MovieMakers: Eli Roth in 'Inglourious Basterds'

Director Eli Roth, known for movies such as "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel," stars in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."
Director Eli Roth, known for movies such as "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel," stars in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." (By Francois Duhamel/weinstein Co.)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009

Don't make the mistake of calling Eli Roth's role in "Inglourious Basterds," the new World War II-era drama from Quentin Tarantino, small.

Roth's character of Sgt. Donny Donowitz, one of an elite, all-Jewish unit led by Brad Pitt that terrorizes and kills Nazis, is a meaty one, even if it's not the largest in the film. Known for his unorthodox weapon of choice -- a baseball bat -- Donny goes on a memorable killing spree at the climax of the film, a climax that's so over-the-top, so off-the-wall that it's safe to say that few will need to consult Wikipedia to verify that history really didn't turn out that way.

In other words, typical Tarantino.

"There is no small role in a Tarantino film," says Roth, who spoke by phone about the movie. "I wouldn't call Floyd in 'True Romance' a small role. I wouldn't call Christopher Walken's role in 'Pulp Fiction' a small role. There are good roles and bad roles. And Tarantino writes great roles."

It's a part Roth says he auditioned for with a cameo in Tarantino's 2007 "Death Proof." According to the 37-year-old actor (who's better known as the director of the gory horror films "Cabin Fever," Hostel" and "Hostel II"), Roth's acting made a lasting impression on his director. "We were doing one or two takes, and it was not taken very seriously, as it was grindhouse. It was just supposed to be having fun. But [Tarantino] said, 'You nailed it.' He goes, 'You nailed my dialogue. I can always cut to you, every take, every time. You got it perfect.' "

This time around, Roth wanted to knock it out of the park. When he saw just how prominent the part of Donowitz was in the "Basterds" script, he was floored. "I was, like, 'Jesus! This is one of the main guys. He's in every scene with Brad Pitt -- nearly every scene. He's his right-hand man.' I said, 'Look, if I'm going to do this, I've got to bring my A game. If Quentin has faith in me that I can do it, I have to push myself harder than I ever have. I have to be like Robert De Niro or something."

And how.

Roth bulked up for the part, putting on nearly 40 pounds of muscle, he says. He also spent time in his native Boston, interviewing Jewish veterans of World War II. "You've got to look in this guy's eyes," Roth says of Donowitz, "and see all the pain and the anger and the fury he's carrying around with him."

But his real role model isn't a thespian like De Niro. Rather, Roth looks for inspiration from Ben Stiller, who has built a career not just around acting, but also writing, directing and producing. All Roth's hard work on this film -- he also directed the black-and-white film-within-a film that is a lynchpin of the "Basterds" plot -- will only pay off when people start seeing him as someone who can do it all, both in front of and behind the camera. "I talked to Quentin about that," Roth says, recalling what his friend and mentor told him. He said Tarantino said: " 'Now you have permission to write great parts for yourself, and no one's going to give you [expletive] about it. . . . Because you've proven you can go toe to toe with the best, and you've held your own against Brad Pitt.' "

If Roth is still a little touchy about his acting chops, he gets even more defensive when asked about being pigeonholed as the chief purveyor -- maybe even the inventor -- of the film genre known as "torture porn," through the three features he has directed and the raft of violent copycat films that have followed.

"It's not that I set out to make that genre," he says, sighing, "but that's what people call it. And people rip me off. Look, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and if people are ripping you off, it means you did something right." As further evidence, Roth cites the fact that French critic Jean-Francois Raugier of the newspaper Le Monde identified "Hostel" as the best American movie of 2006. His work is also the subject of college courses, Roth notes, and academic dissertations about the "subtext" of the blood-drenched films.

When told just how funny that sounds, though, Roth really let's loose.

"I don't know why that's funny," he says, growing agitated. "Why is it surprising? It's surprising because people that use the term 'torture porn' think that they're stupid movies. And the people that watch them and actually think about them, and think about what they're about, and analyze them realize that they're much smarter and much more subversive than most people give them credit for. So it's only funny to you because you've never thought about them that way."

Okay, okay. Maybe Roth really does have a career as an actor ahead of him. For a minute there, he was starting to sound just like Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas."

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