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Julia Roberts on Breaking the Salary Glass Ceiling for Female Movie Stars: ‘Get Real — Let’s Be Fair’

Julia Roberts broke the glass ceiling for A-list female movie stars when she commanded $20 million for 2000's "Erin Brockovich." Until then, no woman actor had been getting as much pay as male counterparts such as Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks, who ruled the '90s box office alongside Roberts.

At Saturday's A+E Networks and History Channel's History Talks in Washington D.C., moderator Gayle King asked Roberts about the negotiation tactics she employed to gain equal pay.

"I didn't feel so boxish about it, but I felt like, 'Come on," Roberts said. "Which is my nature — not to be all up-in-arms about something, but to say, 'Let's get real. Let's be fair.'"

Roberts acknowledged that she'd earned her paycheck, having carried such culture-defining hits as "Pretty Woman," "Notting Hill" and "My Best Friend's Wedding."

"When I'm working, I work very hard," Roberts said. "I'm ready. I'm on time. I'm prepared. I'm happy. I'm all-in. So, show me the money."

During their conversation, Roberts and King also discussed the challenges of speaking out. Often for women, King said, "taking the high road" — in agreements about salary among other things — means "shutting up." But Roberts maintained she was never worried about getting penalized for standing up for herself.

"I really cant help myself," Roberts said. "I'm a plain speaker and I say whats on my mind. I try to be thoughtful with my words. I don't fly off the handle, but I'm pretty direct. Not everybody warms to me."

King pressed Roberts to elaborate on that last sentiment.

"I think some people would say I'm harsh or strict or intense, which secretly makes me laugh. I'm so happy someone thinks that," Roberts said. But, she adds, "It's OK to be authoritative about a situation without worrying people aren't going to like you. I like being liked, but I like things to be correct as well."

When asked to name her favorite movie, Roberts slyly ducked the question — saying her friend, the surfer Kelly Slater, once answered that inquiry for her, pointing to the 2001 romantic comedy "The Mexican" where she met her husband, Daniel Moder.

After 20 years of marriage, King asked if Roberts still gets butterflies. "Don't do this to me, Gayle. Yes, I do," she admitted.

Roberts, decades into her Hollywood career, also still feels "complete joy, giddy awe that I have a job which is the complete dream of my life." She added, "I'm playing pretend. I dress up in clothes that aren't mine.

As her kids grow up, she said, she realized it's important for them to see her leave the house to pursue her own ambitions. "There's that guilt thing, as a mom, to leave and do something and feel selfish about that time," she said. "I had to, with the great encouragement of my husband, learn to take that space for myself and not feel like it's taking it away from anyone else."

Near the end of the conversation, Roberts remembered the early days of the pandemic when she interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci on Instagram for the public health nonprofit the ONE campaign. Roberts shared that she still has never gotten diagnosed with COVID.

"I have a very hearty constitution. I don't get sick a lot. I can eat anything. I'm not allergic to anything," she said. "I'm an ox in a girl's body."

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