I’m here to help Nollywood, says Roberts
Eric Anthony Roberts is an American actor, whose career has spanned almost 40 years. He has performed in over 400 films, including, Raggedy Man (1981), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), The Specialist (1994), Cecil B. Demented (2000), National Security (2003), The Dark Knight (2008), The Expendables (2010), Inherent Vice (2014) and others. His equally varied television work includes, three seasons with the sitcom Less than Perfect, as well as recurring roles on the NBC drama, Heroes and the CBS soap opera, The Young and the Restless, as well as Saved by the Light, and the legal drama, Suits. The Golden Globe and OSCARS nominee was in Nigeria recently to help develop and bring Hollywood attraction to Nollywood. In this interview with MARCEL MBAMALU and GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, he speaks on his journey to the movie industry and sundry issues.
What were the childhood experiences that led to your desire to become an actor?
Acting talent is like athletic talent. It is something you are born with, but you have to nurture it. You can’t just have it, and do to it, anyhow. Even if you’re a born athlete, you cannot just grow up to be a great sprinter, without having to practice. The same thing with acting. You have to develop a homo technic, I mean you have to develop acting or performing technique and it has to be reliable. You have to be able to always depend on it. No matter what language, accent, year or what anything. So, it is a like sport. You’re born with the ability, but you have to nurture it.
What attracted you to acting? Why do you feel this is the ideal profession for you?
I started acting for a very specific reason: When I was a little boy, I had a very terrible stutter. I’d talk, talk and talk. I always had trouble talking. It was very embarrassing, and kids in my class would laugh at me. I never talked. I never spoke. I will just talk when we had to do reading. When we read things, it was always awful. I would stutter in the classroom and people would laugh. But my father found out that when I memorise things, I didn’t stutter. I could talk. So, when I learn things, I didn’t stutter. It was like a sort of freedom. I started acting towards memorising words. Then I became good at it, very good, so to say. I started loving it so much and I grew up acting. And that’s what I have ever done.
What kind of roles do you prefer?
When I take up roles, it is always very different, because I like to pick things that I have thought or fantasised about, but never done. It’s like I need to have a life that belongs to somebody else, and I borrow it. It is a fun process for me. I play so many different people. I’ve played a lot of problematic people. It is a lot of fun for me.
Describe your acting style. I mean what sort of style gets the best out of you professionally? Is it the Stanislavskian, Grotowskian or the Bertolt Brecht School?
I prefer mimetic. I love the method, which is transferred Stanislavski. I also understand the old English style, where you learn the lines and project it.
Tell us about a time when you were really in bad shape, but had to perform. How did you get through it?
Movies have changed very much, because in the days when we shot on films (celluloid), we had time. There was a process that you had to pass through, to get a movie ready. It took a long time to cast, another long time to rehearse a movie, a long time to shoot, another long time to edit and the eventual release. The whole process took about three to six straight months from the time you had the script. Now, it is six straight weeks, sometimes, six straight days. So, it is a whole different industry. And I think what has happened to our industry is this: Then, the artistes, directors, producers and actors ran the industry. They don’t, anymore. Lawyers do. Lawyers wanted to go cheap, so, they got rid of films. There are no more films, but HD tapes. They are very cheap, ugly and unattractive. But they are very cheap and fast. That’s what they want. Twenty-five years ago, they had what looked good. But now, they are terrible. We are used to them now, because it has been about 10 years that they have been all over TV. We see them all day, everyday. We are now used to the harshness of HD. Film was nice, soft and pretty, but HD is hush.
Why are you in Nigeria?
I’m here for a very specific reason. Martin Gbados wants to have Hollywood in Nigeria. He called my wife, who is very approachable and knows famous people in the world. He asked her, ‘how do I get somebody famous here, who will help to attract other famous people to come to Nigeria and work’. She told him, ‘when you are done, I would ask if my husband could come’. He asked her if I would come and she answered, ‘yes’. My wife and Martin developed a great relationship and so I’m here. I’m here to get the industry started, by just saying, ‘I make movies here. Nigeria is a beautiful country and its people are wonderful and sweet. It has a good weather that is perfect for Hollywood.
