Although best known for her romantic comedies and horror roles, the actor-producer has quietly built her passion project, Belletrist, into one of the world’s preeminent book clubs. She tells C Magazine about its next chapter
I can see Emma Roberts but I cannot hear her. Something has gone wrong with one of our computers because she cannot hear me, either. She’s miming frantically in her rental property in New York between fits of giggles. Is it my microphone? Is it yours? Which one of us has f*&$%d this up?! If she were born in 1891 as opposed to 1991, Roberts would have a great future in silent movies. She’s delightful on mute — so animated and expressive. In fact, maybe we could do the entire interview as a game of charades?
But no. After a minute or so of Laurel-and-Hardy-ing around, we repair to FaceTime and the sound era begins. “I’m so sorry!” she says. It turns out she had left her AirPods connected in the next room, adding to her long list of reasons to hate modern technology. “There’s something much more romantic about a phone call, but people always want to Zoom,” she says. “My best friend and I talk on the phone for hours. I still have a landline, which people find shocking.”
Indeed, there is something refreshingly analog about Roberts, 32. Well, she is about as analog as you can be when you have more than 20 million Instagram followers and a sizable cult on TikTok, where her characters from American Horror Story and Scream Queens regularly resurface as memes. But it is telling that the old school Tumblr is her platform of choice. “Tumblr is the last corner of the internet where I feel I can discover new things that aren’t algorithmed to death,” she says.
And she’d really prefer to be making a collage herself with scissors and glue. “I’m all about tangible objects,” she says. “I never read on a computer or a device — I always have a physical book. I’m always with a pen, always with a notebook. I buy so many magazines every month because I love to sit and decompress and make a collage. I’m very tactile.” What she really loves to do — what she does whenever she finds herself in a new town — is wander into the local bookstore and ask what everyone has been reading. The Last Bookstore and Book Soup are her favorites in Los Angeles, the town where she grew up. “I love to stumble upon something myself,” she declares.
She has poured this passion for books into Belletrist, the hugely successful online book club that she co-founded with her friend Karah Preiss in 2017, which has an audience of more than a quarter of a million. Belletrist has won a loyal following among readers and writers alike. “As social media and the endless stream of content distract and create noise, Belletrist is like a homegoing, a quiet space to bring readers from all different walks of life together,” says Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women, whose novel Animal was featured by Roberts. “Emma and Karah and the rest of the team are wise and well-read,” Taddeo adds, “but they are also current and cool, and that amalgamation is what will keep Belletrist not only relevant but also a genuine force.” Roberts also recorded the audiobook of Animal.
Roberts has been in show business since she was 10. From as early as she can remember, she was putting on fashion shows for her mom, Kelly Cunningham, and asking for “real people” whenever someone put on a cartoon. You could say stories are in her genes. Her father, Eric Roberts, is the star of such movies as Runaway Train, Inherent Vice, and The Dark Knight; her aunt Julia Roberts is, not to put too fine a point on it, Julia Roberts. But Emma insists a Pop-Tart commercial inspired her to take up acting. “It looked so cool!” she says. “It was just these kids dancing and eating Pop-Tarts, and my mom would never buy me Pop-Tarts. I thought, ‘If I was in a Pop-Tart commercial, I could eat a Pop Tart.’”
That dream never came to pass. But her screen debut arrived in 2001, when she played Johnny Depp’s daughter in Blow. Roberts went on to win numerous Teen Choice awards for Nickelodeon series like Unfabulous in her teens, to star in movies like Wild Child and We’re the Millers, and to become a horror darling for her work with Ryan Murphy’s wildly successful American Horror Story franchise.
But the constant in her life — and the subject she returns to with the most enthusiasm — is her love of books. “I was home-schooled from the eighth grade,” she says, “so books were my everything — for work, for school, for fun.” It doesn’t take long for her to share her recent treasures: a first edition of Son of Rosemary, Ira Levin’s sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, which she found on Etsy; and Dakota Days, an account of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s period in New York City’s Dakota Building, written by Ono’s astrologer. She is always pressing books on people and making recommendations for vacation reading lists, but it wasn’t until 2017 that she decided to turn her ardor into a project.
“I would always post what I was reading on Instagram and Karah was like, ‘Wow, there’s so many comments and engagement on these pictures of books,’” she recalls. “So I started having all these conversations in the comments, and then we were like, ‘Why don’t we create a space for this where we recommend books?’”
One of the joys of Belletrist is that it has grown organically out of Roberts and Preiss’ friendship. Preiss lives in New York and Roberts in Los Angeles, and in addition to their landline conversations, the pair has always sent books back and forth by mail. “Karah introduced me to Patti Smith and Joan Didion — all these icons I didn’t know about as a teenager, but she knew because she was cooler than me,” Roberts says. “We’re constantly still recommending books at every second of the day to each other. It’s been really nice to also have a friendship that turned into ‘work.’ I put that in quotes because it doesn’t feel like work.”
