Emma Roberts is Tatler‘s Magazine March cover. Be sure to check out below a brand new photo shoot and interview.
Emma Roberts is embracing new beginnings: new motherhood, relationships, and a move from leading lady to hotshot behind the screen. Ellie Austin discovers how she’s taking back control
Emma Roberts has asked to meet in a fashionable and suitably expensive village in the Hamptons. Although she lives in Los Angeles, the quaint Long Island holiday destination has become a second home since her mother moved there 10 years ago.
It’s a chilly winter’s day and the road that leads along the harbour-front to the local bookshop is quiet. The 30-year-old American actress arrives early, wrapped in an orange horse-print aviator jacket, and black trousers and boots. Her buttery-blonde hair is tucked under a thick, cream beanie, her face all high cheekbones and luminous, flawless skin. It soon becomes clear that the reason for meeting at a bookshop is not simply because it is an easy landmark at which to spot a stranger: Roberts has come to shop.
‘They’ve got so many new releases since I was last here!’ she exclaims, winding between the display tables. ‘Can I give you some recommendations?’
In the abstract, the thought of browsing bookshelves with a celebrity seems excruciatingly awkward and performative – an attempt, perhaps, on the part of the interviewee to nonchalantly showcase their intellect. But there is nothing grandiose about Roberts as she scours the shelves for I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins – a novel about a young mother who abandons her family during a bout of postpartum depression – just an infectious enthusiasm for stories that she thinks she, or someone she knows, will love.
‘My sister always used to say that she wasn’t a big reader,’ Roberts says, her eyebrows arched in horror. ‘I said, “I will find a book that changes your mind.” I bought her Daisy Jones & The Six [by Taylor Jenkins Reid] and she was obsessed.’
The youthful LA inflexion that imbues the word ‘obsessed’ belies Roberts’ status as a millennial star. She has been working since she was nine and as a child acted alongside Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz in Blow. There have also been star roles in teen cult classics such as Wild Child and appearances in Scream Queens and American Horror Story. Socially, she is part of the Hollywood in-crowd, with more than 17 million Instagram followers, and received an invitation to Paris Hilton’s wedding last November. (She was one of a reported 250 guests who decamped to the £45 million Bel Air estate formerly owned by Hilton’s late grandfather, Barron Hilton, where they were said to have enjoyed a dinner that included gold-leaf potatoes topped with caviar.) She knows the heiress and mogul from growing up in LA and is close friends with Nicole Richie, who was Hilton’s co-star in The Simple Life.
In December 2020, Roberts gave birth to a son, Rhodes, whose father is the Tron: Legacy actor Garrett Hedlund. The one-year-old’s godfather is the country music legend Tim McGraw. Then there’s her relationship with the woman Roberts refers to as Aunt Julia – and the rest of the world knows as the star of Pretty Woman, Notting Hill and Closer. Some of Roberts’ happiest childhood memories are of visiting her aunt on the sets of Erin Brockovich and America’s Sweethearts (in which she was also an extra). ‘I’d write the wardrobe tags and organise the make-up brushes and watch how they did their continuity books,’ she says. ‘I would ask questions without a filter. This industry really is “learn as you go”.’
It was her desire to keep learning that led Roberts to start her own company. In 2017, she launched an online book club, Belletrist (which means ‘beautiful writer’ in French), with her best friend, Karah Preiss. What began as a passion project on Instagram has evolved into a hugely successful brand, with more than a quarter of a million Instagram followers and a production arm that sees Roberts adapt books for television and film.
The company’s first series, First Kill, is set to launch on Netflix this year. Based on the short story by VE Schwab, it follows Juliette, a teenage vampire, as she prepares to make her first kill while becoming entangled in an unlikely love story. ‘I knew there was no role for me in the show but I also knew I would love to develop it,’ Roberts says. ‘VE Schwab wrote the pilot, and we developed the series and sold it to Netflix. The story is so fresh and fun,’ she adds.
