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Eric Roberts: Star 86

Eric Roberts aboard "Runaway Train" in 1986.

NEW YORK -- Eric Roberts has an agent who lives nine stories above Seventh Avenue, near Times Square, in one of those old brick buildings filled with the offices of private eyes and mysterious import-export operations.

You walk into the apartment and you're a little surprised to find that people live here; maybe you expected a set for "The Maltese Falcon." You find a dog trying to lick your hand, an open bag of Doritos on the table, and old movie posters all over the walls. Roberts hurries in a few minutes later. He's tall and thin, with dark circles under his eyes. His hair is slicked back and he's wearing a leather jacket with a long scarf. He might look slightly sinister, except he has a new pair of white Reeboks on his feet. He asks his agent if he looks too much like a greaser. His agent says he does not.

This is one of the most-interesting actors in the movies today. He brings such a pitch of intensity to his performances that in "The Pope of Greenwich Village," he made his co-star, Mickey Rourke, look laid-back. Right from the beginning, from his 1979 debut in "King of the Gypsies," Eric Roberts has had about him the promise of eventual greatness. The movie industry does not know how he will turn out, but he holds the potential to be mentioned with Brando, De Niro, Hurt and the others who come surrounded with the aura of a special talent.

No one who saw Eric Roberts in "Star 80" is likely to forget his performance as the human slime who masterminded the rise of a young woman named Dorothy Stratten from a fast-food cashier in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Playmate of the Year. Then he brutally tortured and murdered her before killing himself. It was the best movie performance of the year, but it did not win an Oscar nomination for Roberts -- perhaps because the Academy Award voters despised the character so much.

This year, perhaps in amends, Roberts has received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his performance opposite best-actor nominee Jon Voight in "Runaway Train." Roberts plays a slow-witted convict who escapes with Voight from a maximum-security prison in Alaska. They hop a freight train that is just pulling out of the station, and then the engineer drops dead, and that is the beginning of a heart-stopping chase across Alaska. The movie was directed by a Russian emigre, Andrei Konchalovsky, who felt the role was just right for Roberts' particular intensity.

We sit in the living room of the agent's apartment, under a wall covered with framed, autographed covers from Life magazine. Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner are above the head of Eric Roberts, a very different kind of movie star, whose answers are short but straightforward.

EBERT: Where were you when you heard about the Oscar nomination?

ROBERTS: I was right downstairs in front of the doughnut shop.

Q. Who told you?

A. Bill Tresh. My manager and friend. He says, "You got your nomination."

Q. How did you feel?

A. We acted like little kids. We ran around each other, hugged, yelled, screamed, and were very silly.

Q. Really?

A. Yeah. It's . . . it's . . . it's a huge, wonderful, glorious dessert, and, ah, yeah.

Q. When did you start in movies?

A. Jan. 28, 1978. I auditioned for the first time for a film called "King of the Gypsies."

Q. What kind of a person were you at that time? Where had you come from? What were you like?

A. I was pretty much out of Atlanta, Ga. I had been to the Royal Academy in London, the American Academy here, and I did Off-Broadway plays for about three years, and I was so thrilled by the whole idea of being in a movie, you know. Very glamorous I suppose is the word.

Q. Were you pointed toward acting even as a kid?

A. Yeah, I started acting as a little-bitty kid, 'cause I had a terrible stutter and my father discovered that when I memorized things, I could talk. So I did that sort of as fun, and then it became a lot of fun, and then it became an interest.

Q. Your stutter has gone away?

A. For the most part, yeah, except when I talk to strangers about strange things I tend to ba-ba-ba-ba, but it's pretty much gone, yeah.

Q. Did you like being in front of people?

A. Yeah, I did, for a kid who stuttered and got cracked up at in the classroom, it was a real freedom.

Q. And you liked to be looked at, you liked to perform?

A. Especially as a young kid it was like, you know, always a brand-new thing. It was like a real challenge: Can I do it? Oh, God! And when it worked out it was glorious.

Q. If I'd been asked to guess where you're from, I would have guessed New York. I wouldn't have guessed Atlanta.

A. Yeah, Atlanta and New Orleans, basically. I spent almost every summer on my grandfather's farm. He raised Tennessee Walkers, and that's where I learned to love horses.

Q. When I look at most of your roles, though, you're usually playing a street-wise, big-city kind of guy from some version of an underworld.

A. I've always been fascinated with those kinds of people, those kinds of men who think in a very small way but they think it's big time.

Q. What do you look for when you look at a screenplay?

A. A role first, a director second, and then I go for it.

Q. When you read "Runaway Train," were Jon Voight and the director, Andrei Konchalovsky, already connected to it?

A. Yeah, they were. I was crazy for it from the first time I read it.

Q. A lot of your acting in the movie is at a very high level of emotional intensity, inside that very confined space of the runaway train. Is that tough, to get up and stay up?

A. Well, you run into a wall occasionally because we worked inside such a small space -- the cab of that train -- but it all worked out. Andrei would tell me what he wanted. He'd ask for a shade of blue, and I'd try to give him that shade of blue.

Q. Did you think when you were making the movie that there might be an Academy Award nomination in it?

A. That never occurs to me, at least in the making of things. Not to be tacky, but the joy is in the doing.

Q. I talked to Jon Voight last week and he spoke a lot about suffering, and about how we all suffer, and he has suffered, and how this movie is about suffering. When you're making a movie, do you think about the meaning of it?

A. In this particular film, no, because my character -- were he bright enough to know the problems ahead -- would never have gone. In my character, suffering was not a focal point. In Jon's, yes.

Q. I thought your performance in "Star 80" deserved a nomination, and my theory was: You weren't nominated because the voters detested the character you played.

A. Maybe so. I went to a screening at a regular movie theater and I was on my way out and, of course, everybody knew who I was, because I didn't look that different in the movie, and somebody said, "God, what an awful man!" It was such an awful story that people got me confused with the character.

Q. How does a nomination, the possibility of winning the Oscar, affect your career?

A. As far as the possibility of winning is concerned, Don Ameche is going to win. But I'm so thrilled I get to rent clothes and go to the Oscars and look good, that, what the heck, that's great.

Q. You're gonna go to the Oscars?

A. You betcha.

Q. What are you going to wear?

A. A tux, of course. Your old basic black.

Q. Are you going to wear -- Reeboks?

A. No, I'll leave that to Cybill Shepherd.

Q. Do you have an acceptance speech in mind?

A. I don't expect to win, so why jinx myself and make it worse and think about it? I think "thanks" is a big word. It goes a long way if you mean it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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