"People who suffered a lot during childhood tend to 'accidentally design' lives that contain a good deal of similar suffering. That feels like home to them."
This article originally appeared at thefix.com
Academy Award nominated actor Eric Roberts, brother of actress Julia Roberts and father of actress Emma Roberts, was known in his early days as one of Hollywood’s edgier characters both on and off the screen. In more recent years, however, Roberts, who was featured in both The Dark Knight and The Expendables, has become hard-working and prolific. He appeared in over 25 films and television series in 2016 alone.
Born in Biloxi, Mississippi, where his parents ran an acting school out of their home, Roberts embraced the family calling. His film career took hold in 1978 when he appeared in the cult favorite, King of the Gypsies, for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination. Then in June of 1981, Roberts was involved in a serious car accident which left him comatose for three days with a bruised brain, broken bones and much facial trauma. As a result of the facial trauma, there was a change in Roberts, both on the outside and the inside. Partying harder and abusing prescription drugs, he subsequently found himself playing villains and bad guys. This shift led to his breakout performance in Bob Fosse’s Star 80 in 1983.
In 1987, Roberts was arrested for harassing a woman and striking a police officer, both while under the influence of drugs. He pleaded guilty to harassment, but the other charges were later dropped. Upon marrying his wife Eliza in 1992, Roberts embraced a path of sobriety with occasional relapses. A later problem with medical marijuana dependency led to a featured appearance on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.
On your personal website, you show the courage to express yourself beyond what a controlling publicist would want to hear, revealing in a series of quotations your views on addiction, anger, codependency, and more. Unlike so many celebrities, how did you find the personal conviction to speak your mind and what does it personally mean for you?
Thanks for checking the site so carefully. That really means a lot. I like to refer to that section as “Notes & Quotes.” I started it before blogs or Twitter or Facebook, and I guess that kind of free-flowing philosophizing is a little more common now that there are all those forums to do it in. It wasn’t common at the time. But I really do feel the need to share those thoughts, and the things I learn.
On the quotes page of your website, you say about yourself, “For a while, the only thing that made him feel better was to feel bad.” Can you explain this idea for our readers who want more insight into such personal struggles? Why would feeling bad make anyone feel better?
I truly believe from observation that we are comfortable with what we’ve had most of in our lives. People who suffered a lot during childhood tend to “accidentally design” lives that contain a good deal of similar suffering. That feels like home to them.
In the section of your website on acting tricks, you say, “I like the idea of putting something comical into an intense drama, and being intense in absurd circumstances within a comedy.” When faced with life obstacles like addiction and negative emotional reactions like anger, how does comedy help soften the moment? Is being able to recognize the absurdity of modern life a way of staying sane and balanced?
Being alive means being able to laugh. Sometimes you have to find humor in difficult circumstances in order to put one foot in front of the next. Don’t you find that to be true? By seeing the absurdity, even in our goals and dreams, it sometimes helps us live with what we have, rather than comparing it all the time with what we wish we had. We can laugh without minimizing things. That’s a big lesson we all need to learn.
In the section on addiction, you say, “An addict is like a bad imitation of a human being … Addiction is the abdication of choice.” Can you expand on these ideas? What do you mean by “a bad imitation?” Many people would say addicts choose to do the drugs and abuse themselves. How do you explain this “abdication of choice?”
Addicts are not bad people, goodness knows. But being controlled by a compulsion often brings out the best and the worst in us. I think when you are in the throes of addiction, you are miles away from being able to exercise choice.
A great example would be a workaholic who is also a devoted mother. She may long to make the choice to spend valuable time with her kids. However, her compulsion about work—having to organize all her pencils by color, let’s say—keeps her from being able to make and act on the choice to be with her kids.
In the section on addiction, you say, “You’re employed by your addiction. And it’s an unregulated place to work. It’s not the doing of the drug—It’s the doing of the stuff you do to get the drug.” Can you explain what you mean by “unregulated?” How is an addict employed by their addiction?
You really feel enslaved. And it’s unregulated because you end up having no regard for other obligations. An example from my own past was when I was on my way to an important meeting for a movie, but I knew my pot dealer was coming over. I chose to wait for the dealer and ended up being late for the meeting. In other words, the addiction or dependency was calling the shots. That’s not a good way to live.
In a recent interview, you said, “I actually started acting at speech therapy because I had a terrible stutter as a kid. My parents found out that when I memorized stuff, I didn’t stutter. So it became speech therapy at first.” I actually grew up stuttering as well, and I must admit it was traumatic. When I first discovered alcohol and pot, it was like a revelation. It made me feel normal, and I did not have to worry so much about my stutter. It made me friends. Did you have a similar experience?
