‘It’s wonderful to not get stuck with the ingénue roles. Not being the love interest frees you up to do a lot of other things,” says Julia Ormond, who has been inconspicuous for some years after one of the most conspicuous careers of the nineties. For a moment there, she was Hollywood’s Next Big Thing, primo alpha-male bait, fought over by Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn in 1994’s Legends of the Fall, Richard Gere and Sean Connery in 1995’s First Knight, and Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear in Sydney Pollack’s remake of Sabrina. “You think they’re different—one’s a Western, one’s a fairy tale, one’s a romantic comedy,” she says of those roles. “Then you step back and realize it’s the same thing.”
And now, here she is again, at 43, appearing in small yet key parts in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button andChe. In the first, it’s her reading of Benjamin Button’s journal that propels the film’s flashback structure (though she is never reunited onscreen with Pitt, who plays Button). In the second, she is American journalist Lisa Howard, whose interview with Benicio Del Toro’s Che provides the film’s structure. “Julia put on a blonde wig and sent us a tape of herself as Howard,” says director Steven Soderbergh of casting her. “It was pretty spectacular, and that’s all it took.”
If the parts aren’t big, at least the Surrey-born, stage-trained actress gets to take risks in ways those stand-around-and-look-pretty parts didn’t allow. To wit, her trifecta of shape-shifting weirdness in David Lynch’s 2006 Inland Empire. Total screen time? Seven minutes. But the range required was astonishing (she plays, in turn, a tormented white-trash stabbing victim, the stabber herself, and a mysterious upper-crust woman). It was also notable for what it provoked in viewers: Wait! Was that Julia Ormond? What ever happened to her?
In fact, she had a rather precipitous fall. “You could see it coming,” she says. “I’m British, so I can’t help but see anybody who is getting that kind of hype as being set up to be torn down.” First Knight and Sabrina got creamed by critics. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, an anticipated adaptation of the best seller, opened and promptly closed in early 1997. Then she got stuck in Moscow working on the runaway Russian epic The Barber of Siberia; it shot for nearly a year, then got shelved for two.
Ironically, she had taken the lead in Barber to get out of a creative rut and back to her Stanislavsky roots. When the film opened in 1999, however, it, too, was panned, amid speculation that its director, Nikita Mikhalkov, might run for president of Russia. “I got to Cannes thinking finally we could talk about the work,” she recalls. “And it all went horribly pear-shaped right in the press conference. The timing was classically funny.”
Which is when Ormond’s natural detachment kicked in. “I needed breathing space,” she said. She took a break and had a daughter with activist and entrepreneur Jon Rubin. She also threw herself into nonprofit work: In 1999, she helped found FilmAid International, which brings film into refugee camps around the world. A documentary she produced about women in Bosnian concentration camps, Calling the Ghosts, won two Emmys. More recently, Ormond founded the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking (ASSET), which works with governments to clean up the supply chains that allow for human trafficking. “You look at the products in your home and you realize slavery is all around you—in most cotton, a lot of coffee and cocoa, and in the charcoal which goes into steel production. You realize there’s more you can be doing.”
And slowly she began to take parts again—her latest two because of the directors. Button’s David Fincher surprised her by being—despite his F/X-wizard rep—minutely involved in character development. “I wish more people would tell you what they want.”
Che was a bigger challenge. The romantic energy between her character and Guevara had to be created entirely through glances, since the dialogue itself came from an existing Q&A that was entirely “professional,” says Ormond. “Some of my favorite scenes are the looks on her face when she’s watching Che interact with other people at a party,” says Soderbergh, who first noticed Ormond in the British mini-series Traffic, which he later made into a film. “We were moving very quickly and no one knew when we were shooting and when we weren’t. The only direction I gave Julia was to assume the camera was always on. I can’t imagine anybody better for what we were trying to accomplish. She brings a rigor to the backstory that’s a prerequisite when you’re shooting the way I described. She seems to remember everything she’s ever read or heard, so she can call on that at a moment’s notice and improvise on the spot. There are a lot of people who not only can’t do that but who don’t want to.”
Still, neither of these movies or their marketing campaigns is focused on Ormond. “Is it hard to face a moment when you’re up and then suddenly no longer be flavor of the month? Sure,” she says. “But it strengthens you, too. Acting is about more than luck and breaks.” And, in her case, the hype.