Eric Roberts and Aziz Tazi – Working on Their Night Walk
Eric Roberts and Aziz Tazi
Working on Their Night Walk
By Jay S. Jacobs
Nearly 40 years after making the classic film The Pope of Greenwich Village together, Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke are in a new film. Sadly, Roberts and Rourke don’t have any scenes together, but Roberts was still excited to work on the project with his old friends.
Pope came during a hot streak in Roberts’ career, following up the harrowing film Star 80 and right before he was nominated for an Oscar for Runaway Train. Decades later it is still a cult favorite, so the opportunity to get back together with his old co-star is an occurrence.
The film that got them back is Night Walk, which also has the distinction of being the first Moroccan film to gain Hollywood distribution. Night Walk is an adventure film about an American named Frank (Sean Stone) who meets and falls in love with an American woman of Moroccan descent. When she brings him to see her home country, she is murdered by some corrupt police officers, who then frames Frank for the killing.
He ends up in a tough US jail, which is run by corrupt guards and a racist con named Gary, played by Rourke. However, the man who seems to be doing his best to keep Frank behind bars for a long, long time is Judge Jude (Roberts). Frank learns that Jude is corrupt and vows to get revenge.
Night Walk is the debut as writer and director Aziz Tazi, who also plays Stone’s empathetic Muslim fellow prisoner Malik in the film.
A few days before Night Walk was to be released on video, we chatted with Roberts and Tazi about the film.
Eric, what was it that sort of intrigued you about this project to be part of it?
Eric Roberts: Well, quite frankly, it was a Mickey Rourke movie. He's a very good friend of mine. I love his work. I think he's a great actor. I think he's unheralded, should be more heralded. So if I can do anything I can to support Mickey Rourke, I will, and I did. So that's why I was interested.
I believe is the first time you've been in a movie with Mickey since The Pope of Greenwich Village.
Eric Roberts: No, we did [another] great movie. Mickey had one of those Mickey Rourke performances in a movie called Spun (which came out in 2002) where he played a speed dealer, and I played his dealer. So, we have had a duo since Pope.
You had these two great actors back together. I know the character lines really didn't cross, but did you ever think of ways that you could maybe work them together for a scene? Maybe get Gary into the judge's chambers or something like that?
Eric Roberts: It never occurred to me. You’ll have to ask my boss. (laughs)
Aziz Tazi: Yeah. The character of Jude, he’s the judge. Basically, there's a hierarchy where you had the character of Gary, who was leading the inmates in prison. There was also the prison warden, played by Louis Mandylor, who was the other person above everyone. Then there is the character played by Eric, who is Jude, the most powerful of all. So yeah, there was always an idea where I thought it would be nice to have them interact with each other, but there were so many boundaries between them that it would be maybe easier to just keep it separate.
The role of Jude is somewhat small, but he casts a really big shadow over the movie. From afar, he seems to be a charismatic, fair minded judge and then when you get a little closer and scratch beneath the surface, he's actually through his political leanings turned somewhat evil. It almost reminded me of your character in Star 80, where he seemed nice on the outside but then when you got to know more about him, you found out he was more and more dangerous. Is that an interesting mind space to play as an actor?
Eric Roberts: It's a lot of fun. Deception is always fun. When you get to play deception in a personality, it’s a playground. It is just fun to do.
I know that the movie was mostly made in LA, although parts of it were in Morocco. I was seeing on the website for the movie that this is the first Moroccan film to get Hollywood distribution in history. How important do you think that that kind of a breakthrough is?
Eric Roberts: Who are you asking?
Either one, or both…
Eric Roberts: (to Tazi) Boss, go ahead.
Aziz Tazi: (chuckles) Yeah, actually it was shot between LA and Morocco. But this was definitely a Moroccan film. It was shot, mostly [in] Morocco, actually. We still had, obviously, a lot of scenes in LA. But yeah, this is very important, I think, to just try to enhance the public representation of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood. The goal here was just to make sure that there was an accurate representation of this very misunderstood community.
Eric Roberts: Also, Morocco is so beautiful, we have to turn people on to it. I mean, that's a part of the world that everybody should see, and everybody should enjoy. You can do it through movies. We should make that place famous for that. It’s a great spot.
Like you just said Aziz, you wanted to make this film to challenge Muslim stereotypes in Hollywood. How do you feel that is achieved in the film?
Aziz Tazi: The goal is to just show that we don't have just one side. There are the good ones, like the character of Ayman (played by Laouni Mouhid) who's a Muslim convert, or Malik (played by Tazi), who was just born Muslim living his life, or even Sarah (played by Sarah Alami), the leading lady who is also Muslim trying to juggle her identity with living in the West. But you also have the corrupt ones, like the cops who are just looking for bribes, the extremists in prison, and even the character of Eric, who's actually using this to just get to his end. I wanted to show people that it wasn't just… there is something that I have said, that in Hollywood, we're represented by the three B's, the bomber, the belly dancer or the billionaire. Those are usually the only roles for Arabs and Muslims. So in this movie, I just tried to have more than that.
