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Eric Roberts can't be put away that easily

July 22, 2008|Steve Appleford | Special to The Times

The Joker isn't the only villain turning Gotham City upside down in "The Dark Knight." Audiences should also beware of a sharp-dressed crime boss named Salvatore Maroni, played with tough, smirking cool by actor Eric Roberts, who, in a career that has spanned three decades, has certainly seen some dark moments of his own.

His part as Maroni is small but crucial, with Roberts as an unctuous urban menace who tangles with Batman, the Joker and D.A. Harvey Dent. "The Dark Knight" is an unexpected coup for Roberts, returning him to mainstream glory after years in the relative obscurity of B-movies and TV guest roles.

"It's a great dramatic film, with a bunch of great actors," said Roberts, who spent five months on the shoot in Chicago and London. "I would get through working in the morning, and I would sit on the set all day, because it was that exciting to me."

On a recent Saturday, Roberts was in good spirits as he relaxed with his wife, Eliza, over lunch at a favorite neighborhood spot in Sherman Oaks. His hair was streaked with gray, but he otherwise seemed the same wiry, charismatic figure he's often been onscreen. With age has come an ease with a career that has charted terrific highs as well as profound lows.

But Roberts is undoubtedly on an upswing with "Dark Knight." He recalled that during a long day on the set outside London in 2007, Heath Ledger was smoldering through three pages of near-monologue as the Joker addressed a room crowded with bad guys, coming across as simultaneously threatening, charming and insane. Then came a moment when Ledger had a break to chat briefly with Roberts. "How am I doing?" he remembered Ledger asking him, before adding with a wicked grin, "You know, it's hard."

Roberts should know. In the 1980s, he spent his first decade as a movie actor enjoying the same kind of accolades for disturbing, difficult performances that Ledger is now receiving posthumously as the Joker. In 1983, Roberts played a different kind of psychopath in Bob Fosse's "Star 80," as the murdering husband to Playmate Dorothy Stratten, delivering an intense, layered performance as a young man who was frighteningly fervent, yet almost sympathetic. There was an Oscar nomination for 1985's "Runaway Train" and acclaimed roles in "The Pope of Greenwich Village" and other films.

Most were not box-office hits, but Roberts seemed headed into a future as his generation's Robert De Niro. It didn't happen. There have been other memorable performances -- as a dying AIDS patient in "It's My Party" in 1996, a flamboyant speed dealer in 2002's "Spun," a disturbingly pleasant death row inmate on HBO's "Oz" -- but also an endless series of roles in low-rent productions.

"This past 15 years, I made 120 movies, and I probably haven't seen 60 of them," admitted Roberts, 52. "But I've had a great time. I also don't have to die for my work anymore. I have never been more miserable or unhappy as when I shot 'Star 80' -- as a person, just because of where I had to go every day."

Acting has always been in his blood. He was raised by his acting-coach father in Atlanta, then studied drama as a teenager in London. One of his younger sisters is, of course, Julia Roberts, the Oscar-winning movie star. And now his daughter, Emma Roberts ("Unfabulous"), is fully established in the family business, appearing on the August cover of Vanity Fair.

"Isn't that cool?" said Roberts with a smile. "It's a beautiful cover, isn't it?"

They've never discussed acting much, Roberts said, and the last year has been busy for both of them. (Emma, 17, lives with her mother in Calabasas.)

His dream had once been to be "the greatest character actor of my generation," he said. But Roberts was dismayed after losing the 1985 supporting actor Oscar to Don Ameche ("Cocoon"). He told his agent to begin accepting any part, any time. It's a story he's repeated often in interviews over the years, sounding like either revisionism or surrender, and he's aware that many assume other reasons behind his career trajectory.

Until the early '90s, there were issues with cocaine and a couple of arrests. There was also a prolonged battle over visitation rights regarding Emma, all uncomfortable headlines. "I earned probably every negative thing said about me," Roberts said, noting that those days are more than a decade behind him. "I've had people say to me, 'It's such a shame what happened to your career.' I just smile and say I've had a blast. I really have."

He also never stopped working. This last year, Roberts had a recurring part in NBC's popular "Heroes," and he got a pop culture boost in 2004 when he appeared in the music video for the Killers' rock hit "Mr. Brightside." Roberts is shooting "Shannon's Rainbow," a children's film. "The Dark Knight" hasn't yet yielded a dramatic shift in the quality of jobs offered him, and he sounded prepared to keep things in perspective even if it does.

"At the risk of sounding like an obnoxious actor, I have a great life," Roberts said. As for the future of his career, "I'm not going to be the next thing," he said without noticeable regret. "I don't have hope, I just have patience."

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