‘It’s Just The Best Job There Is’: Eric Roberts On ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ And His Fascinating Career Portraying Unsavory Characters

Nobody in Hollywood has had a career like the one Eric Roberts has had.

It doesn’t even seem like he’s had a career. It’s more like several. In the 1980s, he was a hybrid of handsome leading man and quirky character actor, known for roles like the real-life killer Paul Snider in Bob Fosse’s Star 80, low-level criminal Paulie in The Pope Of Greenwich Village, and escaped convict Buck McGeehy in Runaway Train, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. By the end of the decade, he transitioned to muscular action star in films such as The Best Of The Best and The Specialist. After that, he became one of the most prolific actors to ever work in cinema, appearing in everything from The Dark Knight and Inherent Vice to Lifetime’s Stalked By My Doctor franchise, among his more than 600 acting credits. Oh, and there’s also his appearance in the iconic video for The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” which has been streamed on YouTube more than 464 million times.

Roberts’ latest role is that of Junior, a shady low-life who re-emerges from the past to haunt Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) in season two of HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. In the most recent episode, a battalion of Dixie Mafia cycle ninjas — presumably sent on Junior’s behalf — failed once again to assassinate the Gemstones’ patriarch.

Junior is a role perfectly suited for Roberts’ skillset — the character is an enormous creep who also happens to have a weird, unsettling charisma. He radiates danger even he’s at his most affable. Nobody plays that as well as the 65-year-old Roberts, who considers HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones one of his favorite projects ever.

“Dude, I have never had a job I liked more,” he told me last week in a Zoom interview. “And I’m not just saying that as a nice thing to say. I’ve never had a job I liked more. The acting, the crew, the cast, my scripts, my dialogue, my costumes — everything about it is heaven, dude.”

Over the course of two interviews, Roberts talked about playing Junior as well as other notable roles from his career.

So you’ve really emerged as the villain of this season.

God man, that’s so narrow-minded of you. [Laughs.]

The tone of the show fits well with your overall oeuvre. It’s funny, but it can turn really dark rather quickly.

It’s got some dark spots, dude.

How did you get involved with The Righteous Gemstones?

Breakdowns are a thing that tells you everything that’s casting, and it said there was an audition for a character in this great show, Righteous Gemstones. Junior grew up with John Goodman and was a badass. And suddenly he reappears after John Goodman has turned over a new leaf, and he shows up and says, “Let’s get together.” And John’s like, “No, I’m staying away from you.” So it’s kind of an instant conflict. John can’t complain too much, or I will expose him for all that we did. The audience doesn’t really know what we did, but it wasn’t savory.

So you auditioned for the role?

Yes, I did. My wife, who’s also my coach, Eliza Roberts — I’m very proud of my wife — she got me ready for this audition. She shot it. We sent it in and I got the part. Who knew?

Did Danny McBride or any of the other people in charge of the show mention any of the roles you played in the past as a reason for casting you?

All I heard about any of it was from Danny, and he said, “I love that little character you sent me.” That’s what he said.

Did you know John Goodman before doing this show?

I never worked with John before. My only image of John was from Roseanne. And of course, all the stories that we all heard through TV Guide and what have you about all the insanity. So that’s all I knew of John.

John is an old-school pro. It’s such a pleasure. He shows up ready to work, has a sense of humor, and is just a cool cat. I made so many movies in the past 15 years with kids. There’s a brand new generation. And they’re not old school. So it’s a lot of fun for me. And it’s a lot of comfort for me. I just love working with him. He is also one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever known. He’s a great dude.

Seeing you on The Righteous Gemstones inspired me to revisit your past work. I’ve long been a fan of your performances in ’80s films like Star 80 and The Pope Of Greenwich Village. In my mind, you’re most associated with either dramas like the films I just mentioned, or action flicks like Best Of The Best and The Expendables. I don’t really associate you with comedy. But when I rewatched some of your films, I noticed that even your dramatic parts have some sort of comic element. Even Paul Snider, your character from Star 80 — one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen — is kind of goofy at times. How conscious are you of finding humor even in the darkest characters?

