If you know that face but can't quite place the name, the blue-eyed, weather-worn actor on your TV screen would like to remind you that he was navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood before you were born. Ask your parents, and they'll tell you that Eric Roberts has been called a lot of things in his 50 years: rugged leading man, Oscar-nominated thespian, straight-to-video C-lister, brother of Hollywood's most famous woman, father of two rising stars. Now he's reinvented himself once again with another title: King of the Video Music Awards.
"So I go up this winding staircase in this trailer, and I get up there and I see her on the bed having her feet rubbed," Roberts recently remembered of his first meeting with Mariah Carey. "And she motions for me to come on over, and I walk down the length of this trailer, which is basically — the upstairs is all bedroom. I walk down the length of her bedroom; she pats the bed. I sit down, and she sends her little foot masseuse away, and we talked about the video. And she says how she saw me in the Killers video. She was very complimentary. For anybody unhappily married, it would have been a fantasy come true."
Roberts, if you haven't already figured it out, is the grim-faced millionaire staring down Mariah and subsequently being left at the altar in the two-part miniseries of "It's Like That" and "We Belong Together" (see "Mariah Carey: Free at Last?"). He's also the similarly wealthy (and similarly grim), apple-throwing velvet-robe enthusiast in the Killers' "Mr. Brightside" video.
"I'm in three videos that have six nominations," Roberts beamed when asked about this month's VMAs, which he plans to attend in support of the two musical acts. "But I was just a tool. The [videos] that got the nominations are the bands and the directors, and they deserve them. ... These are formidable people who are great at what they do, and they just told me where to stand and what to do, and told me to be sexy and stuff like that."
Whatever Roberts is doing, it's working, as he has suddenly become the go-to supporting actor for musicians looking to convey affluence, sex appeal and/or a tangible sense of sliminess. For the veteran actor, any fears of typecasting have been overcome by the opportunity to introduce himself to a younger generation.
"The Killers video guy was a very possessive, pompous, successful — probably through illegitimate means — man, and was not used to not having his way," Roberts says of the back story he was inventing as he squinted and pouted his way into VMA history. "That was a video where there was the presence of another man around that made him feel not threatened but challenged. And so he lived up to the challenge.
"The Mariah Carey video guy was also a very wealthy man, probably much more wealthy than the Killers guy, and probably through mostly legitimate means. He also felt the presence of another man, but he thought he could overcome it by being a gentleman, but he couldn't. Which just goes to show you," he laughed.
Roberts, who has been involved with no fewer than 80 film and television productions since 1995, has nevertheless spent the majority of the last decade being mentioned primarily as the brother of Oscar-winning superstar Julia (he's also the father of Nickelodeon's "Unfabulous" star Emma and recording artist Keaton Simons). He concedes that the bands he's worked with aren't very familiar with his older work, but early in his career, his name shone far more brightly on the marquee.
"I would say go see 'Love Is a Gun,' [which starred] my wife and I," he replied when asked for the films that his newly acquired music-video fans should seek out.
"Go see 'Runaway Train' for me and Jon Voight," he said of the classic 1985 thriller that earned both actors Oscar nominations. "And, I don't know, I hate to advertise myself like this ... my wife loves a movie called 'Final Analysis,' where I played Kim Basinger's very abusive husband. I die."
Roberts says he would recommend video acting to any celebrity, as long as they understand it's not really acting at all: "The only similarity is they both have storyboards and they're both on film," Roberts observed. "Other than that, it has no semblance to acting, in that what you're doing is you're reacting to what's around you, and the music. You can't do that as an actor; you really have to focus on why you're in a scene, and you can't do that in a video because it's all such quick cuts, it's all just images."
Roberts entered the world of music videos when he was shooting the indie drug drama "Spun" alongside Brittany Murphy. "Renita Whited, she got me into videos. She cast 'Spun,' the director was ... Madonna's new videographer, and from that, and from Renita, I was offered the Ja Rule video ['Down Ass Bitch'], and that was my first video."
Soon the veteran actor found himself on the "Mr. Brightside" set, being approached by the Killers for advice. "They were very shy and they were very young, and they're like teenagers, except they're not ... I said, 'So how long have you guys been together?'
" 'Oh, about six months,' " he smiled, putting on a rock-star voice.
"They're unpretentious and they asked me, 'So, like, what's it like when you get rich?' and I said, 'Well you're going to want to spend it all at once, but don't.' "
He laughed, putting on the voice again: " 'Well what good is it if we can't spend it, brother?'
"I just said, 'You don't spend it all at once. Have fun — and invest.'
"['Brightside'] was just kind of all improvised and fun," Roberts remembered. "They were like kids in a candy store for the first time. They were happy to be there, and they were so pleasant."
The other videos were "a whole other beast, because Mariah is a superstar," he added. "Mariah came and talked to me about marriage and things, and about the video itself, and about my lovely wife, and about her three-story trailer."
Roberts is looking forward to the Video Music Awards, but claims he's been little more than a lucky charm for the two acts. "I think celebrities and their presence are overrated. I think if we do a good job, that's great, but I think just being a celebrity is very overrated when it comes to videos, because it's about the song and it's about how the director tells the story of the song. It's not about this," he smiled, pointing to his chiseled chin. "I've got to be honest with you: I'm probably one of my two biggest fans, but I don't think I made that difference."
Regardless, the fact remains that three of his videos are dominating this year's VMAs. And while Roberts is happy that younger acts are keeping him relevant, there's one legendary band that he hopes is paying particular attention to his newfound VMA fame.
"The Rolling Stones," he smiled when asked about the band he'd most love to work with. "Call me, I'll come running."
So when you're watching the Video Music Awards on August 28, don't be surprised if a few of the winners give a shout-out to the blue-eyed, weather-worn actor buried deep somewhere in the audience. And don't be surprised either if a knowing smile forms in the corners of your parents' mouths as they catch a glimpse of the screen. "It's always nice to have your name mentioned at awards ceremonies," grinned Eric Roberts, the win-or-lose king of this year's VMAs. "I would love that, [but] I don't expect that. I was just a hired hand who had a good time."