Is it possible to take a bad photo of Julia Roberts? That’s what I’m wondering as the megastar glides effortlessly onto the set and begins posing for the rapid-fire shots of fashion photographer Tom Munro. She is somehow luminous in every one, whether her hair is swept right or left, her gaze dreamy or serious. The shoot is so successful that the photographer seems even happier than she is – and her smile is insured for $30 million.

Reluctant to be away from her family, the eternal Pretty Woman opted to bring her modelling career home with her whenever possible when Lancôme asked her to become one of its faces in 2009. That’s why we’re currently at her house in Malibu, a wooded coastal suburb of Los Angeles, where the actress, her husband and their three children took up residence about 10 years ago. Luckily, the sprawling villa, with its perpetually golden light, is the perfect setting for a shoot, and Roberts’ children – total Californians with blond hair and skater style – can hang out at a neighbour’s house after school or come home and watch their mom at work alongside Serge Normant, Roberts’ hairdresser and friend of 30 years, who is never far away with a blow-dryer in hand.

Thanks to her collaboration with Lancôme, the actress, whose moments in the public eye are rare but stellar, says she can devote herself to her loved ones – the secret to a successful work-life balance, as she sees it. Married to Danny Moder for 18 years, which is an eternity in Hollywood, Roberts seems to lead the life of a well-heeled soccer mom, running between her kids’ sports matches, birthday parties and breakfasts out with girlfriends. It’s an idyllic world but one that feels precarious as devastating wildfires invade California and threaten to disrupt the balance she’s created.

Dress (Brunello Cucinelli), earrings (Chrome Hearts) and shoes (Stella McCartney)

What is the recipe for happiness?

“You’re starting with the $10-million question! Surround yourself with guides and mentors, and always be on the lookout for joy.”

Who are your guides and mentors?

“My husband, above all, because he’s intelligent and gives good advice. And I have a group of friends whom I can count on for their honesty. When I ask for an opinion, I don’t want to be told what I want to hear; I want to know what they really think. I’m very lucky to have people in my life and at my side who are very frank with me.”

Are they childhood friends?

“I’ve known my best friend, who lives in Chicago, since high school, but the group I’m referring to are women I met after moving to Malibu about 10 years ago. These are the friends I see all the time – some every day and others at least once a week because we play mah-jong. When my husband happens to be at home on a Tuesday, our mah-jong day, he always says to me: ‘You’re so lucky! I hear you all laughing and then things calm down and get serious.’ He’s right – it’s a great opportunity to be able to joke or discuss our problems every Tuesday while playing this wonderful game.”

How do you take care of your body and mind?

“I try to move every day. I used to be a big jogger, but since an ankle injury, I’ve had to do other things. It reminds me that I’ve put in 50 years of use on my poor little joints! For my mental health, I try different things depending on where I am in my life, but there’s one constant: I always try my best to feel connected to the people I love.”

What should you do but don’t?

“I read that you should acquire a new skill every 19 years to live a long, healthy life. I recently turned 52, and I always say to myself that I should probably find some sort of course to fill my 50s quota.”

What would you like to learn?

“Honestly, when I lie awake at night thinking about it, the number of things that pop into my head is almost comical. Guitar, basketry, cooking… .”

You don’t look at your phone when you wake up in the middle of the night?

“Never in my life! I read or I do something calming. I don’t want to know what’s going on in the world at three in the morning.”

Are current events a source of anxiety for you?

“In California right now, life revolves around the weather and the fires. This is nerve-racking because it’s out of anyone’s control. Recently, the winds were so strong that my kids’ school was closed for four days. Last year, at the same time of year, my friends lost their home. We had to evacuate ours, but, thankfully, it didn’t burn down.”

Sweater (Hermès), skirt (Brunello Cucinelli) and earrings and rings (Cartier)

Do you feel like this affects your kids?

“There was a night or two when the boys came and woke us up a couple of times because they kept smelling something burning. My husband had to reassure them.”

What do you do to de-stress?

“My general attitude toward stress is not to let it build up. I try to deal with it bit by bit to avoid exploding like a pressure cooker. For example, I immediately speak to the person with whom I’m having a conflict, and I always look for practical solutions to difficult situations. I also hate being late, and traffic can really stress me out – I’ve definitely chosen the wrong city to live in – so I often leave early if I have to get anywhere. At the beginning of November, when the wind heightened the fire risk, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do everything possible to reduce my stress levels.’ I make sure the car always has a full tank of gas, I’ve asked the kids to pack a suitcase, I have mine ready, I have all the passports close at hand, a photo of my mother, a family album, and it’s all packed up. The car has been loaded with everything for four days so it’s ready to go.”

Has your definition of success changed over time?

“Oh, yes. Success at 20 years old meant paying my bills, which made me feel like an accomplished adult. Once you can accomplish that without too much difficulty, then you can move on to new, greater challenges and a broader meaning of success. Personally, my most recent role, in Homecoming, was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.”

Why was it such an accomplishment?

“There was so much dialogue to memorize! My kids would come home from school, and I would come home from shooting, and we would each do our homework…except mine was never-ending and went on for months! It was very challenging. But working so hard, being on-set at 7 a.m., repeating an 11-page scene until it was perfect – I’ve never felt that good. And I’ve never felt such a synergy on-set either. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get that with the heart of your production team, but here it was the entire team, everyone involved.”

Having a role that feels progressive at 50 is a good sign in a world where these types of opportunities are diminishing.

“I’ve always felt that my roles find me at the right moment.”

You radiate professional success, but what is personal success for you?

“A day that ends with homework done, a clean kitchen and no injuries.”

You’ve been a face of Lancôme for a decade. Do you recognize yourself in the Lancôme woman you represent? 

“God knows I don’t look like her on a daily basis – I’d need 10 to 15 people to help me get there. [Laughs] But there’s something honest about her. Sure, I benefit from great lighting and a pretty dress, but that woman isn’t someone else – it’s just a more-glammed-up version of me. When Lancôme approached me, I told them, ‘I don’t want you to hire me so that you can erase everything that makes me me,’ and I appreciate that they respected that. Having a voice in the matter is surely a factor that contributes to the great relationship and collaboration we’ve cultivated over the years.”

Photography, Tom Munro; stylist, Isabel Dupre; makeup, Genevieve Herr (Lancôme); hair, Serge Normant; styling assistant, Nadia Beeman; manicure, Christina Grac.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of ELLE Canada. Copies will be available to purchase on newsstands across Canada and online here.