Julia Roberts Was So Awful In An Iconic Role, It Went To Gwyneth Paltrow Instead

Julia Roberts abandoned the part of Viola in Shakespeare in Love, leaving the role to Gwyneth Paltrow.

By Sckylar Gibby-Brown | Updated

gwyneth paltrow shakespeare

Shakespeare in Love was one of the biggest movies of 1998. It was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won seven of those, including Best Actress, which went to Gwyneth Paltrow, but it should have gone to Julia Roberts instead. Producer of the film, Edward Zwick, recently wrote an essay for Air Mail News detailing everything that happened on the set of Shakespeare in Love, including why Julia Roberts left the project and how Gwyneth Paltrow took her place. 

Shakespeare in Love is the fictional tale of the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes). Broke and looking to be inspired, Shakespeare meets his perfect woman, Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who motivates him to write what would become one of his most famous plays: Romeo and Juliet. According to Zwick, the entire reason that this film was greenlit in the first place was because the producers had Julia Roberts signed up to play the part of Viola. 

In the late ’90s, Julia Roberts was already a successful actress with many critically acclaimed film titles under her belt. She had starred in Pretty Woman, Sleeping with the Enemy, The Pelican Brief, and My Best Friend’s Wedding, to name a few, and Miramax and Universal were excited to have her on board for this historical romantic comedy. However, it seemed that the fame had gotten into the head of the 24-year-old actress, and the trouble on set began to start the moment the Erin Brockovich star didn’t get her way.

Julia Roberts wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to star as Shakespeare next to her Viola. She called The Last of the Mohicans actor handsome, funny, and intense—in other words, her ideal version of Romeo. In fact, the actress even sent Day-Lewis a dozen roses with a card asking him to be her “Romeo.” But unfortunately, the actor had prior commitments and could not take part in the film. 

Julia Roberts almost had this role

Once she realized that she wouldn’t be in a romance movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, Zwick said that Julia Roberts’ attitude quickly changed. The actress became extremely unprofessional, leaving meetings early and sometimes didn’t even appear on set for chemistry readings with other actors. Zwick recalled that things were often rocky even when the actress showed up for her commitments. 

The studio had Julia Roberts do chemistry tests with dozens of actors, including Ralph Fiennes (yep—Lord Voldemort was almost Shakespeare), but she would barely look at the actor while they worked, and when he left, Roberts insisted he was wrong for the part because she didn’t think he was funny. Roberts also tested with Rupert Graves, Colin Firth (who would end up playing Lord Wessex in the movie), and Hugh Grant (whom she would star next to in Notting Hill the following year), but she didn’t like any of them.

At last, the final straw would come when Julia Roberts was screen testing with Paul McGann. While Roberts did show up for this test, there was “no magic” when she spoke. Zwick said it was obvious she hadn’t been practicing her accent, and the lack of chemistry was not due to McGann but because of Roberts.

Zwick did the best he could to coach Julia Roberts on set, but to no avail. The experience must have been a breaking point for the actress as well because she abandoned the production the next day. While the production studio tried to get Roberts back on set, she refused, forcing producers to call Gwyneth Paltrow instead. Joseph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes’ brother, ended up being cast as Shakespeare.