By Amy Longsdorf
Updated December 19, 2003 01:25 PM

That smile is back. After a low-key year – away from the red carpet and spending time with husband Danny Moder – Julia Roberts is back in the spotlight with her new film, Mona Lisa Smile. In it, the actress plays an art history professor at the upper-crusty Wellesley College in the 1950s who helps liberate the minds of her young students, played by such Julias-to-be as Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Julia Stiles.

Roberts recently spoke to reporters about the power of teachers (and making do without them), balancing career and marriage, and her early days listening to .38 Special.

So, first off: Is Mona Lisa Smile a ‘chick flick’?
We just made a movie.

The film is set in the 1950s. What did you do to prepare for the time warp?
I watched some really nice documentaries on the ’50s which I thought were very informative. It was a really interesting period of time where our culture became ruled by television and advertising and you worried about the appliances that you had.

Your character has a huge influence on her students. Did you have any acting teachers that inspired you when you were younger?
No, but we didn’t have a theater department or drama or anything where I went to school. I look at it as a positive – that no one did take that much interest in me. To be ignored can shape just as well as to be lauded, I suppose.

So, who ignored you?
Well, I’m not saying that I was ignored per se, but I’m saying that I didn’t have someone who necessarily saw some untapped potential in me and made me feel as though I had some bright future ahead.

How was working with Julia Stiles?
I think that she’s remarkable. I think that she’s a poised, bright, interesting girl. She’s one of my favorite actors to watch in movies, and when we were first developing ideas for cast, she was the very first person that I wanted to have be in this movie. She’s just really professional. I also find her to be this wonderfully, timelessly breathtaking girl.

What advice would you give to other young actresses?
I would just say to really enjoy what you do – and do it because you enjoy it, because that’s what sustains you over time.

Is it tough to balance both a busy career and a strong marriage?
It’s not. I mean, there’s relatively, in my experience, a real ease to it – in part because I’ve been able to have a lot of great career opportunities … the kind of tension or focus that I give to my career can be very sporadic, and of my choosing. So, I’m really fortunate in that way. I can really devote myself to my family and there isn’t a conflict and doesn’t make me feel torn.

What kind of music do you listen to these days? Is it different from when you were younger?
I think that I listen to a lot more eclectic music now. I had strange tastes in music as a young person because I had a brother who was 11 years older than I was. So I was sort of introduced to southern rock ‘n’ roll at a young age and listened to .38 Special – but I also had Beatles records and a Julie Andrews record. So, it was a very confusing time for me. (Laughs.)