely incredible, hyenalike laugh. The whole class would have to stop to let her get it out of her system.”

Some things, apparently, never change. According to Roberts’s Mystic Pizza co-star Adam Stork, his on-set preparation was unceremoniously shattered one day by “all this raucous laughter. I got up to see what was going on. and there was Julia sitting on the steps of this house with about 15 of the crew around her. She had them eating out of her hand. They were just cracking up.”

During filming of Flatliners, whose characters revive each other after bouts of lab-induced brain death. Roberts prepped for her role by reading the somber Tibetan Book of the Dead and then leavened it with the Tao of Pooh. When director Schumacher jokingly complained that the crew gave him no respect and pretended to be legendary director Akira Kurosawa on the set one day, “I made Julia laugh so hard that I couldn’t get her focused again. She’d be bending over the dying Kiefer and then suddenly start screaming with laughter.”

On Flatliners. Roberts extended kindness to any and all strays—from a small dog to the passel of crew members’ kids who visited the location site during Christmas week. “There was always a line of kids in and out of Julia’s trailer,” says Schumacher. “She was feeding them and mothering them.”

In short, Roberts doesn’t fit the starlet stereotypes. “I’ve worked with actresses who have been really difficult, and she’s not one of them,” Pretty Woman co-star Richard Gere has said of her. “She’s a very real and decent person, and she’s not caught up in the actress thing.”

In fact, it seems that about the only place Roberts has publicly put her foot in it came out of an innocent act of conscience. Last spring, during filming for her upcoming Sleeping with the Enemy, the story of a woman’s escape from an abusive husband, she referred to Abbeville. S.C., one of the movie’s location sites, as “horribly racist” and her stay there “hell” after a black crew member was refused service at a local restaurant. Enraged South Carolinians chastised her in a Variety ad, but Mom, for one, firmly backed her up. “Julie grew up in the South and is not naive about the fact that there’s prejudice,” says Betty. “But she was very shocked. I’m proud that she spoke up.”

One thing she steadfastly refuses to pipe up about are the vagaries of her private life, kept under wraps as much as the tiny heart that she has had tattooed on her back. In Hollywood, she has a reputation forgetting affectionate with co-stars: She once lived in Venice. Calif., with her Satisfaction co-star Liam Neeson (now the title character in Darkman) and was later engaged to Dylan McDermott. who played her Magnolias screen husband. But her friendship with Sutherland, 23, whom she met on the set of Flatliners, is the one that seems to have stuck. Ever since Sutherland filed for divorce from his wife of three years, Camelia Kath. 36, he and Roberts have been spotted steadily around Hollywood and various film locations. Sutherland, says director Joseph Ruben, visited the Sleeping with the Enemy set, where the couple seemed decidedly “playful.” “Whenever Kiefer would show up and spend time, Julia’s mood would always get good,” says Ruben. “I think they make each other laugh.” That and the rock, a “friendship ring” that was a gift from Sutherland, have led to speculation that the two plan to marry this month.

Should they do so, one thing seems certain: that marriage couldn’t possibly engender more changes than fame already has. “In May,” recalls mom Betty, “she said to me, ‘Do you realize that I have a house in Los Angeles that I bought in January that I haven’t been in for two hours?’ ” During one 24-hour stopover in Atlanta on her way to New York City for final Flatliners sound dubbing, Julia and her mom “went over to Cumberland Mall,” says Betty, “and Julie had on no makeup and a dress that must have been three sizes too big. We walked into the Gap, and sure enough, someone came right up to us. She’s gotten to the point, I guess, where we can’t roam around the mall the way we used to.”

There has been a rather remarkable change as well over at the campus of Campbell High. Where once an aspiring young actress couldn’t even find a drama class, there is now a full-fledged theater curriculum, complete with a prize each year for most promising student. They’re calling it, as Campbell’s most famous alum must surely be pleased to note—the Julia Roberts Award.

Susan Schindehette, Gail Cameron Wescott in Atlanta, Kristina Johnson and Toby Kahn in Los Angeles, Sabrina McFarland in New York City

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