A Julia Roberts TV series is not something that was expected by anyone. For her to say yes to taking on the lead — we’re not talking about guest starring on Friends, Murphy Brown, or Law & Order — it would have to be something extraordinarily special. Apparently she’s found it with Amazon’s original series, Homecoming. Helped along to that decision in no small way was the fact that Sissy Spacek would be playing her mother, and that the show was created and directed by Sam Esmail, the creative visionary behind the series Mr. Robot.
“He’s is an incredible intellect and has such a very specific vision,” says Julia. “I come from film where there’s just one captain throughout. And I know from friends and family who work in television that there’s a changing-of-the-guard in every episode, which I’m unaccustomed to.”
Given the complexity of the show (more on that in a moment), it was her feeling that there needed to be one voice behind the series, which came in the form of Esmail. “I said from the beginning that I really wanted one person to direct all the episodes,” Julia explains. “And if that person wasn’t Sam, then I probably wouldn’t do it.”
The show, a psychological drama, alternates between two distinct timeframes, one from the present, and the other taking place four years later in 2022. In the present, Julia’s character of Heidi Bergman is a caseworker at Homecoming, a Geist Group facility helping soldiers transition to civilian life. In the future, she has started working as a waitress and is living with her mother. At that time, a Department of Defense auditor shows up and starts questioning her about the reasons she left the Homecoming facility, which forces Heidi to recognize that there’s a whole other story behind the one she’s been telling herself for years.
Part of Julia’s enthusiasm for the project stems from the fact that she was very familiar with the dramatic podcast it’s based on, which was created by series writers Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and featured the voices of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer.
“I was really taken with the podcast,” she notes. “The characters were terrific. [Actress] Catherine Keener is a friend of mine — she played Heidi in the podcast — and she was fantastic. I was listening to it with [a TV series] in mind. The audio, the sound production, the fish-tank bubbles… it was all so visual. Micah and Eli know this material inside and out.”
Adding to the novelty of the production, and its visual nature, was the fact that Homecoming was the first project to shoot on Universal Studios’ newly-minted production facilities near Los Angeles. Designed for added shooting flexibility, two stages were joined into one 36,110 sq. ft. production space whose 51 ft. grid height allowed for the series’ extensive two-story set.
Of the set design, Julia says, “They built it so that we could do these incredible camera maneuvers. I think there are days when we’ve done 11 pages of dialogue in one camera move up and down hallways, down stairs, through huge conference rooms and cafeterias — it’s pretty amazing. It’s been pretty challenging. The show could be renamed No Easy Days, because there were none! But my collaboration with Sam has been so joyful. We’re just two peas in a pod. He’s very specific and clear in his direction. It’s been relatively effortless.”
Other cast members include Stephan James as Walter Cruz, a young veteran eager to rejoin civilian life named who Heidi develops a complex emotional relationship with; Bobby Cannavale as her erratic offsite supervisor, Colin Belfast; Alex Karpovsky as the facility’s life-skills coach, Craig; Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Walter’s mother, Gloria; while Jeremy Allen White and Dermot Mulroney fill out the cast as Heidi’s ex-boyfriend and a fellow Homecoming veteran, respectively.
Homecoming is available for streaming on Amazon as of Nov. 2.