'Erin Brockovich'

In a way, Julia Roberts’ acceptance of the title role in “Erin Brockovich” has parallels to the battle waged by Brockovich herself against Pacific Gas & Electric. Both took chances, and ultimately succeeded.

The role was a departure for the glamorous Roberts, who on payday ranks first among Hollywood’s pantheon of women. The actress, more accustomed to films that cater to her winsomeness and charm — think “Notting Hill” or “Runaway Bride” — dove into a part that, to put it charitably, called for her to play white trash. What’s startling is how convincingly she pulls it off, complete with tantrums, tactlessness, a less than exemplary commitment to motherhood and a wardrobe that would have done a hooker proud.

“She creates empathy for a person who sees herself one way but the outside world sees her differently,” says Stacey Sher, one of the producers of “Brockovich,” describing Roberts’ performance. “It’s a combination of her intelligence, her tenacity and her down-to-earth likability.”

In Roberts’ portrayal, Brockovich is a take-no-prisoners kind of woman who knows just how to push the buttons of both allies and enemies.

“The situation that life has dealt her is not an easy one,” Sher says. “She’s up against it, but you really care about her. The real Erin Brockovich always knew she was meant to do something special. “

Roberts was a “perfect fit” for the role, says Michael Shamberg, another of the film’s producers.

“Her essence fuels the film, the characters, and the story of the film,” Shamberg says. “The gift of a great star is that they can sometimes be unlikable on screen but you never stop liking them. Stars at the top of their game can take their audience with them. The top stars choose their roles better than the studios do. That’s why you pay them the $20 million.”

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