Eli Roth mimes swinging a baseball bat at a recent event promoting the film “Inglourious Basterds.” The director-turned-actor plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz of the “Basterds,” a group of Jewish-American soldiers who go behind enemy lines and carry out vicious sneak attacks on German troops. His character’s chosen weapon for striking back at the Nazis is a baseball bat. (Associated Press photo)
A version of this column appears in Tuesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman.
Eli Roth set out to make an impact – metaphorically and quite literally – in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, the acclaimed hit World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds.”
The director-turned-actor plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz of the “Basterds,” a group of Jewish-American soldiers who go behind enemy lines and carry out vicious sneak attacks on German troops. Donowitz, AKA “The Bear Jew,” strikes fear in the heart of the Nazis by striking back with a baseball bat, a weapon choice the Boston native wholeheartedly approved.
“We all had bats in Boston growing up,” Roth said in an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. “Your bats are used more commonly off the field than on the field. You have a bat for traffic confrontations.”
Best known as the writer-director of the gory horror flicks “Hostel” and “Hostel II,” which Tarantino executive produced, Roth also played bit parts in “Hostel” and his 2002 directorial debut, “Cabin Fever.” Those turns prompted Tarantino to cast him in a small role in “Death Proof,” the “Pulp Fiction” auteur’s half of the 2007 exploitation double feature “Grindhouse.”
“I had done acting parts and bits parts here and there, but it was always just a joke or in my own films or just for fun or never anything serious. And “In ‘Death Proof,’ Quentin’s direction to me, literally, was, ‘We have two minutes to lunch; don’t f- – - it up,’” said Roth, who also directed one of the “Grindhouse” fake trailers, the twisted slasher tale “Thanksgiving.”
But Roth didn’t realize that his brief “Death Proof” performance would become his audition for “Inglourious Basterds,” which pairs him with Brad Pitt, who plays the leader of the Basterds. To ensure he could hold his own with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Roth vigorously researched the role, learned his character’s full back story and put on 40 pounds of muscle.
“I saw this as an opportunity to just redefine Jewish masculinity in movies. You know, Jews are always the victims. … I wanted to be a big, strong, scary, violent Jewish guy, not like some weak, stuttering, nebbishy neurotic, which believe me, I am, that’s part of me,” he said. “But it’s like when you’re in a Tarantino movie you have a chance to really make an impact and really sort of redefine things.”
While his performance has earned praise, Roth remains focused on directing and producing. He will return to the director’s chair for the feature adaptation of “Thanksgiving” and the sci-fi actioner “Endangered Species.” He also is producing a horror film titled “Cotton” and working with RZA of the Wu Tang Clan on the rapper/producer/actor’s martial arts script “”The Man with the Iron Fist.”
“I realize that I can only make one movie at a time. That’s why acting, if I’m gonna act, I would probably only act again for someone like Quentin or in a role that I write for myself. Because I just love directing too much … it has to be something so great that it would stop my directing career,” he said.
Roth’s last directorial project actually was helming “Nation’s Pride,” the film-within-a-film of “Inglourious Basterds,” for Tarantino. Though it isn’t a coherent short, the full 5 ½-minute version of “Nation’s Pride,” “with all the cheese,” will be included on the DVD.
In addition, “Inglourious Basterds” gave Roth, who created the “torture porn” subgenre with his “Hostel” films, a chance to address an issue that torments him.
“I cannot stand bad Boston accents in movies,” Roth said. “It tortures me.”