Julia Roberts Stars In Amazon Prime Series 'Homecoming'

Nov 5, 2018
Originally published on November 5, 2018 8:03 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

How to deal with bad memories and how to tell truth from deception. Those are some of the big themes in the psychological thriller "Homecoming." It's a new show now on Amazon Prime. It stars Julia Roberts in her first leading role on the small screen. She plays someone who thinks she is helping soldiers adjust to civilian life after battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) My name is Heidi Bergman, and I'm your caseworker for this reintegration process. Our facility is a safe space for you to process your military experience and refamiliarize yourself with civilian life in a monitored environment, which just means getting you situated now that you're back - career wise, health wise. Basically, I work for you.

GREENE: That is not how it turns out, though. "Homecoming" started as a podcast, one of several making their way to television. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us how it went from one medium to another.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Julia Roberts says she got hooked on the dark themes and complex storytelling of the "Homecoming" podcast.

ROBERTS: I just remember calling my agents and saying, yeah, that's a super-cool story. That was really terrific. And I know the actors that are in it, and I thought they were great. And the sound production was super cool.

DEL BARCO: In the 2016 podcast, Julia Roberts' part was played by Catherine Keener.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOMECOMING")

CATHERINE KEENER: (As Heidi Bergman) I'm helping to get you situated now that you're back. And career wise, health wise, basically, I work for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As soldier) OK.

KEENER: (As Heidi Bergman) Yeah. Good.

DEL BARCO: Here's the basic story of "Homecoming." Heidi Bergman lands what she thinks is a great job helping soldiers reacclimate back to civilian life. She becomes close to one soldier in particular, Walter Cruz. Gradually, she realizes the truth of what she's a part of is far more sinister. The plotline flashes back and forth in time between present-day and the future, 2022. In the podcast, the change is signaled with sound effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOMECOMING")

DEL BARCO: The TV show uses similar sound effects but also changes the aspect ratio from full screen to a square picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

DEL BARCO: "Homecoming" was shot on an enormous soundstage on the Universal Studios backlot in LA. That's where we found the show's creators.

ELI HOROWITZ: I'm Eli Horowitz.

MICAH BLOOMBERG: And I'm Micah Bloomberg.

DEL BARCO: Bloomberg was working as a sound mixer for TV and films. Horowitz edited and designed books for McSweeney's. Then Gimlet hired them to create its first fiction podcast. Together, they came up with "Homecoming," but they never expected to see their audio work transformed into TV.

BLOOMBERG: The scale of this is totally crazy.

DEL BARCO: I mean, Julia Roberts, for God's sake.

BLOOMBERG: Yeah. That is a surprising development.

HOROWITZ: (Laughter). She's good at acting.

BLOOMBERG: (Laughter).

HOROWITZ: But how it happen? It's just kind of one weird fluke after another.

DEL BARCO: They say it was challenging to adapt what was essentially a radio play to television.

HOROWITZ: No character could even be alone in the podcast. 'Cause you can't have a scene if someone's alone.

DEL BARCO: Couldn't have somebody talking to themselves?

HOROWITZ: I mean, you could, but no one really talks - I mean, if you talk...

DEL BARCO: Or they're thinking, maybe. You know?

HOROWITZ: Yeah. But when I talk to myself, it's unintelligible muttering. It's not story beats and monologues, you know?

BLOOMBERG: And then when we came time to do the TV show, this whole world of visual storytelling opened up to us. So you could see the setting around them, you could see the props that they were holding, you could see what their faces looked like when they were listening to somebody.

DEL BARCO: For the TV adaptation, Amazon hired Sam Esmail as director and showrunner. He used 75-foot-tall cranes to shoot from above the two-story set.

SAM ESMAIL: We do a lot of bird's eye view here. That's supposed to give the sort of feeling that you're watching these guys like insects under a microscope.

DEL BARCO: Much of the story takes place in a secret facility where the soldiers are housed and medicated. In this scene, one soldier in particular, played by Jeremy Allen White, questions what's really happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

JEREMY ALLEN WHITE: (As Joseph Shrier) Everybody listen. Who here thinks we're in Florida? Who here thinks any of this is real?

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER RINGING)

BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Colin Belfast) OK. Heidi, Heidi, Heidi - enough. We're done. OK?

DEL BARCO: Heidi is constantly hounded by her long-distance boss, played by Bobby Cannavale.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

CANNAVALE: (As Colin Belfast) Heidi?

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) Yes. Understood.

CANNAVALE: (As Colin Belfast) OK. And we keep Shrier confined for the night, and if this type of response persists then we have him reassigned. OK? We're so close to getting what we want. I can't have this guy contaminate the whole project. OK?

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) OK.

DEL BARCO: Neither the soldiers nor Heidi know the real agenda.

ESMAIL: There's something about this relationship with your reality and how unreliable it is, and how much can you trust it?

DEL BARCO: This is familiar territory for Sam Esmail, whose show, "Mr. Robot," had similar themes and tones.

ESMAIL: In the case of "Mr. Robot," it's obviously the hacking world and the world at large. But here in "Homecoming," it's more intimate. It's more about this facility. The guys who are coming over from war clearly think they're in a situation, and they don't realize the whole picture. But even Heidi, who works for the quote-unquote "evil corporation," she doesn't even know the whole picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

SHEA WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) Were the men there voluntarily?

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) I answered your question. I really need to go back inside.

WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) Is there a reason why you're refusing?

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) I'm not refusing. I don't remember.

DEL BARCO: By the end of the first episode, the audience knows something is amiss when a Department of Defense investigator, played by Shea Whigham, confronts Heidi. She's now a waitress in the year 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) What about the name Walter Cruz? Do you remember him?

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) No.

DEL BARCO: But the central relationship in "Homecoming" is between Heidi and Walter Cruz. The characters are attracted to each other because they're both idealistic, says Julia Roberts.

ROBERTS: She believes in the power of listening and guiding. And I think he's also a person who really has a very sincere kind of personal compass.

ESMAIL: Yeah. There's no cynicism with your characters. You guys are very earnest.

ROBERTS: Yeah.

DEL BARCO: We met up with Roberts and Esmail sitting in a hotel suite, where she was showing him her antique mahjong set.

ROBERTS: That's a white dragon.

ESMAIL: Yup.

DEL BARCO: They first met over FaceTime.

ROBERTS: And just clicked within seconds. We were like lifelong friends just chit chatting, and then realized we should probably talk about "Homecoming."

ESMAIL: (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: Unlike most hourlong TV dramas, "Homecoming" episodes run just half an hour.

ROBERTS: It's funny. Everybody really like - you know, why did you pick television? And I didn't pick television. I picked this project. The 30-minute drama, I think, is brilliant.

ESMAIL: There is something about that 30-minute format that creates this sort of lingering effect that you have at the end of every episode that kind of just slowly creeps up on you as you make your way through the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

DEL BARCO: "Homecoming," the TV show, starts out fairly close to the original podcast but will go in a different direction. Amazon committed to a second season. Season 1 is now streaming.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.