To be or not to be inShakespeare in Love, that was the question for Julia Roberts.
According to producer Ed Zwick, Roberts was initially attached to star in the 1998 period drama as Viola de Lesseps, a role that would eventually land Gwyneth Paltrow an Oscar. In a new essay for Air Mail, Zwick writes that the Pretty Woman star, then 24, abruptly departed the project after a series of disastrous chemistry reads.
"The mere possibility of having the Pretty Woman wearing a corseted gown got the studio excited enough to cough up the dough," Zwick writes of securing financing for the project. Roberts traveled to London for chemistry reads with a crop of "yet-to-be-discovered young actors" for the role of William Shakespeare, Zwick adds, saying Roberts "found fault with all of them."
Julia Roberts; Gwyneth Paltrow in 'Shakespeare in Love'
| CREDIT: PRESLEY ANN/GETTY IMAGES; EVERETT COLLECTION
Roberts was set on casting Daniel Day-Lewis as the young playwright, according to the producer, but the actor was already committed to filming 1993's In the Name of the Father. Roberts was convinced Day-Lewis could be persuaded, even sending him "two dozen roses" with a note reading "Be my Romeo," according to Zwick. When it became clear Day-Lewis would not be joining the project, the producer says Roberts read lines with Ralph Fiennes in what he describes as a "disaster" of an audition.
"Even as Ralph did his best to elicit the famous smile, Julia barely acknowledged him," Zwick writes. "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 following two weeks of casting went "just as badly," Zwick continues. "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."
Finally, Zwick says Roberts agreed to read with Paul McGann. "On the morning of the test, Julia emerged from makeup, looking radiant in full period costume," says the producer. "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."
Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in 'Shakespeare in Love'
| CREDIT: MIRAMAX
Zwick continues, "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."
When Zwick got in contact with Roberts' manager, he says he was told that Roberts had flown back to the U.S. and decided to leave the project. "I've never spoken to Julia again," Zwick writes. At the time, the producer says he was told Universal had already spent $6 million on the project.
"I bear her no ill will," he adds of Roberts. "She was a frightened 24-year-old. I wasn't much older, trying to act the grown-up as I watched the Globe Theatre [set] torn down. And with it my dreams of grandeur."
Reps for Roberts didn't respond to EW's request for comment.
Shakespeare in Love was ultimately produced by Miramax and disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, who unsuccessfully tried to remove Zwick from the project. Paltrow ultimately starred in the film opposite Fiennes' actor brother Joseph Fiennes.