Interview: Inglourious Basterds' Donny Donowitz - Eli Roth
by Alex Billington
August 19, 2009
Who would've thought that the director of Hostel would go on to star as the unforgettable "Bear Jew" in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds? Not only did it happen, but he kicks ass in the role. Last week I sat down with Eli Roth to talk about his work in Basterds, what it's like acting, what he's learned from working with Tarantino, and if he's getting offers for more roles (and if he'll even take them). A lot of people have a grudge against Roth (or just don't like him), but he's not a bad guy and I enjoyed talking with him. So without further ado, read on for my full interview with Sgt. Donny Donowitz aka The Bear Jew himself.
Did you ever think you'd get into acting considering your career so far has been filmmaking and directing?
Eli Roth: No, I mean I always enjoyed acting and it was always fun, but it was one of those things that I know that… I never was interested in being an actor or living the life of an actor. You know, directing and writing is always my passion. It's what I worked my whole life to do, so I never wanted to give that up for anything. And so I like doing kind of walk-ons and cameos and stuff, bit parts on camera -- Cabin Fever was an accident. I wasn't planning on being in the film. An actor canceled at the last minute and I was stuck in the woods in North Carolina, so I played the part. Quentin had to drag me kicking and screaming to do Death Proof because I was prepping Hostel II and he wanted me to do it and even then his direction to me was "Alright, we got two minutes until lunch. Don't fuck it up. Go." And then I asked him for a second take and he goes "Yeah, 30 seconds we hit a meal penalty. If we hit it, you're paying for it. Go."
So that was the level of acting and directing I did. But when he was editing Death Proof he called me up. He was like "Goddamit, you're the one nailing the dialogue." He goes, "Everyone else is fucking up take after take." He's like, "You're killing it, every time I look at your footage and I need to cut to you, you've got it perfect. You really understand the rhythm of my dialogue and how I want it." And he goes, "You really are a good actor." He goes, "You've never pushed yourself, but you really can act." And I thought well, it was fun but I just never took it seriously and I never had a reason to. And when Quentin said you're going to be Donowitz, he's like "This has to be a 360 degree character. This is a real performance." And I thought you know, I guess I've always wanted to take a part and dive into it the way like De Niro dived into Raging Bull and I -- but I never had a reason to.
I didn't want to write a part for myself because I knew that people will often prejudge your movie before they go see it if they don't know you as an actor and it's really a lot to take on, you know, writing, directing, acting. Especially if you're also worried about proving yourself as an actor. But I said I'm going to give this everything I have. I studied acting and I direct actors and work with actors, so I knew how to do it. I put on 40 pounds of muscle. I went back to Boston where I'm from and I just like was the character, researched the part, created the backstory and did all the research and talked to World War II veterans.
I knew the guy could come out, I knew that -- look, lifting weights and putting on muscle is easy. It's not as difficult as you think. You just have to be disciplined. What's difficult is getting that look in your eye and making sure that that's real. You can't act that. You have to really be in a state of psychosis. I knew that people would have to look at this guy and see that rage and that fury and that this guy, there's no question this guy comes out and will beat you to death. And that was exhausting and much more draining than I ever anticipated. But when Quentin first read me Chapter Two four years, ago it was December. It was December of 2004 he was telling me these other actors in mind for The Bear Jew. I never thought I'd be acting in anything. I hadn't even made Hostel yet. It was just so cool to hear this thing that he was going to make this one day.
I was going to ask what your first reaction was when you read the script or heard about it and the characters, the whole concept of it?
Roth: Oh, it was brilliant. I thought it was the best thing he'd ever written and he was acting it out for me and we were a little stoned. We had just read through Hostel and he gave me notes and then we kind of smoked a little weed and he's like "Hey man, hey want to hear some Inglourious Basterds?" He just fucking starts acting it out and he's like doing Hitler full on, like "Dude, your Hitler is amazing." "I can do a pretty fucking good Hitler, right?" So he went crazy. "I'm that bad?" I was like "No, your Hitler is awesome." He could switch his voice and change his personality like I couldn't believe it. He was incredible. He was doing Aldo and Donny -- he tells me about this character, the Bear Jew, and I'm like, "Quentin, dude, I'm from Boston. You know everybody has a baseball bat and you use them more often off the field than on the field." He was like yeah, I just wrote it. I pictured this guy getting these signatures. I was like "Oh man, dude, you gotta do this movie. You gotta do this movie!" It was like, "Is there more of that? Is there more of that?" He goes "Well I got stuff here and there but…" You know he had never sat down and kind of tamed it all into one movie. He'd been thinking about it for years.
Quentin knows every character in his movies. That's why his universes feel so complete and real -- he knows who these people are before the war, during the war, and after the war, and if they had live, what they would have gone on to do. He knows it to that level of detail and it was incredible. When he finally started writing it, I almost became like a Jewish fact checker for him. And I invited him to my Passover Seder in April and he'd never seen that side of me, and we talked about the Jews, when we were slaves and the Holocaust and, sitting, explaining… So this wasn't just Hitler. This was 60 million people. It was the whole world teaming up to exterminate and they were very successfully doing it, so that puts you on the defensive all the time. There's no forgiving that. There's no absolution. You kill every one of those people or they're going to kill you and that's how it is.
It was great. So finally when I read the script, I had read -- he had read most of it but I had no idea what the ending was going to be. And when he asked me to be in it, I just couldn't believe it. I thought this is something so different. This is such a wonderful door, an incredible opportunity and who knows what it will lead to and if this is the only time I will ever act I want to frickin' go for it and know that I gave it everything I had. This is my chance to create a classic screen character and help redefine the way Jews are seen in movies.