It’s a conscious choice every time, buddy. Especially when you’re playing heavy stuff. You have to find a way to relieve the audience. They have to be relieved from the constant bang, bang, bang. This is serious. This has meaning. Yeah, sure. And that’s great. But you also have to give them relief. Like Runaway Train, for instance. When I got the script, my character was a tough, stupid thug. He was in prison for statutory rape. There is nothing that’s savory to the appetite about any of that. So what do you do? You have to make him a child. You have to make him lost. You have to make it a mistake, you have to make it, “Well, I didn’t know she was 16.” You have to do that kind of thing.

So it’s wrong, but it’s not unforgivable. You have to make him forgivable. So, that’s what I did with of him. I took him and I made his voice talk up here, with a southern accent. [affects accent] “Well, I didn’t know. Okay?” So suddenly it’s not as big a crime. He’s not as bad a guy.

You did something similar with The Pope Of Greenwich Village, right?

Well, he was also written as a thug. But the problem with that is, it’s been done to death. So I just found another way in.

Another interesting aspect of your career is that you’re in a lot of things for only a scene or two, like The Dark Knight or Inherent Vice. Or you might appear for 30 seconds in a music video for The Killers, Mariah Carey, or Rihanna. But you always find a way to stand out. Is your approach different when you know you only have a scene or two to kill it? Is that a different energy you have to bring?

You are so nice to me! All these compliments in these questions, dude. I wish I thought as much of myself as you do. And I’m my biggest fan.

I’ll have some more compliments later.

Okay. So, I am an actor and we are very shallow people, basically, I’m sorry to say. I speak for myself. I shouldn’t speak for actors. But everything I’m in, I’m starring in even if I’m only on for 30 seconds. I’m the star of that 30 seconds and I move in like I feel it. Because people are like that. People star in their moments, whatever their moment is.

Sophie Mueller called me for my first music video. Will you come be in The Killers’ video? And I said no. And then I told my family and they said, “What is wrong with you? Eric, you idiot. Man, that’s The Killers!” They gave me such a bad time. So I called Sophie back.

I had no idea who I was playing, what I was playing, why I was playing, or what the song meant. I finally said, “What am I in this?”And somebody said, “You’re a pimp.” Who said that? I never knew. I guess I’m a pimp. But the music videos gave me a whole new audience I didn’t have. They all don’t have hair under their arms yet. I didn’t have that audience.

How did you end up in Inherent Vice?

Well, my wife can answer that better than I can. I don’t know how the offer came in. How’d the offer come in, honey?

Eliza Roberts: They never mentioned any of the main roles. They had these Breakdowns for one line, under five, almost like glorified extra. I talked to Eric’s reps: “Submit him, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson.” And they were like, “No, no, no, we can’t do that.” And I was like, “Just do it. I have a feeling,” and they did. What ended up happening was all the names that came across Paul’s desk, he just kind of figured out where to fit them. And he explained when he offered the role to Eric, it’s going to be a lot about you, more about you than you actually in it. But you don’t say no to him.

How was working with PTA?

It’s like he has brought you into this little club that belongs to him. This is his club and now you’re a member. He talks to you as if you’re very special, as if you’re the only person who can do what he’s asking of you. And here’s what it is and go. He’s just very, very kind, thorough, complete. And he doesn’t laugh a lot, but he smiles. He knows. He’s, like, spooky, because he is so calm and comfortable.

I’ve read that you auditioned for Quentin Tarantino several times. What was your impression of him?

I’ve auditioned for every movie he’s ever made except Pulp Fiction. What’s the one around Pulp time?

Reservoir Dogs.

All the others I’ve auditioned for and I haven’t gotten them.

Did you have a chance to talk with him? He’s obviously a fan of yours.

I just auditioned for him. I don’t know where you get that from, that he’s obviously a fan of mine, but I love hearing it.