In the bookshop, Roberts leafs nostalgically through the children’s book Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, before picking up a copy of Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse to take home for Rhodes. She insists on buying me a book too: Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker. ‘It’s part family story, part social commentary on mid-century America,’ she says in full literary fairy godmother mode. ‘Maybe you can start it on your trip home.’
We walk up the high street, passing bistros and chi-chi boutiques, to a nearby coffee shop. A couple of teenage girls slink off their stools when they see Roberts. ‘Can we take a photo with you?’ one of them asks. She obliges with her usual peppiness. ‘I love your films,’ whispers the other girl, her eyes wide with admiration.
The village’s recently renovated cinema is our final destination and, at Roberts’ suggestion, we sit outside on the terrace, coats zipped up to our chins, hands wrapped around hot matcha lattes. She is warm, garrulous and asks questions in a way that creates an immediate intimacy.
She talks candidly about her personal experience with the paparazzi. ‘The way I was followed and treated when I was pregnant was disgusting,’ she says. It’s a rare moment of indignation from a woman who is otherwise determinedly upbeat. ‘I’d be driving to a doctor’s appointment and they’d be following me so closely. At one point, I remember saying to them, “Please don’t do that, I’m eight months pregnant.” But they don’t care. It’s not the fun, creative part of the job, for sure.’
But when asked what she makes of the current appetite for reassessing the way that the media treated high-profile women such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in the 2000s, she seems cautious about weighing in, pausing before saying that it’s a ‘larger conversation’ and she ‘doesn’t even know where to start’.
Media scrutiny is nothing new for Roberts, an actress whom audiences have watched grow up in real time on screen. The daughter of the actor Eric Roberts and Kelly Cunningham, a former teacher, she was born in Rhinebeck, a town two hours’ drive north of New York City. Her parents separated when she was a baby and she spent her childhood with her mother in LA, while her father struggled with drug addiction. She references her mother frequently and with affection – ‘She’s pretty much been with me non-stop since Rhodes was born’ – but never mentions her father. Are they close? ‘Um… how do I say this?’ she says, shifting in her chair. ‘No, we’re not.’
It was her mother whom she pestered, aged eight, to take her to auditions. She reluctantly agreed, believing that nothing would come of it and that her daughter would soon lose interest. Instead, Roberts ended up being cast in Blow, in which she played the daughter of the infamous cocaine smuggler George Jung.
‘The director talked to my mum and said that I wouldn’t be around anything inappropriate,’ she recalls. ‘People are very split on whether children should act, but it was my passion. My mum recognised that, which I admire because I’m sure she took judgement from some people.’
The Nickelodeon sitcom Unfabulous followed soon after. Roberts played the lead, Addie Singer, a timid schoolgirl who writes songs about her life. In America, the show established her as a girl-next-door teen icon who could be relied upon for both emotional depth and punchy, comedic delivery. And, by 17, Roberts was revered among British teens – especially those of the public school variety – after she starred in Wild Child, a cult comedy where she played a rebellious Malibu teenager dispatched to an English boarding school by her weary parents. The role gave Roberts, then a keen Spice Girls fan, the chance to embrace her inner Anglophile.
‘I was obsessed with the royals, obsessed with having an English accent,’ she says. ‘When I realised that the role meant filming in England for a summer, I felt my life was about to start. I bought my first leather jacket in London and my first leopard-print coat. Living there really influenced what I was into.’
To Roberts, the notion of a royal family is captivating. ‘It feels so fancy and old-fashioned,’ she laughs. ‘I remember seeing Buckingham Palace and thinking, “Wait, someone lives there?”’ The Anglo love-in endures to this day: some of her favourite television shows are UK crime dramas. ‘Marcella, Broadchurch, The Fall – I love them,’ she says. ‘I would love to do a period drama in England. That’s definitely on my acting bucket list.’
Two decades after her career began, Roberts’ priorities shifted with the arrival of her son. She took four months of maternity leave before returning to work on About Fate, a comedy about two unlucky-in-love protagonists who meet on New Year’s Eve. ‘I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had my mum’s support. Knowing that she was there to take amazing care of Rhodes meant that I could be fully present on set,’ she says.
