Some actors would follow up a role in an Oscar-nominated film by telling their agents that they want even more serious parts, that they just can’t possibly do a silly action movie, or a comedy directed by someone other than James Brooks or Woody Allen.
Not Eric Roberts.
In 1985, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Runaway Train, playing an escaped convict. When the award went to Don Ameche instead, for Cocoon, out went all of Roberts’ precious notions about work. “I always wanted to have the classic career but it drove me crazy,” he says over the course of two phone calls on Monday afternoon. “When you hand in great performances in Star 80 and Runaway Train and the Oscar goes to Don Ameche, it kind of bums you out. That’s when I called my agent and said, ‘I’ll do anything as long as there’s one good thing about it.’ It can be a good co-star, a good director, a really great wardrobe. As long as it’s fun, I’ll do it. I started doing two to five movies a year, it’s been a blast, and I’ve seen the world for free.”
Never mind that scores of these movies barely made a dent at the box office, or that from time to time, they went straight to video. Roberts may not have become the movie star he once hoped to be, but he’s nevertheless been on permanent call, the old reliable folks turn to when big-name action stars drop out, when you need a terrific working actor who doesn’t say no, and has no issue doing a part in a movie that may be utterly ridiculous.
And this weekend, Roberts, 54, staged a return to the top of the box office as villain number No. 1, a truly evil druglord, in Sylvester Stallone’s new shoot ’em up, The Expendables, which took in $35 million in receipts, despite spectacularly terrible reviews and major competition from Eat Pray Love, which stars Roberts’ own sister Julia. (Another sister, Lisa, is also an actress.)
For years, Eric and Julia have been said to be estranged, but those days are long over, says Frère Roberts. “There was never really a feud. We’re brother and sister and we both have really strong opinions about things, so it’s a lot of ‘fuck you,’ ‘no, fuck you’ and hanging up the phone. But it got so blown out of proportion. We stopped talking and then with the birth of the twins we started talking again. Now we talk almost every day. I like her.”
Does he feel any glee about having beaten her at the box office? “I hate that,” he says. “Sly said, ‘How is it to be up against your sister?’ but she’s in a chick flick. I’m in a big action movie. She’s a woman, I’m a man. We don’t compete for roles. We can’t be in competition.”
“It got so blown out of proportion. We stopped talking and then with the birth of the twins we started talking again. Now we talk almost every day. I like her.”
As Roberts explains, it all goes back to that idea of not taking himself too seriously—at this point, he has absolutely no delusions of grandeur about his career. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he says. “I’m an old guy. I made some great movies, I gave some great performances. I think I can have fun at this point and do something ridiculous.”
In line with that, Roberts recently completed shooting a project for Roger Corman called Sharktopus that’s going straight to TV, according to IMDB. Roberts takes some issue at classifying it a “B-movie.”
“I’d say it’s a C or D movie, pal,” he says. Then he adds: “Even though Sharktopus is nothing I will ever be proud of, it was such fun. I got to have the fight with the Sharktopus creature. He wasn’t even there and he killed me… I got to work with Roger Corman.”
He’s also got a recurring role on The Young and the Restless, which he took because the character is “smart” and most of the guys he plays are usually stupid or seriously deranged.
Roberts’ characters also have an overwhelming tendency to wind up covered in blood, which has been true ever since he scored his breakout role in Bob Fosse’s Star 80, playing the real-life looney-toon who killed a Playboy centerfold. “I’ve made a 160-something films, and I’ve probably died half the time,” Roberts says. “I’ve been maimed probably another quarter of the time, and I only got away with it the other 25 percent of the time. All thanks to Bob Fosse.”
On the occasion that Roberts has ventured out of crime and punishment with smart independent films like It’s My Party—in which he played a gay man struggling with an HIV diagnosis—he’s generally been as good as he is when he’s doing schlock. But he and his wife, Eliza, who was herself an actress and takes a highly involved role in her husband’s career, down to supervising/sitting in on phone interviews with reporters, have come to realize it’s the latter that usually pays the rent. “It’s almost like hazard pay,” she jokes. “On the good stuff, they don’t even have to pay you. You’re lucky just to do it.”
Today, the couple, who have been married since the early 1990s, live in Sherman Oaks, California, where they tend to a slew of cats and dogs. They also have a sanctuary on their property for rescued squirrels. For a while, the two were both vegans, but Roberts fell off the wagon recently. “It’s just really hard being a vegan,” he says.
His daughter, of whom he is immensely proud, is rising actress Emma Roberts.
What complaints Roberts does have about his acting career are generally limited to the problems caused by bad cinematographers, who are abundant in the world of B, C, and D movies. They can have a terrible effect on an actor’s ego, he says. “They stop lighting you,” he says. “I think they figure, ‘He’s middle-aged, fuck it’…Then you ask to look good, and you get treated like a prima donna.”
Roberts has also run up against some resistance from his agents, who aren’t thrilled with his self-described zero-strategy for staying in the business. He lets it slip that his talent reps nearly fired him as a client when he told them recently he was doing the VH1 reality-TV show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. “I said, ‘It’s going to be fun, don’t worry.’ They said ‘Janice Dickinson is on it,’ don’t go near that. I was, like, ‘It’s really OK.’”
Roberts appears on the show later this year and is treated on air for marijuana addiction. It’s something he’s used almost daily—“for anxiety,” his wife interjects—since he gave up cocaine in the mid-’90s. “When I started acting, you could literally get cocaine in the prop trucks,” Roberts recalls. “Everyone from the executive producers to the craft services people were doing it. I came off that on my own, and went back to pot, which I also did as a teenager.”
If it took him a long time to kick the grass habit, it may be because he has a difficult time demonizing that particular drug. “I’m anti-booze completely. Booze has brought down whole civilizations. But pot has just made people a lot sweeter, although you lose motivation, and that’s a bad thing.”
Doing the show was fun, and the treatment appears to be working so far, he says. “I’ve been sober a little over a month. I did my first red carpet un-stoned in my entire life for The Expendables… I felt conspicuous.”
But overall, he really can’t complain too much about his life. “I’m a lucky guy,” he says. “I make a good living…I have a wife that understands me, I love going to work. Being an actor is so much fun.”
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.