It seems like people like Paul Thomas Anderson and The Killers were leaning on your screen persona as this dangerous and — as you put it — unsavory character. And that’s also true of The Righteous Gemstones. When I saw you appear in the first episode of this season, my immediate thought was, “This means trouble for John Goodman.” This is true of all veteran character actors, surely, but to what degree are you aware of the baggage from the past that you bring to every role?

It never occurs to me. In fact, I take that as a compliment, because I remember whenever I would see certain actors as a kid, in movies, I would have the same thought: “Ooh, this is going to been dangerous.” I love being one of those guys. Being the skinny kid from Atlanta, I would never have thought that I would grow up to be one of the premier bad guys in the industry. But that was Bob Fosse’s fault in Star 80. That’s what started all that.

I’m glad you brought that up, because I wanted to talk about Star 80. You’ve said that’s your best film.

Let me be real clear: That’s not my film, that is Bob Fosse’s film that I am in, and it’s the best film I was ever in. But I’m not responsible for that movie or my performance, really. He is. He was an incredibly overwhelming driving force, and he was an overused and abused word — he was a genius. Once you work for one of those guys you realize two things: That you’re not one of them, and that they are unusual. They’re just a whole other species. Once you’re with them you don’t ever get over it.

I sat, artistically, in his lap and said, “I am your puppet. Let’s go.” And he handled me beautifully, as you saw. I was responsible for almost none of it. I would just turn, “What do I do?” He would tell me and I’d go do it. It was really like that.

I totally understand what you’re saying, but I think you’re selling yourself short. It strikes me as an incredibly courageous performance, to be that extreme and unlikable on screen. Based on what I’ve read, in books like Sam Wasson’s 2013 biography Fosse, it seems like the experience of making the film was pretty miserable for you, since you were so locked into playing this miserable character, on and off screen.

I had really cool, intelligent, gifted people around me. The main person around me at that time was Sandy Dennis, and I had that as my reality, so I never got lost. I never got lost in who I was portraying. I did get overwhelmed with the fact that Paul Snider is a common person. He’s two out of five men. He’s not unusual. And when I came to those terms, that was what I found upsetting. . His life, his involvement with her, and the death is unusual. But he’s a common loser, dude. It was heartbreaking to understand that finally, that I meet eight or 10 of them every day.

I’m curious if you saw that New Yorker article about Jeremy Strong from Succession, in which the implication is that his method style of acting has impacted his mental health. When you look back at your younger self, do you feel like you ever did that to yourself as an actor?

Before you do it, you don’t know the pathway to getting it done. And every role is a different pathway to getting it done. You can have a technique, but you’re still going to find a different pathway from the last time. It’s going to always be a different pathway because it’s a different role, it’s a different story, it’s a different emotional content for you to portray. I have taken myself a little too seriously at times as an actor, but I haven’t ever lied about the seriousness, and also the casualness, the casualness of acting. They’re both side by side, and they’re both as important as the other, and to have one and to balance it with the other, you almost have to understand what you’re doing, which means you’re not lost.

I have gotten lost in moments, of course, but as far as the whole project or whole character, no. Because you don’t shoot in order, you shoot out of order. So you have to be conscious of where you should be at emotionally and intellectually at that moment, compared to the moment before or after, blah, blah, blah. A lot of it’s so mechanical in movies, but you can get lost in moments. I don’t give much credence to being lost for three months in 18 locations, and 30 costume changes, and 40 different drivers.

A film of yours I’ve watched a few times just in the past month — it’s currently streaming on HBO Max, by the way — is The Pope Of Greenwich Village. You have great chemistry with Mickey Rourke in that film. At the time, you were both these young hotshot actors. What was your relationship like? Was it ever competitive?

When we first met there was a real competitive vibe from him that just crushed me. We had known each other for about three days, and we were hanging out together at the Mayflower Hotel, where our base camp was. And he says to me, “Let’s run lines.” Great. Now, I got that role in January. It was now August. I had all that time to drop the weight, learn my lines, and curl my hair. So I was ready to go.