Roberts insists that it’s precisely because she started work so young that she’s been able to develop the resilience to survive in the entertainment industry long-term. ‘I felt so much rejection at such a young age that it created a thick skin around me,’ she says. ‘If I’d started acting at 20, the rejection would have cut much deeper. When you’re 12, there’s still this magical wonderment to the whole process, whereas when things don’t go your way later on, you think it’s a deep reflection of you.’
She’s quick to dismiss the cliché that it’s impossible to emerge from the vortex of celebrity childhood unscathed. ‘I didn’t realise back then that I was in control of my life,’ she says. ‘I always wanted to be involved in [film and TV] projects in a more creative way and now I’m doing it. I can decide who I want to be around, for how long and in what capacity… This stuff didn’t even occur to me until my mid-twenties.’
Roberts’ production company is ‘a place I can create roles for myself that I don’t see out there’, she says. ‘I’m also casting people in roles that they might otherwise not be seen in. My favourite parts have been ones that people don’t expect – when [the writer, director and producer] Ryan Murphy cast me in American Horror Story, for example. People saw me as this nice, teen girl and I couldn’t get older, edgier roles at the time. He gave me that opportunity and I’d love to do that for others.’
Has she ever felt burdened by a pressure to live up to her famous aunt’s titanic career? ‘I never aspired to be her,’ Roberts replies matter-of-factly. ‘I love her so much, I love her work, but I’m just doing my own thing.’
As a teenager, she had planned on becoming a mother before her 25th birthday. She was nine when her half-sister, Grace, was born. ‘I remember Grace being a baby so vividly,’ she smiles. ‘I felt very protective of her. My mum makes being a mum so easy and joyful and I thought, “I want that.”’
Then, in her late twenties, she received a diagnosis of endometriosis, which can affect fertility. For years her complaints of debilitating stomach cramps had been dismissed by her male doctor; it was only when, feeling exasperated, she sought out a female doctor that her symptoms were taken seriously. The delay in diagnosis, Roberts was informed, was likely to have impacted her chances of having a baby. How did she react?
‘I wasn’t upset but I just felt the heaviness of the moment,’ she says, exhaling into the cold air. ‘I sat with myself and thought, “Luckily, I know older women who are great role models of the fact that you don’t need children to be happy.” I either would or would not be a parent. Whichever one it was, I wanted to be in radical acceptance of it.’ She froze her eggs, but ultimately conceived naturally.
The effusiveness with which Roberts talks about the women in her life contrasts with a lack of references to Hedlund, her partner since spring 2019, an actor, model and singer, and former fiancé of Kirsten Dunst. There is speculation online that they are no longer a couple. Roberts has said in the past that she never wants ‘to talk about relationships I’m in or that are ending or have ended’, and when I ask her whether there’s anything she wants to say about the status of her relationship with Hedlund, she politely declines to comment.
‘I’m at a place where I can say, “I may not have got everything right but I like who I am more than I ever have,”’ she says. ‘My life has changed more in the past two years than it did in the 28 years beforehand and I love where I’m standing now at the age of 30.’
For all Roberts’ career success, her son is firmly the focus. She pulls out her phone to show me a photo of him, chubby-cheeked and grinning in an animal-ear onesie. ‘I definitely think about how I can help him be the utmost gentleman,’ she says carefully. ‘I want him to be respectful and intelligent at school but also in life. What it means to be a man is being rewritten right now and I hope my contribution to the world can be raising an amazing boy who turns into an amazing man. I want him to feel that there’s nothing he couldn’t ask or tell me.’
Respectfully, but firmly, she brings our meeting to a close; she wants some time with Rhodes before his bedtime. ‘DM me to let me know what you think of Hidden Valley Road,’ she calls over her shoulder as she says goodbye. And then Roberts is off, striding across the street to her family, a former child star grown up and in control.
The March issue is on newsstands on Thursday 3 February.