“I have the best job on the planet,” says actor Eric Roberts. “Believe me, I have seen the planet and I know I have the best job! I get to get up every morning and have fun, and I’ve seen the world for free.”
Yet, with almost 300 credits in a 35-year career, he admits: “Comedies always scare me.”
The prolific and talented Roberts, older brother of Julia and Lisa and father of Emma, is best known for such intense, edgy roles in Star 80 (1983), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) and an Oscar-nominated turn in Runaway Train (1985). Now, he takes a walk on the funny side in The Whole Truth, available on DVD from Green Apple Entertainment (see Page 46 for review).
The film, which marks writer/director Colleen Patrick’s first feature, stars Elisabeth Rohm as Angela Masters, an acting coach who specializes in teaching accused criminals the finer points of behaving like they’re innocent — whether they are or not.
Falling into the latter category is Roberts as Yaro Maroslav, a dim-witted but deadly Russian gangster who wins an acquittal thanks to Angela. But when she realizes how dangerous Yaro truly is, she finds herself on his hit list.
The Whole Truth “is kind of a groovy movie,” says Roberts. “What’s cool about it is that it’s sort of a statement on the legal system.
“I can be funny if I have funny lines,” he says, but he plays it straight as Yaro — despite the character’s bizarre hairstyles — and he praises co-star Rick Overton, who plays Yaro’s equally dim and deadpan right-hand man, Uri.
“I had an incredible sidekick in Rick. Rick knows what’s funny, and he took such good care of me.”
Growing up, Roberts’ earliest inspirations were Marlon Brando and Robert Donat. “And then,” he announces, “as a teen, there was Steve McQueen.”
From the outset of his career, Roberts has been hailed as an inventive and intuitive actor, and an unpredictable one. He sometimes partied a little too hard (and appeared on “Celebrity Rehab”) yet it never seemed to interfere with his work, or the distinctive energy he brought to it.
“People think I’m crazy because I play crazy roles,” Roberts observes, “but I’m just a big kid. I like to have fun — and making movies is fun!” He admits that Star 80, in which he played Paul Snider, the estranged husband of 1980 Playmate Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, whom he eventually murdered before turning the gun on himself, was a painful experience.
“It was a miserable time in my life,” he says, “and I was fortunate to have [director] Bob Fosse guide me. When he said to me ‘You’re playing me if I wasn’t successful,’ it blew my mind.”
Paired with Jon Voight as escaped convicts in Runaway Train wasn’t as emotionally grueling, but filming in the Alaskan Tundra was physically debilitating. “It was very satisfying and miserable to make,” he says with a laugh. “It was as cold as a nun’s ass, but at the end of each day, Jon and I were satisfied with our work.”
The film marked Roberts’ only Oscar nomination to date, but Hollywood veteran Don Ameche won that year for Cocoon. “That award [Best Supporting Actor] is sometimes more for a body of work than an individual performance,” he says. “What are you gonna do?” One of his most popular roles was as Gotham City crime boss Salvatore Maroni in The Dark Knight (2008), the second in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Batman trilogy.
“He knows what he wants, when he wants it, why he wants it and how he wants it,” Roberts says of Nolan. “You just follow his lead — and he’s a hell of a leader.”
“Eric Roberts would be one of the most underrated actors around,” says filmmaker Larry Cohen, with whom he made 1990 cult thriller The Ambulance. “He’s got the ability, but because of this cycle of exploitation pictures he’s made, he doesn’t always get the opportunities or roles he deserves. We had a very nice rapport… [and] because of Eric Roberts, we got James Earl Jones — one of our greatest actors — for The Ambulance.
“I happen to think that he’s one of the finest actors in the business, actually,” Cohen concludes, “and I would love to work with him again.”
Among his upcoming films, Roberts says to look for Lovelace, the biography of Deep Throat actress Linda Lovelace, played by Amanda Seyfried. Not so much for him, but for her. “Amanda is incredible,” he says. “She’s a mind-blower.”
Roberts is just as keen to support his family’s artistic endeavors as his own. He takes great pride in watching the ascent of daughter Emma’s screen career. Stepson Keaton Simons is a talented singer/songwriter, and his single “Beautiful Pain” is, Roberts boasts, “off the hook!” With as many as 30(!) projects scheduled for this year alone, Roberts has admittedly made his fair share of clunkers. He says that he simply likes to work, and whatever the outcome — good, bad or ugly — each one is an experience. “I’ve gone from being the youngest person on the set to having people come up to me now and say ‘We’ve loved your career’” — and I love it.”
The official Eric Roberts website is: ericrobertsactor.com.