They Made My Novel Into a Movie Starring Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali. My Kids Were Not Impressed

Last spring, director Sam Esmail asked Rumaan Alam and his family to make a cameo appearance in his film adaptation of Alam’s book ‘Leave the World Behind.’ Alam said yes, expecting to give his sons a memorable day—but didn’t anticipate what they’d end up remembering about it.
Author Rumaan Alam  meets his fictional family.
Author Rumaan Alam (right) meets his fictional family.

Read all of our Leave the World Behind coverage, including author Rumaan Alam's 2020 interview with GQ, our rundown of the many connections between the movie and the Mr. Robot universe, director Sam Esmail's Q&A with GQ about the film's ambiguous ending, and Esmail's Top Five Things of 2023.

Once, when my younger son was still in his tantrum-throwing era, he paused during an especially operatic meltdown to say, “Hey look, a copy of Rich and Pretty, your first book, which I didn't really like.” Pretty precocious—sharper than a serpent’s tooth at age five. But our kids know us. He understood that my work matters to me, that demeaning it might draw blood. He just needed to blow off steam, or be fed, or to go to sleep. But his words also contained the truth: Children don’t care about their caregivers as people with a job, a life, or desires independent of them.

I love my job: fiddling at a computer and making up people. But that moment crystalizes how far my work is—and should remain—from real life: heating up leftovers, overseeing homework, losing at Nintendo bowling, dealing with the occasional emotional outburst. Pretty humbling that a kid still young enough to need an afternoon nap somehow understood that ego is fundamental to what I do, and that it’s one of my personal failings. Wasn’t that why, when I read Richard Scarry to my Big and Little, I pointed out the writer at his typewriter—just like Daddy?

Most of us maintain distance between our personal and professional lives. I rarely want to collapse that, but in the spring of 2022, Sam Esmail, the writer and director adapting my last novel as a film, invited us to visit his set. He proposed we shoot a cameo—the whole gang in one of the film’s crowd scenes.

I confess I was excited—to see for myself Esmail’s interpretation of this moment from my imagination, to meet some of the film’s stars. Maybe that’s ego again. Maybe I wanted my kids to see me not just as the guy noodling around on the computer but as someone with access to a real world. Maybe I wanted them to be proud of me, an inversion of the parent-child relationship.

My husband, David, and I let the boys skip school one stupefyingly beautiful May day. We drove to Long Island, met a surreal scene: a vast parking lot in a picturesque state park, filled with tents and trucks and hundreds of people. The costume department approved our “beachy” wardrobe and we joined a crowd of performers in swimwear and sun hats, lingering outside one of those WPA-era brick bathhouses that serves as gateway to the beach.

To me, the movies are impossibly glamorous, the fact that I’m (however tangentially) involved in one kind of thrilling. But the making of movies involves a lot of standing around and waiting. My kids seemed puzzled, but bafflement might be childhood’s natural state. I was confused myself. I knew the whole scenario was pretend, but it was something I had once imagined, privately, and put down on the page. And there it all was, all around me, real as the sky above.

A crewmember escorted my family to the foreground of the shot. A mom with aspirations of stardom for her daughter asked me what we’d done to warrant such treatment. I tried to divert the bored children by pointing out the massive camera in its rig, but Big, like most teens, wanted only to look at his phone (this is exactly what he’s seen doing in the finished film). Little complained about how hungry he was.

After a while, the stand-ins were dismissed and the principal cast emerged—dressed, like us, for an afternoon at the beach. I could feel the stares of the rest of the background actors as Julia Roberts hugged me, gestured at Ethan Hawke beside her and at the actors playing their children, and asked, “Are we what you pictured?”

I wonder what I said. The answer is that it would be deranged for any novelist to even fantasy-cast a film adaptation of their work, and even in such a flight of fancy I wouldn’t dare imagine one of the world’s most famous actresses pretending to be someone I had made up. Roberts and Hawke warmly greeted my kids, in that easy, practiced way of people who are parents themselves. We hustled back to our positions. “That’s Julia Roberts,” I reminded the kids. Big looked at his phone; Little asked what we’d have for lunch.

Everyone asks me the same question about Esmail’s adaptation of Leave the World Behind: “Have you met Julia Roberts?” I’m not surprised by this; indeed, I’m probably a little too tickled to answer in the affirmative. Famous doesn’t seem quite the word for Julia Roberts; she is perhaps the last of her kind: a star. To me, Esmail likened working with Roberts to how he imagined it must have felt to direct Elizabeth Taylor.

It took a trip to IMDB to discover that my older son has actually seen Roberts onscreen—in Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder, annually watched by classes of sixth graders across the country. But both kids seem indifferent to the glamour people my age associate with actors. My boys’ screen idols are YouTubers opining about meals or books, or kids like themselves doing some shtick on TikTok. I think—sorry to generalize—that this is generational. Today’s teens and tweens are drawn to what they perceive as real, even if that’s Selena Gomez pretending to be just a girl you might know.

When we finally started rolling that day, Big was thrilled not by his proximity to the stars but by his prominence in the setup. My husband is a photographer who has thoroughly documented his kids’ lives; my boys understand how to work the camera. The background performers shot two scenes—first the principal family’s arrival at the beach, and then a more frenzied moment in which the whole crowd is departing. We were given more direction for the second scene—we were to seem rushed, even panicked (no spoilers re: why). Little stuck by my side, his hunger slowly ebbing into anger—but he was actually acting. Little improvised words to me, asking What is happening with persuasive conviction, probably ruining a take because kids don’t know how to whisper, let alone stage-talk.

It felt to me like we did close to a dozen takes, though I was on edge, feeling that rising sense of panic familiar to any parent. If I don’t feed this kid soon, there’s going to be a problem. I promised him that we’d go out for a delicious lunch as soon as we were wrapped. When Little was an infant, he would get so overwhelmed by hunger that he would shriek, choosing the comfort of rage over the bottle of formula. “Drink your juice, Shelby,” David would say, in such moments, as loving mom Sally Field urged her diabetic daughter in Steel Magnolias. All roads lead to Julia Roberts, I guess.

The real background actors were working all day, but my family knocked off early, our desire for stardom sated. We went to the first restaurant we could find: Applebee’s, where we ordered a starter of artichoke dip that was so hot it tasted of nothing. David joked that it was “forged in the fires of hell,” to the great amusement of even the crabby kids, who regularly use the phrase to this day. We talked about what we’d just experienced, and how funny it would be that, for the rest of their lives, Big and Little could tell people they’d once been on screen with Academy Award winner Julia Roberts. Neither of my children had or has any idea what an Oscar is, of course.

Time did what it does, our visit to daddy’s movie set supplanted by other adventures. But fantasy intrudes on reality, or work intrudes on life: when we went to Paris last fall, one of the first things we saw, on the trek to passport control, was a massive Chopard ad. “Look,” I told the kids. “It’s Julia Roberts!” Big nodded, pointing out that we’d once met her husband and children, mistaking the illusion that Roberts and Hawke were performing for fact. To prep for writing this essay, I asked both kids what they remember of our trip to the movie set; each mentioned the artichoke dip at Applebee’s.

This fall, David and I flew to Los Angeles to see Esmail’s movie at a film festival. Our kids were incensed that they weren’t invited. It wasn’t fair, the boys told me. “I’m the star of the movie,” Big lamented. That struck me as not just one of those darnedest things, but close to the truth. He is the star of his own life, as all our children are; whatever Julia Roberts and I are up to has nothing to do with anything that really matters.