Going back to the character of the Judge, when preparing for the project, both as an actor and as a writer, did you look into some of the scandals that have gone on in the last few decades with judges and the prison system?
Eric Roberts: Oh, I didn't have to look into them. They're all over the front pages of every paper there is. Somewhere there's a judge messing up. Look at the Trump administration, all the judges we had who are not cool. I mean, it is what it is. No, I did not have to do any special homework. It's all there for me to use.
Eric, the one character that you work most intently with was Frank, played by Sean Stone. What was he like as a scene partner?
Eric Roberts: Lovely, lovely person. Lovely, lovely actor. Lovely everything. I mean, honestly, when I don't like somebody, I just call them professional. He was fantastic.
Aziz, what was it about Sean that made you think that he will be the good lead for the film?
Aziz Tazi: I always wanted Sean for this part, because of his actual story. He went to Iran. He accepted the messenger of Islam. He's also the son of Oliver Stone, who is a three-time Oscar winning director, so he has experience. I just wanted him to play this part because his personal journey almost reflects the same journey as the character of Frank.
Eric, you've obviously dealt with many directors over the years. How did Aziz stack up as someone who's doing his first feature film – I know he's done shorts and documentaries. How did he stack up as a director?
Eric Roberts: Well, I answered that question. He knew what he wanted, why he wanted it and where he was going to put it in the movie. He acted like an old, seasoned pro. I was impressed every day with his complete, calm commitment to what he was doing. He did not act like a young guy at all.
Aziz, what do you feel that you learn by taking on a feature film as compared to your previous work in film?
Aziz Tazi: It's a whole different journey. It was just like day and night. A feature film just takes so much preparation. I like to say, it's like Murphy's Law, everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. (Eric laughs) You just have to constantly battle elements and try to make it happen. It's just incredibly complicated. But with people like Eric and the cast and crew, I'm just so happy to have had so much great talent on board. That just made it much easier.
Eric, this is a little bit off topic, although we mentioned it earlier, but I happen to think The Pope of Greenwich Village is a masterpiece. I can't talk to you without asking you to tell me a little bit about how you got the job and what it was like being a part of that movie.
Eric Roberts: I had just done a movie called Star 80 for Bob Fosse. I wanted a break because it was such a hard, long shoot. Tennessee Williams had just died, so I went up to Hartford and like everyone else in the country, I did The Glass Menagerie. While I was doing that, I got a script and a book called The Pope of Greenwich Village. I was told by [Hawk] Koch and [Gene] Kirkwood – the producers – to pick a part. "Paulie or Charlie, what do you want?"
Eric Roberts: I read both the script and the book. I picked Paulie and they said, “We wanted you to pick Charlie.” Why? And they said, “because he's a handsome leading man. We think he's more like you. We don't really see you as Paulie.” I said, well I think I’ll make it easier to see me as Paulie because I don't want to play it as written. He's a tough dumb thug as he's written. I want to play a mama's boy who wants to be a tough thug. I want to play somebody who has no idea what he is or isn’t but wants to be a hero. I want to play a mama's boy who doesn't want to be a mama's boy. I want to do all those things that all those guys downtown in the neighborhood remind me of.
Eric Roberts: They said, “Play whatever you want Eric – go!” So, I started doing it. The first director of this project who I will leave nameless, he pulls me aside. We had five rehearsals. Now, I got the script in January. It's now September. So, I've had eight months to drop all the weight and learn my lines and to perm my hair. I'm ready to go. He asked me to stay after rehearsal one day and he goes, “What are you doing?” I said I’m doing this. He goes, “That’s not the character.” I said I already told the producers I’m not going to play what’s on the page, I’m going to play him very differently. And he said, “Well, we disagree on your portrayal. I would like you to resign.”
Eric Roberts: I said let me think about it. I don't want to but let me think about it. I went up and I talked with Mickey. We called the producers, and they fired that director. Then they brought in Stuart Rosenberg, who directed a fabulous movie. Stuart Rosenberg became a hero of mine during that process. Rosenberg is who made that movie work.
Another one of your characters that is against type for you that I always liked was in the TV series Less Than Perfect. You're known for so many dramas, would you like to do more comedy?
Eric Roberts: Well, Less Than Perfect, I was never a fan of my work on that show. I never thought I was very good. I was always very disappointed in myself. My comedic timing is not perfect, and it showed. I was not really proud of that piece. But it was fun to do.