‘Notting Hill’ at 20: Why Julia Roberts Was the Only Choice to Play Anna

The manager of London’ Notting Hill Bookshop has a ready supply of Kleenex because so many of the patrons walk in and break into tears.

From 1979-2011, the store was known as the Travel Bookshop. It became famous in “Notting Hill,” the hit romantic comedy celebrating its 20th anniversary on May 28. Julia Roberts stars as Anna Scott, the world’s biggest movie star, and Hugh Grant as Will Thacker, the divorced owner of the bookshop, who meet cute and fall in love.

The actual store was too narrow and small to film there, said manager Olga Lewkowska, so a set was built around the corner from the store, which is located at 4 Blenheim Crescent. The original owner sold the store in 2011 because its focus was too narrow to sustain. The bookshop does still have a travel section but basically features gift books, limited editions or reprints of first editions.

“I don’t think we have had anyone from Greenland in, but I think I’ve met people from every country,” said Lewkowska. “I had a couple from Argentina maybe a month ago come in and the woman was in complete tears. The husband said they watched this film on their first date 20 years ago and got married quite soon after.”

And many couples become engaged in the store. “Sometimes we don’t find out until afterward,” said Lewkowska, who noted she is not a rom-com person. “People send us a card. Every now and then someone says I want to come in with my girlfriend and can you play our favorite song? And I’ll go down on my knee. “

A few months ago, even she started crying. “We have a little sign where we write various quotes,” she explained. A man from Slovakia called the shop and asked if Lewkowska could write “Will you marry me?” in Slovak and then he would come in with his girlfriend and point at the board and propose. “They came early in the morning. She had no idea anything like this would happen. He gently pointed to the sign and she broke out in tears. I broke out in tears when she started crying.”

The bookshop isn’t the only location fans visit in Notting Hill. They also stop at the house with the blue door at 280 Westbourne Park Road where Will lived in the movie.

“I was walking by last week and there was literally a queue outside the blue door,” said “Notting Hill” screenwriter Richard Curtis, who used to live with his family behind the blue door before he sold it to his sister-in-law.

She sold the original door on Christie’s for charity — it’s currently located in Devon. Because there were so many tourists, the second blue door was painted black. “Then somebody sprayed over the door ‘This is the blue door,’” said Tim McInnerny, who plays Will’s best mate, Max.

After that, the door was repainted blue.

Though Notting Hill was becoming gentrified during production in 1998, Curtis admitted that the film’s success sped up the process.

“I wish I’d been clever enough to buy somewhere in Notting Hill before the movie came out,“ quipped McInnerny. “It would have doubled in price within a year. It did amazing things for the retail value.”

Allcia Malone, a TCM host and author of “Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film,” believes that though the film is “such a fantasy,” there is a real underlying heartfelt emotion and it feels “like it could be somewhat of a reality.”

“Of course, the chemistry between Roberts and Grant,” said Malone, “is so perfect and wonderfully matched. It’s a really sweet story and that big moment when Julia Roberts says she’s just a girl standing in front of a boy. That’s delivered so perfectly, that it really touches your heart. It feels emotionally true. She’s just this sweet girl underneath it all.”

That famous scene was celebrated in the penultimate episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Though Curtis has written the beloved romantic comedies “Notting Hill,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually,” he joked that “I failed the big romantic test of asking my girlfriend to marry me.”  But he and his partner Emma Freud have been together nearly 30 years and have four children.

“When I was a little boy I started falling in love with girls,” he said, adding that the girl he was in love with 62 years ago attended at the London premiere the day before of his newest film, “Yesterday.” “She is now my daughter’s godmother.”

He also fell madly in love at the age of seven with a little girl he met on the bus. “I think people like movies that are about things that are very, very deep in their bones. Obviously, I got struck by the love bug.”

He began ruminating on the idea for “Notting Hill” during a break in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” But the real genesis was his weekly dinners with friends who became the inspiration for Will’s good friends — Max, his wheelchair-using wife (Gina McKee), his sweetly eccentric sister (Emma Chambers) and his clueless friend (Hugh Bonneville) — whom he invites Anna to meet.

“There was one who has never heard of anybody famous and then other one was Helen Fielding, who wrote ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ and knew everybody. I used to imagine what would it be like if I drove down [to their house] with Madonna — how would the dinner party go? The two friends who were hosting the party would have no idea who she was, and Helen would just be screaming with excitement and definitely try to make Madonna her best friend.”

Roberts was the one and only choice of Curtis and director Roger Michell to play Anna — but what would have happened if she hadn’t accepted?

“I don’t like to consider that,” he said laughing.

“Notting Hill” is often called an homage to 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” for which Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar for playing a princess who slips out while visiting the Eternal City and falls in love with a newspaper reporter (Gregory Peck).

But the theory isn’t true.

“We had a meeting with Julia and her agent when she first agreed to do the part,” Curtis recalled. “As they were leaving, her agent said it’s such a beautiful tribute to ‘Roman Holiday.’ I hadn’t seen ‘Roman Holiday.’ Thank god I hadn’t because I might have been self-conscious. I am very glad I didn’t know.“

Originally, they were looking for an unknown actor to play Will. “We thought, wouldn’t it be fabulous — this is a movie about an unknown. We auditioned eight people over a day and by the end of it we said, ‘Oh f–k, it. Let’s go with Hugh.”

What Curtis learned from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” director Mike Newell is that when a movie is cast, the work is “75% done. So, he was unbelievably thorough for even the smallest part. Roger Michell, coming from theater, was exactly the same. So, we tended to spend an unrealistic amount of time casting the movie especially those friends. We wanted to get the right people.”

“We had two weeks’ rehearsals,” said McInnerny. “That’s really important. Julia was there all the time. You can’t invent knowing somebody for 20 years. You have to be together and understand each other’s sense of humor so that you can play with each other on the set and trust each other.”

That trust was especially important when McInnerny had to carry McGee up the stairs. “We did that 19 times. The shot didn’t quite work. I wouldn’t be able to do it now. But I loved working with Gina. We had such a good time.”

McInnerny says he will love Roberts forever because of the kindness she showed his mother at the London premiere.

“I was talking to Julia,” he recalled. “She said to me, ‘So, who have you brought here?’ I said, “I brought my sister and my brother-in-law and a couple of friends and my mom.’ She said, ‘Your mom? I want to meet her.’ I took her to meet my mom who’s sitting in a big chair. She sat on the arm of my mom’s chair and told me to go away. She talked to my mom for 25 minutes.”

When he asked his mother what Roberts had to say, his mother said, “It’s private!”

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