Belletrist has now grown into a large-scale operation with an attached production company (credits include First Kill on Netflix and Tell Me Lies on Hulu). The books that Roberts and Preiss choose are far more eclectic than your average celebrity book club. “Maybe it’s Joan Didion, maybe it’s Melissa Broder, maybe it’s a memoir by Dani Shapiro or a classic Ernest Hemingway or Confessions of a Shopaholic. Who cares? As long as people are reading and feel authentic, that’s what we wanted to do.”
The September choice is Happiness Falls by the Korean-American author Angie Kim, described as a “very non-traditional missing person novel” that follows the disappearance of a father who has been studying happiness. “A lot of people say they never would have discovered a certain writer if we hadn’t posted it, and that just gives me joy,” Roberts says.
Clearly she has relished having a project outside of acting that allows her to be “proactive” with her time — which, as anyone involved in the movie business will tell you, is not something you can usually count on. We are talking just as the Screen Actors Guild has gone on strike, which means no filming and no promotional activities. So no word, I’m afraid, on her return to American Horror Story this fall, or on-set anecdotes from her recent turn in the romantic comedy Maybe I Do opposite greats of the genre, including Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, and Richard Gere.
Movies are, however, the family business, so the line between childhood memories and business gets a little blurry, particularly when it comes to her aunt Julia. Eric left the family home when Emma was seven months old, and she has always credited Julia as a more formative influence.
“I visited her on a lot of sets and loved watching her do what she does,” she says. “Obviously I am her biggest fan. My comfort movie is My Best Friend’s Wedding. I could watch it a million times. I know every line. And people like watching it with me because I do a performance alongside the movie because I love it so much.”
As for the strike itself, she is “excited” to see such solidarity among cast and crew. In fact, she is about to return to Los Angeles to join the picket lines. “We work in a business where everybody should be winning, and if everybody can be winning, why aren’t they?” she says. “I’m excited to join my fellow actors and to stand with the writers because I think everybody should feel valued. The way this business has been going, they make everybody at every level feel that they’re replaceable and that they don’t matter. I don’t think that people should feel that way. We didn’t get into this business to be made to feel that way. We got into this business to relate to each other and express ourselves and tell stories and make people feel something.”
It’s not the only moment that Roberts rails against the “they” in charge of studios and platforms: the executive class being asked by both the actors’ and writers’ guilds to agree to better pay and job security in the age of streaming. She just hopes the average content-consuming member of the public can appreciate what is at stake. “Everybody thinks Hollywood is way more glamorous than it is,” she says. “I work with some of the hardest-working people when I’m on set. People don’t realize what the hours are like and how much time away from your family is required. It’s a big commitment and everybody ultimately does it because they love it. But they should also be compensated.”
She is only too aware of the compromises involved. Roberts has a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Rhodes, with fellow actor Garrett Hedlund (the pair has amicably separated). She makes it clear that she has only been able to juggle her career and family commitments thanks to her mother, Kelly, who provides a lot of free childcare. “We all go through phases where we take our mom for granted, but now that I’m a mom, I just can’t even believe that I wasn’t just kissing the ground my mom walks on. We’re lucky. The three of us have gotten to spend an exorbitant amount of time together between Covid and then traveling for work and all that. So we’ve been kind of inseparable.”
The experience of becoming a mother has brought about what Roberts calls a “relationship renaissance” with her own mother: “I found that being pregnant and having my son has opened up more conversations than anything in my entire life. I’ve connected with friends and family on a deeper level.” In common with a lot of grandparents, Kelly is far less strict as a grandmother. “I called the other night and I was like, ‘What are you doing? Rhodes is asleep, right?’ She’s like, ‘No, he’s up, we’re hanging.’ I’m like, ‘It’s 9 o’clock!’ But I love it. Their relationship is so sweet. My family is a family of all women — everywhere you look, it’s sisters, mothers, daughters. There are no other boys, so he’s everyone’s prized boy.”
There is another prized boy in Roberts’ life, although she prefers to keep her love life private. She does reveal that he has taken her to see Taylor Swift in concert not once, not twice, but thrice, which seems like a decent amount of commitment.
But it is clear she would rather be talking authors than singers. When I ask who her formative influences were, she cites Judy Blume. “I remember feeling like I was doing something wrong when I read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. I was like, ‘Are they allowed to check this out to me in the library?’” (Depends which state you live in.) She also cites Because of Winn-Dixie, a tender coming-of-age stray dog novel by Kate DiCamillo. “I carried that around for so long. I auditioned for the movie, actually. I didn’t get the part but I was so excited for that audition and I got really close.”
These days her lodestar is Joan Didion, whom she mentions at least five times. Roberts has sourced rare editions of Didion’s books via The Last Bookstore, and they have become her prized possessions. “I tried to buy her Celine glasses at auction, but I was grossly outbid,” Roberts says. “And I always go back to that essay on self respect that she wrote for Vogue. I’ll read that once or twice a year and every time, I find something else in it that I’m blown away by.”
It is her dream to play Didion one day. “We’re the same height, so my small stature would be a bonus!” she says. But she is also learning to simply lose herself on the page: “Ever since I was 12, I was reading books, thinking this could be a movie. I’ve made more of a point to read books purely for fun and let books be books.” It seems an eminently sensible approach. belletrist.com