Are you going to bring Hollywood to Nigeria?
I’m not going to bring Hollywood here. You’re going to create your own Hollywood. Martin is going to get some other actors beside me to say ‘hi, I like it here.’ By so doing, we will get more people coming in. My presence will attract other people and they will come and help.
Have you been here before?
This is my first time here. But I have worked on Nigerian movies before. In the U.S., I worked on a Nigerian film. Way back in the US, Martin said to me, you’d be in my movie. I said sure. I spent a couple of weeks, probably, three on his movie. About a year later, he called me and said; ‘now we are going to do the second part of what we did in Nigeria’. I said sure. My wife is that kind of that when a person is wonderful, she loves helping such a person. We are not making money; it is all because of the love for arts. I love movies. I love actors, directors. I love the group and people. Hopefully, my being here will attract people.
Tell us about your experience in Ayo Maku’s A Trip to Jamaica. Your encounter with the actors, how was it?
There is no difference in the production process. It was totally professional and pleasurable. The experience was easy and nice. Art is art, mind you. It is the same everywhere. Like love, there is no difference. Art is universal. Everybody feels and wants it. Everybody gives it.
What can you say about Nollywood films?
If I would answer that, then I would have to guess. I don’t know yet. I’ve been here for only a few hours. I’ve not seen any Nigerian movie. I have a whole lot to watch, but I’ve not seen any one. I’m not here to judge. That’s not my interest. I’m here to learn. As an artiste, you learn, you never judge. You accept or walk away. Don’t judge. To judge is to cause issue. I’m here to have fun and share, as well get educated.
At 61, are you still able to work long hours?
I’m totally fit. I go to gym every morning of my life. I feel I can work forever. I’m not old.
When will you be old?
I’ll let you know.
But art thrives on criticisms
Sometimes. Everybody is a critic, so, criticism is not always advantageous. Everybody has opinion on something.
Did you have anything to do with your daughter becoming an actor?
Let me start from the beginning. First, I got my sister, Julia Roberts, in a movie and she became the biggest star in the world. And also, my name and the other Roberts name, so, my daughter, who is Roberts, was asked to come on and was made a star. So, she had it very easy. Julia didn’t have it easy as Emmy did. But they had it easier than I did. I was first, so, I was alone. I was nominated for three Golden Globe awards and the Academy before Julia got to high school. But Julia became the biggest star in the world. So everybody says to me, do you act?
What can you say about the relationship that exists between actors and directors, especially when it comes to type casting?
I can’t speak for my daughter or my sisters. I can only speak for myself. There was a very famous movie I made, King of the Gypsies, where I played the role of a New York street kid. Then, there was a film from a very famous book. The director was a famous actor. So, he called to know if I wanted to be in it. He asked the producer whether Eric could come for auditions, and the producer said, ‘no’. The director asked why. The producer said, ‘he is a street kid’. He acted like a street kid in King of the Gypsies and I don’t want him here. The director, who is a famous actor, wouldn’t see me as a fellow, who is a street kid. But that’s the kind of heartbreak you’re into as an actor. It is the most personal business on our planet. How you live, see, dress, talk and all the stuff, all matters when a director or producer doesn’t like something. What can you do about it? It’s very delicate and personal and it can hurt your feelings.
What is the most extreme change to your personality, hair, body weight, etc etc, that you have done to prepare for a role? What character was the toughest for you to change into?
In 1984, I did a movie called, The Pope of Greenwich Village. I was weighing 173 or 175 pounds. But I got the role in January. We started shooting in September. So, I had eight months to get prepared. So, I had to lose 30 pounds. I also toned my hair. That was hard. It took time. It was really hard. I love that movie and also love my role. I’m really proud of the movie. That was the toughest change, physically, but not the toughest movie I had ever done.