Julia Roberts Reportedly Quit 'Shakespeare in Love' After Disastrous Chemistry Reads

Julia Roberts once walked away from the lead role in an Oscar-winning film. Producer Ed Zwick revealed that Roberts was initially attached to star as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love, which went on to earn Gwyneth Paltrow an Academy Award. After a string of disappointing chemistry reads, the Pretty Woman star, 24 years old at the time, left the project suddenly, Zwick wrote in a new essay for Air Mail.

"The mere possibility of having the Pretty Woman wearing a corseted gown got the studio excited enough to cough up the dough," Zwick wrote in his account of securing funding for the film. Roberts traveled to London for chemistry reads with a crop of "yet-to-be-discovered young actors" for the role of William Shakespeare, Zwick adds, saying Roberts "found fault with all of them." Zwick wrote that Roberts traveled to London to perform chemistry reads with a group of "yet-to-be-discovered young actors" for the role of William Shakespeare and "found fault with all of them." The producer stated that Roberts had set her heart on casting Daniel Day-Lewis as the young playwright, but the actor was already set to film 1993's In the Name of the Father. According to Zwick, Roberts sent Day-Lewis "two dozen roses" with a note reading "Be my Romeo." After the actor decided not to accept the role, Roberts read lines with Ralph Fiennes in what the producer called a "disaster."

"Even as Ralph did his best to elicit the famous smile, Julia barely acknowledged him," Zwick wrote. "I'm not suggesting she was deliberately sabotaging, but it was a disaster nonetheless. I tried to catch Ralph's eye to apologize as he left, but he couldn't get out of there fast enough. After he was gone, I turned to Julia, awaiting her reaction. 'He isn't funny' is all she said."

He added that casting in the following two weeks went "just as badly." "I no longer have my cast lists, but among the yet-to-be-discovered young actors, I remember: Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Colin Firth, Sean Bean, Jeremy Northam. Julia found fault with all of them: one was stiff, another wasn't romantic, and so on." Roberts agreed to read with Paul McGann, Zwick said. "On the morning of the test, Julia emerged from makeup, looking radiant in full period costume," says the producer. "But once she began to say the words, something was wrong. There was no magic. The problem wasn't the script. Or Paul McGann. It was Julia. From the moment she began to speak, it was clear she hadn't been working on the accent."

Zwick added, "Sensing Julia's discomfort, I tried to be encouraging, but she must have intuited my unease, and I made the tragic mistake of underestimating her insecurity. Having only recently been catapulted to the dizzying heights atop the Hollywood food chain, she must have been terrified to fail. But I would never get to talk her off the ledge. The next morning when I called her room, I was told she had checked out."

Upon contacting Roberts' manager, Zwick was informed that Roberts had flown back to the U.S. and left the project. "I've never spoken to Julia again," Zwick wrote. According to the producer, Universal had already spent $6 million on the film at the time. "I bear her no ill will," he adds of Roberts. "She was a frightened 24-year-old. I wasn't much older, trying to act the grown-up as I watched the Globe Theatre [set] torn down. And with it my dreams of grandeur."

In the end, Shakespeare in Love was produced by Miramax and disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, who attempted to remove Zwick from the project but was unsuccessful. The film ultimately starred Paltrow opposite Joseph Fiennes, the actor brother of Ralph Fiennes.