Interview: Eric Roberts of Night Walk

Last week, Disc Dish caught up with actor Eric Roberts, whose performances in Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village and Runaway Train cemented his status as one of Eighties cinema’s most versatile and idiosyncratic talents. Over the course of his 40-plus year career, Roberts has officially chalked up more than 600 acting credits (according to the IMDb), a list that seemingly grows every the week as he appears in everything from studio movies, independent films and animated projects to TV shows, shorts and even student films.

Eric was happy to talk about his latest film, the crime-romance-thrill-prison drama mélange Night Walk, written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Aziz Tazi. In it, Roberts portrays a crooked judge whose nefarious ways leave their mark on the life of leading man Sean Stone, who’s been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his lady love, played by Sarah Alami.

Eric also spoke about his experiences working with first-time directors, his formidable frequent flier miles account and, most fascinatingly, his process for choosing acting roles, which at last glance includes some 70 productions over the past two years alone that are currently in some phase of pre- or post-production.

Disc Dish: I’m psyched you could find the time to speak with us, Eric—you’re a busy guy!

Eric Roberts: Of course, of course…when it’s a real project, we do press. Press is everything, pal.

DD: Night Walk is an interesting hybrid one: a prison movie/romance/crime drama with a splintered chronology wherein the violence is kept to a minimum and the themes of Islam vs. Christianity and legal corruption are raised.

ER: Law enforcement and criminality share a lot of similarities—the kinds of guys who grow up to be gangsters 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.

DD: Tell me about working with Night Walk’s writer and director Aziz Tazi, a first-time feature filmmaker.

ER: …And what a great guy! And I don’t say that often as most directors aren’t great guys. But Aziz Tazi is and I hope he calls me again because he’s going to have a great future.

Eric Roberts in Night Walk

DD: 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.

ER: 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 kind of 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.

DD: You bring so many years of experience to your profession and you certainly know your way around a set or location and production, in general, so it must be an intimidating task for a young director to give you direction.

ER: 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—just ask my wife! I like to get them laughing and to feel they can boss me around. I always do my homework and I’m ready to work.  I arrive with all these colors and I want them to tell me which one they want to see today.

DD: And now I have to ask you about how you pick your projects. Again, 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 in selecting and scheduling of the films in which you appear?

ER: 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 the stuff on my desk that they like, along with a synopsis. 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 on my own–depending on the day, I get between 2 and 30 offers. Half of them are financed, and 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. What I like to do is wait until they have their financing in place 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.

DD: When you get a call for a bigger studio project—2008’s The Dark Knight, for example, or 2014’s Inherent Vice—is that when the real schedule juggling comes into play? When you have opportunity to book a multi-week studio gig?

ER: There’s stuff you just cannot say “no” to. I just got a great move, Babylon [directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie], so we had to do a lot of bouncing and re-arranging with the schedule so it could all it. We had to break a couple of hearts, even. But sometimes it happens.

DD: With your packed schedule, you must constantly be on the road.

ER: I have more miles than you would ever believe. I can fly for free for the rest my life.

DD: Does part of your negotiation with producers involve having your family accompany you on a long shoot?

ER: 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 they don’t know how to approach. But when I’m with the wife, I’m a normal guy. And I really like that better.

Night Walk comes to DVD and everywhere movies can be rented on June 15 from Lionsgate.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.