How Homecoming's Julia Roberts Uses Her Star Persona to Craft One of the Year's Best Performances

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How <i>Homecoming</i>'s Julia Roberts Uses Her Star Persona to Craft One of the Year's Best Performances

In the fifth episode of Amazon’s Homecoming, our protagonist—if not quite heroine—Heidi Bergman approaches a department store makeup counter. She appears assured, sun-kissed, in her yellow blazer and orange shirtdress, and also uncertain, her steps tentative, her glance wavering. Until, that is, she’s lured in by a shop clerk’s promise of plumper lips, sealed with a flattering question: “What’s your beauty regimen?” When she pulls up outside her office building in the next scene, it’s with that sudden bloom of rom-com confidence—the big eyes cast skyward; the full, pink lips; the satisfied sigh; the smile to herself in the rearview mirror. I already know this woman, at least by her aliases: Vivian Ward, Julianne Potter, perhaps a pre-fame Anna Scott. You do, too. She’s Julia Roberts.

As Heidi—the first recurring TV role of her 30-year career—Roberts isn’t simply playing the caseworker at Homecoming, an experimental facility for recently discharged soldiers. She is, after a fashion, playing all of the women she’s been before: In Homecoming’s dual timelines, one set during Heidi’s tenure at Homecoming and another, four years later, in which an investigator from the Department of Defense (Shea Whigham) pries into the mysterious goings-on there, one might catch glimpses of—even references to—her romantic comedies (Pretty Woman, My Best Friend’s Wedding), her early thrillers (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Pelican Brief), her darker side (Closer), her Oscar turn (Erin Brockovich). Layered this way, with softness in stretches and brassiness in others, harried to distraction or delivering that megawatt grin, the performance has the feeling of one of her forays into the self-referential, from the cameos as herself (The Player, Murphy Brown) to Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal, in which she plays a movie star slumming it in an unglamorous role. Indeed, it’s as if Roberts has drawn on her entire reservoir of experience to forge a new depth of craft: Homecoming is her strongest work since August: Osage County (2013), and one of the best performances of the year.

Her character is the center of the season’s intertwining mysteries, keeping Homecoming aloft when its chased-after conspiracies emerge as (mostly) dead weight. In essence, by coupling the questions swirling around Homecoming— managed from afar by the demanding, suspicious Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale)—with those swirling around Heidi—who appears, four years on, not to remember major aspects of her employment there—the series solves, or at least skirts, the puzzle-box problem. It’s not that the risk of detours, dead ends, red herrings, and other frustrating trademarks of director Sam Esmail’s much-diminished Mr. Robot is eliminated, exactly, but it’s lessened, or changed, by the enigma of Heidi herself.

In part, as Paste’s Jacob Oller writes in his review, this is credit to Roberts’ chemistry with Stephan James, who plays Walter Cruz, a veteran and Homecoming resident to whom Heidi takes a shine. Even more so, though, Heidi becomes Homecoming’s most unstable—and destabilizing—force, slipping the tethers of daily life, and thence of self. She is, by turns, an ingratiating counselor, a distracted girlfriend, a skittish waitress, a neglectful daughter; she might be a co-conspirator or a victim, the threat or the mark. As the series toggles between Homecoming, with its faint sci-fi complexion, and its long aftermath, reminiscent of David Fincher’s investigative noirs, Heidi appears to change her color with that of the light: At heart, she’s a shape-shifter, metamorph, mimic. “Don’t worry, I’m a liar, too,” she explains in a captivating exchange near the end of the sixth episode, “Toys,” written by former Paste TV editor Shannon M. Houston. “I’ll be in my car, or right when I wake up, and it’s like I just appeared out of nowhere. I can just see my whole life, phony, fake, and every word that I say, every second—if that’s the lie, where’s the other one, the real one?”

It’s not that Homecoming is an explicit comment on Roberts’ career, though there are stray images and scraps of dialogue—the repeated appearance of a pelican; an out-of-nowhere, foul-mouthed insult; a story about shitty boyfriends, ill-timed moves, and infuriating jobs that comes with its own, perfect prank—that might be read as nods to it. Instead, Homecoming uses Roberts’ star persona, and our thorough knowledge thereof, to establish, and deconstruct, expectations. The aforementioned gesture at the “makeover” montage, for instance, comes on the heels of a kind deed for Walter, setting us up to believe their relationship might blossom—only for Heidi to balk before she enters the building, attacking her lip gloss, her eyeliner, her blush with a tissue, mortified by what she’s done. Her familiar warmth, in the first sequence at Homecoming, is that of her unpretentious heroines of the 1980s and 1990s—listening avidly, laughing brightly, as she and Walter discuss the mandatory elements of the program—which only underscores the shift when her split-screen phone conversations with Colin turn increasingly fraught later on. In the scenes set four years later, the technique works in reverse: At first, Heidi has the caginess of Roberts’ harder-edged work, in Osage County or The Normal Heart, all crossed arms and curt answers, but as the season proceeds, she lets down her defenses, trying to confront the memories she’s lost. It’s as if she is the narrative. Both move inexorably toward an unknown middle, the moment at which one Heidi transforms into the next.

When Roberts is on screen, even Esmail manages to fight his penchant for mannerism. Compared to the sequences following the trail of Homecoming’s corporate owner, Geist, which lean on long takes, wide pans, dramatic zooms, and other fillips of “style” designed to distract from the images’ (and narrative’s) emptiness, the camera’s close attention to Heidi is almost restrained, highlighting the inflections in Roberts’ body language. With a few telling exceptions—the premiere’s showy first shot, for instance—her face and torso are the focus, framed in still, crisp close-ups: I made note of her deep intake of breath as Walter describes a temptation to self-harm; the blank stare that precedes a laugh about her overfed fish; her centeredness, her incandescent presence, as she promises him “I’m here.” Homecoming contains its share of memorable compositions—lowering us down a spiral staircase, or catching the flicker of fluorescents in a DoD archive—but none of these register as central to the story. The slow, almost imperceptible move in on Roberts’ face as Heidi calls herself a liar, on the other hand? That reads like its core.

Whatever you conclude about its postwar uneasiness, its anti-corporate horror—as with Mr. Robot, I find the series’ “politics” rather out of its depth—Homecoming’s canny use of Roberts, the performer, and Roberts, the persona, creates a mystery that isn’t, or isn’t only, based on withholding the strange specifics. Heidi’s animating questions, in the end, are ones we all share, whether or not we suffer lapses in memory or work for unscrupulous men: Is this who I am, or is it pretend? Did I change, or just my surroundings? And if I do become someone different, wasn’t that me the whole time? This is the thing about the best mysteries, and indeed the best liars, shape-shifters, metamorphs, mimics: It’s not the secret that matters. It’s how you reveal it, or how you cover it up.

Homecoming is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.