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Gwyneth Paltrow won the Oscar for best actress thanks to her role in "Shakespeare in Love," but it was Julia Roberts who was originally courted for the role of Viola de Lesseps. Producer Edward Zwick recently published a first-person essay for Air Mail about the the making of "Shakespeare in Love." The director behind "Glory" and "Legends of the Fall" championed the film from the beginning, coordinating with Marc Norman on the original script and getting famed playwright Tom Stoppard to come onboard to do a re-write. Zwick also bore witness to Julia Roberts joining and abandoning the project in spectacular fashion.
According to Zwick, Universal Pictures only agreed to put down money for the film when Julia Roberts expressed interest in starring in the lead role. As Zwick wrote, "The mere possibility of having the 'Pretty Woman' wearing a corseted gown got the studio excited enough to cough up the dough. Ten weeks later I was back in London, where a xeroxed copy of Stoppard's first draft was waiting in my fancy hotel room."
Zwick later traveled to London with Roberts, where the two were heading so that Roberts could perform chemistry reads with several actors being lined up to play William Shakespeare. Zwick said that Roberts became obsessed with casting Daniel Day-Lewis in the role, even though Day-Lewis already told Zwick that he was committed to filming "In the Name of the Father" with his "My Left Foot" director Jim Sheridan.
"He's brilliant — he's handsome and intense. And so funny!" Zwick recalled Roberts telling him. "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."
Zwick said that almost immediately Roberts was asking her assistant "for two dozen roses to be sent to Daniel Day-Lewis, along with a card that read: 'Be my Romeo.'"
Later, at a dinner with Roberts and Stoppard the night before the chemistry reads, Zwick said Roberts "received a message and leaped to her feet, grabbed her purse, made a quick garbled apology about having forgotten plans to see an old friend, and hurried away." Roberts then did not show up the next morning for chemistry reads. Zwick said he met with the actor in her hotel room, where "she proceeded to tell me that Daniel was going to do the movie and I should cancel today's casting."
Zwick later met in person with Day-Lewis, who once again told him that he was committed to "In the Name of the Father." Zwick had an assistant break the news to Roberts' team. Roberts showed up at the chemistry reads the next day and was paired with Ralph Fiennes.
"Even as Ralph did his best to elicit the famous smile, Julia barely acknowledged him," Zwick said. "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."
"The rest of that day and every day of the week that followed went just as badly," Zwick continued. "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.
Zwick said two weeks of casting went by until Julia agreed to test with the actor Paul McGann.
"On the morning of the test, Julia emerged from makeup, looking radiant in full period costume," Zwick said. "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."
"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," he continued. "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 got in contact with Roberts' manager, who he said informed him that "Julia had flown back to the U.S. and that she was leaving the project." Zwick said he called Tom Pollock, the head of Universal at the time, who informed him the company had already spent $6 million on the project at that point. On the strength of Roberts' casting, the studio had already begun building sets, making costumes and securing locations. Zwick said Pollock assured him he would get Roberts back on board, but he never did.
"I've never spoken to Julia again," Zwick said. "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."
Variety has reached out to Julia Roberts' representative for further comment.
"Shakespeare in Love" would eventually get revived by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax Pictures, but not without the now-disgraced producer threatening to fire Zwick off the project. Gwyneth Paltrow was cast in the role, which would later earn her an Academy Award for best actress.