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That Time Julia Roberts Taught Phoebe Robinson How to Swim

Phoebe Robinson Photo-Illustration: Vulture and photo by Getty Images

You live a life, collecting stories as you go, refining them over time with each telling, so that when you get a book deal, you’re ready. But what happens when you are asked to write a second one? Well, luckily, if you’re Phoebe Robinson, you live the craziest two years you could ever imagine, perfectly typified by having Julia Roberts teach you how to swim, off the coast of Croatia. It’s true. In Robinson’s new collection of essays Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, out tomorrow, she writes both seriously and very not seriously about race, feminism, and culture. She also recounts the time Roberts showed her how to doggy paddle while shooting Ibiza (which Roberts’s husband, Daniel Moder, was the cinematographer for). Written in Robinson’s freewheeling, joke-drenched style, it’s an instant classic.

This story from the chapter “The Top Ten Non-Trash Moments of My Life” is the focus of this week’s of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The first book was a lot of stories that had happened years ago, as those things go. This time around it’s largely things that happened in the period since writing the first book. Did you live your differently, like in a way in which everything has the potential to be written about?
Yeah, I mean I don’t know if I necessarily subscribe to the Nora Ephron idea where everything is copy. I am obsessed with her and I think she was a brilliant, I hate saying was, but was very brilliant. But that’s not necessarily my jam. It’s more the two years since the first book came out have been pretty nuts just in general and I wasn’t really expecting that and I was just like, Oh I have some fun stuff to write about.

When Trevor Noah’s book came out, I was fully like, L-O-L. Why did I write a book? I have done nothing. Trees are sacrificing their lives for my dumb shit. I try not to go into a situation where I’m like, I’m gonna use this to have something to write about. I just sort of live organically, because I am fairly ridiculous anyway.

Are you wary of people being uncomfortable around you like, Oh, is she going to write about this?
I try to only share things that are not gonna disrespect anyone or expose anyone in a way that is not respectful. Though, I also am not just trying to make everyone look great. But like for instance the thing about Julia Roberts. Like, I’m not going to reveal her kids’ names. I’m not going to talk about them. I don’t have permission to do that. I just wanna treat everyone with kindness in the way I wanna be treated.

After the Julia Roberts yacht thing happened, though, were you like, This is gonna be this good story.
I didn’t even think about that. It was just like, It’s Julia Roberts! We live in New York, and you just see so many famous people walking around, but to spend time, you’re just like, That is a movie star. Like she is a person, she’s a loving wife, and she’s so funny and smart and she has tons of interests and she’s a great mom, but you’re just like, She just has the markings of just like a classic timeless movie star. There are moments where you’re like, This is crazy.

Like I remember when we were all hanging out when we were shooting the movie. It was like a group dinner with everyone, but like, Vanessa [Bayer] and I were sitting the closest to Jules and she was like, What are you guys’s birthdays? I’m like, Oh, September 28th, and she pulls out her phone and puts my birthday in her calendar. And then she texted me on my actual birthday and it was just like … what? It’s so nuts.

Were you a fan beforehand?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m a huge romantic comedy person. My Best Friend’s Wedding — all that stuff. So, I’m just like, This is the Julia from the big screen. But then she’s a normal person.

Did you spend much time with her during the shoot, besides the yacht? Another day Vanessa and I ended up going to the zoo with the family and it was the most fun. We were in a freaking Croatian zoo, hanging out, and one of her daughters was telling me about all these different animals.

When did you decide to write about the swimming lesson?
It was really was when I came up with doing a chapter on the top ten non-trash moments of my life. At that point in the book, I was talking about how the fashion industry is bad and the body issues that all women go through and feminism. There was a lot of stuff where I’m like, This needs to step up. This needs to step up. So, I just wanted to take a time out in the book and have a nice palate cleanser. To be like, There’s a lot of kind of annoying things going on, but truly I am blessed. And I wanted it to be a mix of cool things like Julia Roberts encounters and less crazy things like I got cast in a movie or I ate all the carrots that were in my fridge before they spoiled. A mix of high and low.

You have stories of meeting a few famous people in the new book. How would you describe your thinking behind how you approached those sections?
It happened in my life, so I wanted to write about it, but I also wanted to write about it in a way that is relatable. For instance, yeah, I got to swim with Julia’s family, but you could sub them out for non-famous white people and it would still be just as funny that. these white people are really trying to encourage me to swim. And like, “You just gotta believe!” That’s funny no matter who’s doing that.

Bono and Oprah are my two heroes. They’re the people I wanna be like in terms of career and philanthropy. But I never wanna write about any sort of interaction with a famous person as like, They said this and then they said this, and then blah, blah. I don’t want it to be solely that. With the Oprah, you don’t really ever hear her say anything. It’s just more about how I missed her phone calls and how I was in debt. I try and frame it around my quirks, my mess-ups, or my fangirling in the moment, rather than relying on, Well, this famous person’s here so that’s going to carry this story.

It’s funny when you’re talking about how the Julia Roberts story could have been any white people.
Yeah, it’s just like, let’s rent a yacht. Yes, let’s. Sure. Okay.

In the book you joke that it was like the Blind Side but nothing like the Blind Side, but it really was the Blind Side.
Yeah. It’s just a very surreal moment, but I feel like it’s still grounded in, I’m not good at something, I’m trying to get better at it, and I’m still mostly not great at it.

That Time Julia Roberts Taught Phoebe Robinson How to Swim