That's awesome. I was going to say it's unfortunate that the bat signing scene in Boston didn't make it in to the final cut because everyone is talking about it. Everyone wanted to see it.
Roth: You know, it was a great scene. I've got to say, I really was proud of that scene and Cloris Leachman was amazing and Quentin loved it. His editor was like "That's your best scene." I played all those scenes in Boston much more understated… It's before he goes to war. He's a tough guy but he's a normal guy. He's like kind of a sweet kid, before he's been really turned into this animal, and so I thought… In the [later] scenes, I went extra crazy because I thought I'd have these other scenes to balance it out.
And then it's like they get cut and I just seem like I'm nuts. But still, Quentin felt that it really took away from that entrance. He said "Look, you got Hitler and Brad Pitt talking you up. When else are you going to get an entrance like that?" And I said "I know," and the music was incredible. But he said "Look, if I do that prequel, I have three scenes shot for it." Which he does. That's why he's like "I'm not putting those on the DVD. I'm saving those. Those are going in the movie if we do that prequel." So that's cool.
In terms of acting, are you getting more offers from this? Have they been coming in?
Roth: Oh yeah. The acting, it's interesting, acting offers have been coming in for a while.
Really. Based off of your looks in general?
Roth: Yep, people would see me on -- they'd seen Cabin Fever, but they'd seen me on like 100 Scariest Movie Moments. They'd see me on some interview show, or they'd see me doing press and they're like "We should have Eli as the killer." And then I've been turning down scripts since Cabin Fever.
Roth: Yeah. But they weren't great parts and they weren't directors that I knew or liked and I was like "I'm not doing that. What is this, I'm going to do some like douchey low-budget thriller as the psycho? How stupid is that? I don't care." And now that the bar has been raised so high, I only work with A-list, Palme d'Or, Oscar-winning directors and it's either Brad Pitt as my co-star or nobody, sorry [joking]. So the bar has been set too high. But they certainly have [been coming in], especially after I got cast in the part and now that people are seeing the movie, I'm getting tons of offers.
People also know that like, no he's directing, he's directing. I kind of put it out there that its got to be something so good, that it takes me away from directing. It's got to stop my directing career or I'm not doing it and, you know, Quentin said, "Now you have permission to write great parts for yourself." He said, "No one's going to give you shit because you know what? You fucking went toe-to-toe with Brad Pitt. You held the screen, did a magnificent job, and you stood in the fire for me. You're amazing and there you are on screen doing a brilliant job with the best cast in the world, and no one is going to question whether or not you can act." And that's what I wanted.
I knew people are going to grade me on an extra hard curve, and I knew people were going to go "Alright, well he's Quentin's friend and he's a director and that's the only reason they put him in the movie." So I had to win everybody over right when I came out of that cave, and I wanted people to go "Yeah, okay, now we get why Quentin cast him. Nobody else could have done that. That's very unique." That's a special thing. And for Nation's Pride, there was no one who could have done that and done both of those things for Quentin that way. And I want people to go "You know what? There's a level of talent that we never knew was there. This is a whole other side of him and I'd love to see him on screen again." I wanted people excited. You know, I didn't want people to go "Oh no, Eli didn't fuck it up. He's fine." I wanted people to go "He's fucking awesome and he really, really brings it, and I'd love to see what he does next."
It sounds like you could go back and forth between both. Do directing and acting, even writing your own roles.
Roth: Yeah, like Ben Stiller, that's the kind of career [I'd like]. I look at Tropic Thunder, I'm like that's a great career to have. It's like I could write a part for myself or do it or not. And then Alexandre Aja calls me and says "Hey do you want to host a wet t-shirt contest in Piranha 3-D" and I'm like "What time do you need me?" I was there I had a great time. It was like two days in Lake Havasu, hosing down tits, being ridiculous and 300 girls in bikinis in 3D. That's going to be a great scene, that whole set piece in the Piranha 3-D. I mean, I spilled I think 150 gallons of blood on Hostel. Quentin did 350 on Kill Bill. Alex, last I checked, was at 7,000. It's crazy.
Yeah, I've seen some photos from it.
Roth: It's going to be amazing.
I wanted to ask about, obviously being a director yourself, what you learned or what you took away from being on set and working with Quentin Tarantino?
Roth: Many things. First and foremost, it's about the script and the text, getting the actors comfortable in the space, and then you find your shots. A lot of directors -- because I was always about rehearsing with the actors and then figuring it out from there. But Quentin really, really does that. He sends the crew away and everyone is standing around waiting until the actors and the director says "You got it right." Until it feels right and then from there he runs it like it's a play. He's like "Go. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again." And you're in it and you're doing it, and you're doing it, and then he takes a camera and he'll watch you do the scene from different angles. And then he calls in Bob Richardson [the DP] and then he finds the shots while you're acting out the scene. So it's all there to support and he's moving so fast he doesn't have time to second guess himself. So instead of shooting a scene in two weeks, he's shooting in two days. "Come on, we got to get this. Let's go. Let's go here, we'll go there, we'll go there. Maybe it would be cool from here. Let's just get the basics and move on."
That sounds like it was a lot of takes or just a lot of repeating certain moments?
Roth: Not really. I mean he gave you takes if you needed it. But if he got it, we're moving on.
Interesting. Can I ask you if you have any updates on Endangered Species?
Roth: I mean, there's no updates because I've just been doing press for this full time, so I can't do anything really until September. I'm on full-time Basterds. The mission is not yet complete.
Right. I have to ask though, are the "endangered species" people?
Roth: You will see. All questions will be answered.
Thank you to Eli Roth and Pantea at The Weinstein Company for this interview! Eli does actually do a great job in the movie and I suggest everyone go see it. Inglourious Basterds hits theaters this upcoming weekend, starting on August 21st, and is well-worth the ticket price!