I had never thought of it that way, but yes! That’s a very interesting point.
In the movie Star 80, you played a truly unlikable character almost perfectly. As Paul Snider, the Svengali-like husband of Dorothy Stratten, the 1980 Playboy Playmate of the Year and rising Hollywood star, you embraced the cruel and obsessive ugliness of the character. Roger Ebert later spoke of the Star 80Syndrome. He felt you deserved an Academy Award for the performance, butbelieved that, “Hollywood will not nominate an actor for portraying a creep, no matter how good the performance is.”
What was your relationship like with legendary director Bob Fosse? Star 80 was the last film he directed before his death. Did he drive you to work hard to bring forth such a performance?
I always loved reading Ebert. It’s very interesting to me that he said that. I think what he pointed out has proven to often be true. I relished playing that role and having the opportunity to be a part of telling that story.
I adored Bob Fosse and admired him beyond description. Our complex relationship was written about in Sam Wasson’s book, Fosse, about his life. (From an American Theatre review: “Wasson depicts the tortured director as ‘a bottomless wound of insatiability.’ So closely did Fosse relate to Dorothy Stratten’s psychopathic killer that he directed Eric Roberts to play the character as ‘me, if I wasn’t successful.’”)
I thought we were close, but we’d both have done better had we been sober.
Discussing the craziness of your early days in Hollywood, you said, “When I got into movies, they would send you to the prop truck and there would be lines of cocaine. Everybody—from the executives and producers to craft services—was high on that drug. Everybody was wrecked on the movie set. It was out of control, and I was a kid.” Are you happy that crazy side of Hollywood is now in your past? Is it still happening every now and then on movie sets? How did seeing such drug use by famous and powerful people you must have admired affect you?
I am so relieved that craziness is in the past. I’d likely be dead if it were not. I really don’t see that kind of excess on sets anymore. I do believe that prescription drugs are the danger now. And Red Bull. I have to admit that back in the day, it was depressing to see great talent that I truly admired taking those kinds of pointless risks.
In the section on codependency, you say, “A codependent feels their value is predicated upon a willingness to devalue themselves.” Given your insight into the entertainment industry, how is codependency expressed in Hollywood? As an actor, do you experience a particular brand of a codependent relationship with your agent, manager, publicist, and lawyer?
I think that was more prevalent in the older days of Hollywood during the studio system. I do know that some people are bullied by their reps. Agents should remember that they represent the actor’s best interest.
In the section on the human condition, you say, “With something so widespread as addiction, compulsion, self-destruction, low self-esteem, various abuses … Can we call it a disorder?” Do you believe our society is toxic at its core, and thus, produces damaged people? Or is being flawed and experiencing such difficulties just the normative state of being human?
I think we need a certain level of ambivalence about just how comfy life is…in order to accept our mortality. I know that sounds like a little much, but if life were pure joy, how would we accept its not being eternal? When you ponder it from that perspective, nature is genius.
You were estranged for several years from your sister, actress Julia Roberts. The source of the estrangement had mainly been your past drug use. In 2004, you toldPeople magazine that you had reconciled with Julia when you visited her in the hospital after she gave birth to her twins.
When Pretty Woman came out in 1990 and Julia, as you once said, “became the biggest star in the world,” was it hard for you as an actor to see the intensity of her sudden international celebrity eclipse your own? Would you say that her success potentially fueled your addiction at the time?
Julia’s twins are beautiful kids, and it’s a pleasure to be their uncle. It’s always important to repair family relationships. In terms of what happened in the past, I didn’t need my sister’s huge success to fuel my addiction. I did that fine on my own! At the same time, I have to admit that it did kind of blow my mind. Such success is always startling. It made me proud and thrilled and envious all at once.
In 2010, you appeared as a cast member in the fourth season of the VH1 reality television series Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew to treat your dependency on medical marijuana. Your wife Eliza and your stepson Keaton Simons appeared in episode 6 to discuss the effects of your addiction on their lives. I recently interviewed Dr. Drew, and he told me how overall, the show helped raise national awareness about recovery.
Despite this positive macrocosmic effect, did it have a constructive microcosmic effect on your own life? Would you do it again?
I would absolutely do it again, and I am very appreciative of the work that Dr. Drew did with us. It was life changing for all of us in a very good way.
By the way, John, thanks for these great questions. It’s clear to me that you put in the work, and I appreciate that as someone who does the same.