Julia Roberts and Garry Marshall continue their one-movie-per-decade streak with 'Mother's Day'

Call it the Decade Movie Pact; ever since first collaborating on "Pretty Woman" in 1990, Julia Roberts and Garry Marshall have made a movie together every 10 years.

When the actress was 31, she and Richard Gere re-teamed with the director for "Runaway Bride." At 41, she had a supporting role in the star-heavy "Valentine's Day." And 51?

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Well, she still has nearly three years to go before she hits that milestone. But at 81, Marshall thought it best to work together again sooner than later. So he stuck the screenplay for his new film, "Mother's Day," in Roberts' mailbox with this note: "I know it hasn't been 10 years, but I think we need to pick up the pace."

She agreed and signed on to portray Miranda Collins, a television host with a penchant for animal prints who sells mood pendants on HSN. The character is consumed with her career — until she's confronted by the long-lost daughter she once gave up for adoption. Roberts filmed her scenes for the film — which hits theaters April 29 — in just four days.

The filmmaker and the actress met this month at the venerable Sportmen's Lodge to talk about their longtime relationship. It's as comfortable a relationship as you're likely to find in Hollywood: There was a lot of laughing, compliment-trading and — Marshall's favorite — hugging.

How the heck did you get Julia's entire part shot in four days?

Marshall: We're very efficient. She shows up on set and says, "I'm here!" They always call her a little early. But she don't wanna wait four hours! So I say, "Don't call her until we're ready!" I do know what she likes or if something throws her.

Roberts: We knew what we were trying to accomplish, and Garry has a tendency to put me out there and leave me out there and just keep shouting from the darkness like, "Do it again! Do it better! Do it faster! Do it funnier!" And things come up. That's the thing with Garry. I feel so safe with him, and I know that he knows better than anyone on the planet Earth what's funny.

Marshall: We try to make each other laugh, which is a different relationship. I think way back, quickly, in "Pretty Woman," the prop man was bringing out binoculars and she said, "Ooh, hide them, Garry will make me do something crazy with the binoculars!" And I did make her do something crazy with the binoculars and we got a big laugh. So ever since then, she's like, "Hey, what did you want me to do?

We're different generations, so I'll say what I want and she interprets it. Once, I said, "So what's going to happen is you're gonna spoon." I called it spoon, but I'm old. And she said, "We'll lay like broccoli." And that was the line that ended up in "Pretty Woman."

Do you reminisce about your old movies when you're together?

Roberts: We do reminisce. We're both kind of nostalgic people. And honestly, how many people do you have a whole lifetime of work with? Not a lot.

Marshall: Not that we don't prepare. We get down to the character, and the character is not a long dissertation. It's "Here's the wig, here's the costume, here's what we'll do."

We need to discuss that wig you wear in "Mother's Day."

Roberts: I had a very specific kind of image of her. I liked the look. Just something very no-nonsense, hair-wise. I was going to try to build in this contrivance of it being a work wig and maybe one time when I go to see my daughter, I wouldn't have the wig on. But it got too complicated.

Marshall: To me, when you say character, the costume is as much character as anything else. And we always have a fight because — not a fight, we always have a discussion because of that smile. I think the worst thing I ever said was, "We could make a fortune in merchandising if we put a Nike swish on your tooth." We would make a fortune! She didn't want to do that. You can't smile all the time. So we always wait for the right time.

Julia, do you still look to Garry for as much guidance as you did when you were 21?

Roberts: I want the same amount of direction. I want the same amount of encouragement. I want to make him as happy [on the set of "Mother's Day"] in Atlanta as I wanted to make him on the soundstage 25 years ago. But that's why you keep working for somebody. You don't want to work for somebody that you don't really care what they think about what you're doing. And for him, I just always want it to be some kind of triumph. And of course, my greatest joy is if I can make him laugh at something that I whip up.

