Julia Roberts Left ‘Shakespeare in Love’ After ‘Disaster’ Chemistry Reads, Allegedly Cost Studio $6 Million

7 March 2023

Julia Roberts may be America’s sweetheart, but that allegedly wasn’t so in Britain on the making of “Shakespeare in Love.”

“Shakespeare in Love” producer Edward Zwick penned an essay for Air Mail revisiting Roberts’ demands during the casting process for the Oscar-winning film. Roberts was up for the lead role of Viola de Lesseps, which eventually went to Gwyneth Paltrow who won Best Actress for her performance. However, Roberts’ unique approach to chemistry reads in part cost Universal upwards of $6 million at the time, Zwick claimed, before Miramax took over the film.

“The mere possibility of having the ‘Pretty Woman’ wearing a corseted gown got the studio excited enough to cough up the dough,” Zwick wrote, adding that Roberts was determined to star opposite Daniel Day-Lewis despite Day-Lewis already being committed to “In the Name of the Father” at the time.

“He’s brilliant — he’s handsome and intense. And so funny!” Roberts allegedly told Zwick. “Did you see his performance in ‘A Room with a View’? He’s done Shakespeare, too. Don’t you think he’d be perfect? … I can get him to do it.”

Per Zwick, Roberts requested that two dozen roses “be sent to Daniel Day-Lewis, along with a card that read ‘Be my Romeo,” to convince Day-Lewis to take on the role. Roberts then did not show up to the scheduled chemistry reads with other actors and “proceeded to tell me that Daniel was going to do the movie and I should cancel today’s casting,” according to Zwick.

Roberts later performed opposite Ralph Fiennes in the first chemistry read pairing.

“Even as Ralph did his best to elicit the famous smile, Julia barely acknowledged him,” Zwick wrote. “I’m not suggesting she was deliberately sabotaging, but it was a disaster nonetheless. I tried to catch Ralph’s eye to apologize as he left but he couldn’t get out of there fast enough. After he was gone, I turned to Julia, awaiting her reaction. ‘He isn’t funny’ is all she said.”

Zwick continued, “The rest of that day and every day of the week that followed went just as badly. I no longer have my cast lists, but among the yet-to-be-discovered young actors, I remember: Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Colin Firth, Sean Bean, Jeremy Northam. Julia found fault with all of them: one was stiff, another wasn’t romantic, and so on.”

It was two weeks of casting until Roberts agreed to test with actor Paul McGann. However, there was “no magic” between the two stars, and Roberts’ uncomfortable British accent proved to be the deciding factor for the star to exit, according to Zwick.

“On the morning of the test, Julia emerged from makeup, looking radiant in full period costume,” Zwick stated. “But once she began to say the words, something was wrong. There was no magic. The problem wasn’t the script. Or Paul McGann. It was Julia. From the moment she began to speak it was clear she hadn’t been working on the accent.”

Zwick continued, “Sensing Julia’s discomfort, I tried to be encouraging, but she must have intuited my unease, and I made the tragic mistake of underestimating her insecurity. Having only recently been catapulted to the dizzying heights atop the Hollywood food chain, she must have been terrified to fail. But I would never get to talk her off the ledge. The next morning when I called her room, I was told she had checked out.”

Zwick said that Tom Pollock, the head of Universal at the time, told Zwick that the production company had spent $6 million already building sets, making costumes, and securing filming locations with the belief that Roberts was cast.

“I’ve never spoken to Julia again,” Zwick wrote. “Instead, I’ve observed from afar as her work grew in depth and stature. I bear her no ill will. She was a frightened 24-year-old. I wasn’t much older, trying to act the grown-up as I watched the Globe Theatre torn down. And with it my dreams of grandeur.”

IndieWire has reached out to Roberts’ representatives for comment.

According to Michael Schulman’s “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears,” Roberts was dead set on landing Day-Lewis to play Shakespeare before he turned down the role (and amid reports of a rumored fling). “Universal’s Tom Pollack reportedly said, ‘Couldn’t she have waited to fuck him until we had his name on a piece of paper?’” Schulman wrote.

Producer Zwick tried to repackage the film with Stephan Dillane and Emily Watson, and later Kenneth Branagh and Winona Ryder. Yet Zwick noted that Universal ultimately canceled production moving forward after Roberts’ botched 1992 casting immediately post-“Pretty Woman.”

“All of a sudden, Universal pulls the plug,” Zwick said, “and the tabloids are all about how Julia Roberts (and probably me) had destroyed the British film industry.”

By 1996, Miramax had taken over the project, a fact Zwick learned only by reading industry trades.

“No one tells me a word, this thing that I have bled over. It’s not just that [Weinstein] controls the rights to ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ but he decides that he doesn’t want me to have anything to do with it,” Zwick said. “He’s stealing my movie.”

Zwick recalled the “utter malice” of Weinstein when he was negotiating production company credit, claiming Weinstein even was threatening his family. Casting was still in disarray, albeit with Weinstein putting Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead hot off “Emma.” Russell Crowe was offered the role of Shakespeare but wouldn’t sign onto a four-picture deal with Miramax. Ethan Hawke was additionally in the mix to be cast.

As Paltrow told Variety in 2019, Ben Affleck was also eyed to play Shakespeare, but the actor was busy filming Kevin Smith’s “Dogma.”

“At the last minute, Harvey wanted Ben Affleck to take over and play Shakespeare,” Paltrow said. “I said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You have to have an English person.’”

Later Affleck was cast as Ned Alleyn, with the part of Shakespeare going to original actor Fiennes’ younger brother Joseph Fiennes. “Shakespeare in Love” went on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.

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