Reel Streaming: Eric Roberts...Ready, On Set, Go!
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 45
By Laurence Lerman
A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in a lively Zoom chat with the actor Eric Roberts on the eve of the release of his latest film to the streaming market: the 2019 the crime-romance-thriller-prison drama mélange Night Walk, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Aziz Tazi.
Actually, Night Walk is just one of Roberts’ many “latest films.” In 2021 alone, the Mississippi-born actor is credited with more than 40 projects in some phase of development, production, post-production or release (this according to the the ever-helpful IMDb). Nearly 30 of them are feature-length films with such genre-infused names as The Poltergeist Diaries, The Rideshare Killer, Alien Vampire Busters, Killer Advice and my favorite title, The Wrong Mr. Right.
Several decades have passed since the 65-year-old Roberts first burst on the scene in the Eighties and unleashed his versatile talents in such films as Star 80 (1983), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), The Coca Cola Kid (1985) and Runaway Train, for which he was nominated for a 1986 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Remarkably, over the course of his 40-plus year career, Roberts has chalked up some 636 acting credits (as of this week, at least), more than two-thirds of them over the past two decades. It’s a staggeringly long list, with the prolific performer appearing in everything from studio movies, independent films, animated voiceover projects to TV shows, shorts and even student films. Though occasionally cast in leading roles, Robert has seamlessly slipped into a vigorous career as a character player whose familiar face has anchored many a lesser known or micro-budgeted commodity.
Night Walk is a perfect example. In it, Roberts’ small role finds him portraying a crooked judge whose corrupt ways wreak havoc on the life of leading man Sean Stone, who’s been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of lady love Sarah Alami.
Eric and I talked about Night Walk, as well as his experiences working with neophyte directors, his ever-growing frequent flier miles account and the unique process he employs for choosing his acting roles. It’s a system that has yielded some 50-plus projects for 2022 and beyond.
I’m psyched you could find the time to speak with us—you’re a busy guy!
Of course, of course…when it’s a really good project, we do press. Press is everything, pal.
Night Walk was a real change of pace: a prison movie with a splintered chronology where the violence is kept to a minimum and the themes of justice squandered and Islam vs. Christianity are raised.
Law enforcement and criminality share a lot of similarities—the kinds of guys who grow up to be gangster are also the ones who grow up to be cops. One has a badge and one doesn’t, but I think they’re both drawn to the kind of adrenaline-pumping lifestyle. What’s fascinating to me is that we act like they’re that much different from each other when they really aren’t.
Tell me about working with Night Walk’s writer and director Aziz Tazi, a first-time feature filmmaker.
And what a great guy! And I don’t say that often as most directors aren’t great guys. But Aziz is and I hope he calls me again because he’s going to have a great future.
I imagine that you’ve worked with a number of first-timers over the past decade, or at least a bunch who aren’t all that experienced.
First-time filmmakers are really fun, because they’re really scared or they’re really not—there’s no in between. They’re either really reckless and brave or really scared and careful. So, you hope you get one who has a little spirit and is also careful, because you have to have a little of both. I love first-time directors – it’s like driving a tractor for the first time: you have to get used to it.
You seem like a charming guy to me, but you bring years of experience to your profession and you know your way around a set or location, so it must be an intimidating task for a young director to give you direction.
I hope they’re not intimidated. I always go out of my way to say to my directors to please tell me what to do! I’m very good as being told what to do—ask my wife. I like to let them laugh and feel they can boss me around. I always do my homework and I’m ready. I arrive with all these colors and I want them to tell me which one they want to see today.
And, now I have to ask you about how you pick your projects. You’re such a busy guy, you’re in so many films—both independent and studio projects—and you clearly love to work and take on so many different genres. Can you talk about your process, selection and scheduling of the films in which you appear?
Okay, very quickly, here’s the process. I have two readers—one’s a girl, one’s a guy; one reads comedy and one reads drama. They’re both very serious readers and they boss me around a lot. They put stuff on my desk that they like with along with a synopsis. them. I have a stack of them on my desk and I go through them. When I like one, I ask for the script. I get the script and the synopsis and I read them both, and if I like them after that, I say “Yes, I’ll do this project.” It’s a three-step procedure and it works for us! And it’s also fast.
I can’t possibly read every script that’s submitted. Depending on the day, I get between 2 and 30 offers. Half of them are financed; the half that aren’t financed, they can usually finance them based on my name, so they need me for their project. Sometimes I do them, but most times, I don’t. I wait until they have their financing so it doesn’t become “An Eric Roberts Film” as opposed to “A Film by So-and-So That Eric Roberts Is In.” The pressure is calmer that way.
When you get a call for bigger studio projects—2008’s The Dark Knight, for example, or Inherent Vice in 2014—is that when the real schedule juggling comes into play? When you have opportunity to book a multi-week studio gig?
There’s stuff you just cannot say “no” to. I just got a great move, Babylon [directed by La La Land helmer Damien Chazelle and starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie], and so we had to do a lot of bouncing and rearranging with the schedule so it could fit. We had to break a couple of hearts, even. But sometimes it happens.
With your packed schedule, you must constantly be on the road.
I have more miles than you would ever believe. I can fly for free for the rest my life.
Is part of your negotiation with independent producers involve having your family accompany you for a long shoot?
If it’s a long shoot—more than five days—then I take the wife, because that’s how you stay married. It doesn’t work any other way. One of the great things about being away with [my wife] Eliza is that when I’m with her, they treat me like a human being. When I’m alone, they treat me a little bit like a movie star, like someone that don’t know how to approach. But when I’m with the wife, I’m a normal guy. And I really like that better.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.