Marshall: But we're both trying to achieve the same thing. I don't think we ever did 19 takes on anything. We don't work that way. I have great respect for everybody's process. I worked with Al Pacino. He does 19, 20 takes. Michelle Pfeiffer does five. It didn't work so good together, but I brought her magazines to read while he was doing 20 takes. And on the 20th take, you go, "Oh, my!" I try never to be negative. I talk in a code of "Well, that's a good scene if we go directly to video! So maybe we should try a different way."

Roberts: He's like the ultimate father for everyone in every scenario. I think about Garry and it's like he raised me. I grew up on his television shows. My kids watch movies on the weekends — we don't watch TV during the week. Now, when I was a kid, I got home from school and turned the TV on and it stayed on. "Happy Days" — that's what my sisters and I were brought up on. That kind of idea of family and friends and things that make you laugh and make you wish you were a Cunningham.

Marshall: That was a fantasy. That was the kind of family I thought we should be. I didn't have that kind of family.

How have you seen Julia evolve as an actress, Garry?

Marshall: She works physically — her whole body, arms, legs, stuff. A lot of actresses truly can't do a master [shot] — she can.

Roberts: I love a master. A big, big wide shot of the whole scene. It's the whole canvas.

Marshall: Part of my whole approach is I'm so happy to have her, I don't want to waste her time. So we like to move along. Life is interesting, and you don't want to stay too long.

Did you expect you'd still be directing at 81?

Marshall: I love to work. I knew I'd see Julia on this picture, and discovering this new kid, Britt [Robertson, who plays her daughter]. I work with a lot of 19- to 22-year-olds. And this sounds very strange, but they need a hug. With no sexual overtones or anything. Just a hug. And that's what I always did when I started.

Actors don't need hugs, just actresses?

Marshall: Actors need a hug too. Hugging is more than it was originally cracked up to be. I have made that a big part of directing.

Roberts: Sometimes when we're hugging I do feel like I could just start crying. Just because I'm in a safe space.

Julia, do you think you'll still want to be acting when you're 81?

Roberts: Acting is different than creating a whole playing field for a bunch of people. I can see how that brings so much joy to everybody. Acting? I don't know. Hopefully, maybe, I'll cultivate a new skill. I'll just be home playing mah-jongg, really.

Marshall: We've talked, and she's never had much desire to direct or produce or write.

Roberts: I like my job. The amount of energy he gives to infuse everyone with confidence — just making sure everybody's in their best space. It's a lot. Then he's gotta change his jacket and hat in the middle of the day. He's like Mr. Rogers. "OK, it's a different part of the day!" And he gets a different snack.

Marshall: My first picture ever, Francis Coppola came on the set. He put his arm around me and I thought, "Ooh, he's going to tell me the key to movie making." And he said, "Always at lunch, change your shoes." I said "Change my shoes?" He said, "Yeah, you're gonna be tired. You're gonna run out of energy." And that's what I did.

Roberts: You never told me that that's why you do that!

I know people like to poke fun at these holiday movies. Does that bother you?

Marshall: Well, I found a different niche.

Roberts: I read something cute the other day. Somebody said, "Is a holiday even a holiday anymore if Garry Marshall hasn't made a movie about it?"

Mother's Day is the one day that moms sleep late and get breakfast in bed and all these kinds of things. For me now, as a mom, it's so nice to realize that my family is holding their love for me at a pretty high level. Mother's Day is just a little bump up.

Marshall: My wife asked me not to do the pancakes after a couple of tries. She says, "Do you have to do that? It takes me so long to clean the kitchen after you and the kids do that."

Roberts: I remember the first time I made my mom pancakes for Mother's Day. A huge stack, because that's how it looked on the Aunt Jemima syrup bottle. And she takes her fork and she cuts into them — and the center just ran out of every pancake. They were barely cooked. And I was like, [weeping] "Mommy!" And she said, "It's just fine darling. They are fine and I have my juice."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

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