Life as Steven Soderbergh then knew it came to end when he was 12 years old. He had been quite a baseball player, one of the best you could find among the boys in Baton Rouge, La. But in 1975 his talent mysteriously disappeared. "I woke up one morning, and I didn't have it," he recalls. "And I knew that I wasn't gonna be able to get it back. Whatever the thing was, it was just gone."
Soderbergh reluctantly hung up his baseball cap. He had another gift, however, and that was about to blossom. By the time he was in high school, Soderbergh was taking classes in the film department of Louisiana State University (where his father taught education). But when it came time to enroll in college, he opted instead for on-the-job training, editing pieces for the wacky 1980s TV show Games People Play as well as making his own short films and a Yes concert film. In 1989 he released his first feature, and the movie gods smiled on him. It was called sex, lies, and videotape. The $1.2 million romantic Rubik's cube resonated with a public largely fed up with the mindless action-heavy fare of 1980s Hollywood, and by independent-film standards it became a blockbuster. It also cleared a path from the art house to the mall and launched a brigade of indie and indie-minded movies--from Pulp Fiction to American Beauty--into the mainstream.
This past year the movie gods smiled on Soderbergh once again, and this time they grinned like Julia Roberts on ecstasy. As director of last spring's Erin Brockovich, he coaxed the best performance yet out of the biggest female movie star on Planet Earth and generated more than $256 million at the box office worldwide. Now his new film, Traffic, an epic sweep through the international drug trade, has been named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle.
"He has a different style for every movie," says Michael Douglas, who stars in Traffic as the father of a teenage junkie (Erika Christensen) and--watch out for falling irony--the nation's newly appointed drug czar. "Steven jumps from one venue to another better than anybody." When the Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed down its Golden Globe nominations for 2000, Soderbergh's amazing versatility was rewarded with two directing nods--one for Traffic and one for Erin Brockovich. Which means that as the Oscar race heats up, Soderbergh is facing off against himself.
The first question you want to ask him is, of course, So what's Julia Roberts really like? Answer: "On the Top 10 list of people who are fun to hang out with, Julia occupies positions 1 through 11." Since it's been more than a decade since sex, lies, and videotape jump-started his career, you might also wonder why it has taken Soderbergh so long to capitalize on its success. "I was very young, still trying to figure out my strengths and weaknesses," explains Soderbergh, who turns 38 this month and has a nine-year-old daughter, Sarah, with his ex-wife, actress Betsy Brantley.