Julia Roberts' best dramatic movie roles: Stepmom, Wonder, and more

America’s sweetheart gets serious

For the last 30 years, Julia Roberts’ movie-star charisma and megawatt smile have been lighting up movie screens. But the iconic actress — and this week’s EW cover star — is so much more than just a Pretty Woman, and her upcoming appearances in the opioid-crisis drama Ben Is Back and the Amazon Prime series Homecoming are the latest in a decades-long tradition of meaty dramatic roles. Revisit 15 of her best, ahead.

Flatliners (1990)

Just a few months after Pretty Woman hit theaters, Roberts followed it up with a role in Joel Schumacher’s sci-fi horror film, in which she played one of five medical students conducting a series of terrifying experiments in an effort to determine what happens after life.

Sleeping with the Enemy (1991)

Roberts played a young woman who fakes her own death to escape her abusive husband — but even that turns out not to be enough to get away from him — in Joseph Ruben’s psychological thriller.

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Looking back on her 30-year career, Roberts mentions Alan J. Pakula’s legal thriller, in which she plays a law student who exposes government corruption, as a particularly formative experience. “I consider Pelican Brief to be a moment that really brought me into full focus of who I wanted to be as an actor,” the actress says, “and working with Alan Pakula was such a dream come true.”

Michael Collins, 1996

Liam Neeson played the title character in Neil Jordan’s historical drama, while Roberts appeared as the Irish revolutionary’s fiancée.

Conspiracy Theory (1997)

Roberts starred as a Justice Department lawyer opposite Mel Gibson’s obsessive conspiracy-theorist cab driver in Richard Donner’s thriller.

Stepmom (1998)

Julia Roberts is the stepmom. Susan Sarandon is the terminally ill mom. Grab some tissues before diving into Chris Columbus-directed tear-jerker.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Roberts won an Oscar (on her third nomination) as well as a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for starring in Steven Soderbergh’s biopic about the eponymous environmental activist. “Meeting Steven Soderbergh and doing Erin Brockovich was a major moment for me in my personal and professional life, in my relationship with him,” she says; she would reteam with the filmmaker for Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Twelve (2004) as well as 2002’s Full Frontal.  

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

Roberts earned a record $25 million salary for her role in Mike Newell’s drama, in which she played a free-thinking art history professor in 1950s New England who inspires her privileged female students — including Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Julia Stiles — to question their very midcentury attitudes and live authentically.

Closer (2004)

“My relationship with [Mike Nichols] changed my life,” Roberts says of the late filmmaker, who cast her in his couple-swapping drama opposite Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen. “I just think [he] was the greatest director of my young cinematic life, and all of the movies that he had directed really informed how I felt about films.”

August: Osage County (2013)

The actress earned her fourth Oscar nomination for her performance in John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, in which she played the oldest daughter in a dysfunctional family led by a cruel matriarch (Meryl Streep).

The Normal Heart (2014)

Roberts first explored TV with a handful of guest appearances and a role in Ryan Murphy’s HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play dealing with the AIDS crisis in the early ‘80s.

Money Monster (2016)

Director Jodie Foster called on her A-list pals Roberts and George Clooney to carry this thriller, in which a TV financial expert’s (Clooney) show is interrupted by an angry viewer (Jack O’Connell) wielding a gun; Roberts, as the show’s director, watches and advises her star from the booth.

Wonder (2017)

Just last year, Roberts appeared in Stephen Chbosky’s heart-tugging adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel. The actress played the mother of a 10-year-old boy (Jacob Tremblay) with a rare facial deformity.

Homecoming (2018) 

With Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail and based on the 2016 Gimlet podcast of the same name, Roberts takes on her first starring role in a TV series. She plays a woman who once worked with a seemingly good program dedicated to helping soldiers readjust to civilian life — or that’s what its purpose claimed to be, anyway. Four years later, she has no memory of her experience there, and people are asking a lot of questions. “You can feel the tragedy of this woman being caged,” co-creator Eli Horowitz says of the intense series. “We’re not used to seeing Julia Roberts get intimidated or bullied.”

Homecoming debuts Nov. 2 on Amazon Prime Video.

Ben Is Back (2018)

Roberts’ latest big-screen drama takes place over the course of a fraught 24 hours in which Roberts’ character nervously welcomes her son Ben (Lucas Hedges), an opioid addict, back home on Christmas Eve after a stint in rehab. “I kinda used Orpheus as a jumping-off point — the notion of someone who loves someone so much, they’ll go into the underworld to bring them back,” writer-director Peter Hedges tells EW in the cover story. “And who better to go into the underworld to bring her child back than Julia Roberts?”

Ben Is Back hits theaters Dec. 7.

All hail the queen!

For more on Julia Roberts, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, or buy your choice of two covers online: Julia in blue or Julia in black and white. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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