March 30, 2009 12:00 PM

Right before the London premiere of her new film Duplicity—the first in a PR blitz that would take her to Paris and New York—one of the world’s biggest movie stars found herself with a problem suffered by mere mortals everywhere: a major case of the jitters. “I’ve put on three different outfits to come here tonight,” a nervous Julia told PEOPLE. “Three!” Even after settling on a Dolce & Gabbana pantsuit, she didn’t quite feel up to the red carpet: “It’s scary out there!”

Any day of the week, she’d rather be nesting with her three kids—twins Hazel and Phinneaus, 4, and Henry, 21 months—and cinematographer husband Danny Moder, 40. In fact, the actress, 41, credits her brood for helping her juggle work and family. “It’s surprisingly easy,” she says. “Good kids, good support, great husband.” Adds her Duplicity costar Clive Owen: “She balances it brilliantly. She is a very hands-on, lovely mother.”

At the family’s homes in Malibu, New York City and Taos, N. Mex., where she and Moder wed in 2002 (“She’s comfortable here,” says a Taos source), Julia has no Hollywood airs, ditching hair and makeup for knitting needles and quality time in the garden (“We’re big composters!” she says).

Putting family first, Julia has become choosy about roles: Duplicity is her first movie since 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War. “I don’t have the bug to work,” she says. “I have the bug to make good movies, and those don’t come along very often.” When they do, her kids are right there with her: While shooting Duplicity, they could be found jumping on a bed in her trailer. “They’re adorable,” says Tony Gilroy, the film’s writer-director.

While she does her best to shield her children from the spotlight, Julia—whose next film, the drama Fireflies in the Garden, is due in June—says she won’t stand in their way if they follow in her footsteps. “I would prefer,” she told, “that they just wait as long as they can.” And if they don’t? Count on their mother to keep them grounded.

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