Okay, let’s run lines. Blah, blah, blah. Your line. He goes, “Can’t say it.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you’re not making me feel it. And if I don’t get that from you, I can’t respond.” Oh my God. From that moment on I hid behind the character of Paulie whenever I was hanging out with Mickey. I was always Paulie, because he could bully Paulie and Paulie had to deal with it. But if you bullied Eric it would break his heart and it would get in the way. So I only let him bully Paulie. And he did.

We have a great relationship. He’s the hardest actor I ever had to ever work with, who I also loved. And I do love him. He’s miraculous. He also gave one of my favorite performances ever given by anybody in a film called Barfly. See that movie.

Oh yeah, I love Barfly.

Take your breath away, dude. He’s incredible. But he shows up an hour and a half late every morning. And he says, “What are we shooting?” Scene 87. “I know the number, what happens?” But that’s working with Mickey, and that’s what you get. And you also get a performance that’s perfect.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s my understanding that you had the choice of the two male leads.

When they sent me the script in January they said, “Pick a part, Paulie or Charlie.” And I picked Paulie, and they said, “We wanted you to pick Charlie.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Because he’s all dapper and cool. He’s you.” I said, “No, no. The other part’s better.”

Picking the “less cool” character seems to always be your preference.

But all that great dialogue I had, dude! It was fantastic.

I have to ask you about the “Charlie, they took my thumb!” scene, which is one of the most bonkers scenes in any movie ever. Basically, you have lost your thumb to some mobsters, and Mickey Rourke’s girlfriend (played by Daryl Hannah) has just left him. So you and Mickey are at this incredibly high emotional pitch for what feels like 10 minutes. What was shooting that scene like?

Well, that scene coming closer every day in the schedule was like watching an oncoming train. Literally. And it finally arrived. Okay, it’s going to take me out. And we got it in two takes.


Bam, bam, bam, bam. We were done. It went perfectly. The only thing that went awry was I had lots of tears, and I kept wiping my eyes, and I scratched my cornea. So I had an eye infection for three days afterwards, blah, blah, blah. That’s the only thing that was bumpy about it was my scratched cornea, because the whole latter half the day was, “Ah, shit.” But besides that, it was an artistically mechanically perfect day.

My favorite part of that scene is when you’re going crazy about your lost thumb, and then suddenly you stop on a dime and notice that Mickey Rourke has trashed his apartment. It cracks me up every time.

But that’s life. And also, you only have an hour and a half. You don’t have a person’s whole life. You have an hour and a half for their life. So stuff has to be abbreviated. Sometimes you make stuff funnier than it would be in life, but you have to let the audience breathe. One of my favorite improvisations of my life is, “White bread? No wonder these WASPs got no color.”

In your early films, you played a lot of scrawny and sort of weasel-y guys. But by the end of the ’80s, you were super ripped in the martial arts movie Best Of The Best. Did you get in shape for that role, or were you already doing that in your personal life?

Well, I became an international movie star in 1978, and I was a kid. I was 21 years old. I didn’t know anything. And I was also kind of like a country bumpkin, so I was stupid. I was kind of ignorant in a lot of categories about life, about place, about my career, everything. So I just let it rip. It just happened. I didn’t calculate, I didn’t plan, I had no agenda. I’m an actor who loves acting, and they let me do it.

My favorite body on the planet was Bruce Lee. So I decided I was going to have that body. What I didn’t realize is the guy had an eating disorder. He never ate so he was just muscle and skin. But I was going for it. I went after that body, and you have to carb deplete to have that body. And to carb deplete, it makes you very unhappy and cranky. I don’t recommend it.

You’ve made so many films in your career. What is it about acting that you love so much?

I’ve seen the whole planet. I’ve seen the whole thing. All of the Arctics. I’ve seen everything. I’ve seen everybody. We have the best jobs on the planet, dude. To be an actor, to work with a crew that understands what it all is, and to be on location, and to have actual police protecting you. Everything’s all cordoned off. And we’re acting! It’s just the best job there is. Especially if you have a great script, a great story, and a great leader, a great director. You’re in heaven, dude. It’s like what school was supposed to be like. Always a learning process, always a growing process. That’s what my job is. I’m always learning, I’m always growing, I’m always getting. I have a blast, dude.