Eli Roth, best known for his horror flick Hostel, which was executive produced by Quentin Tarantino, has a plum role in the innovative director’s World War II reimagineering Inglourious Basterds. He plays Boston-native Donny Donowitz, a member of Lt. Aldo Raine’s (Brad Pitt) team of Jewish-American soldiers gathered together to do one thing – kill Nazis, in order to spread fear of revenge through the German army. Donowitz is the man who does it the best, and who spreads terror with a baseball bat. He becomes known in frightened whispers as “The Bear Jew,” a moniker that makes its way to the ears of Adolf Hitler himself. Roth, who also played a small part in Tarantino’s Death Proof, had plenty to say about how he relished tackling this pivotal role, how Miley Cyrus helped him focus, and how much fun he had messing with Brad’s mind.
“The only role for me was The Bear Jew,” Roth said. “This is it, to be a Jewish guy from Boston that beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat. I have been training my whole life for that part. There as no other role. There are other actors he’s worked with that felt ‘now that I’ve been in a Tarantino movie I can do anything.’ But for us, this was endgame. The ultimate dream for all of us is to be in a Tarantino movie – and we know there is no such thing as a small part in a Tarantino film. You can be Floyd in True Romance or Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction. Every part is a chance to create a classic cinema moment and everybody is going for it. I felt so lucky.”
Funny he mentions Floyd – the highly memorable stoner dude that Pitt played back in 1993. Roth and Tarantino, pals and cinephiles extraordinaire, says they had a lot of fun bringing Brad into their rabid movie fandom. “It was great to bring to Brad Pitt down to our level of grindhouse cinema and cinephelia,” Roth says, grinning. “The first day, we were talking how much we loved Floyd and how cool it was that Pineapple Express is a whole movie made out of Floyd, and how he’s become the new Spicoli [Fast Times at Ridgemont High]. My generation grew up on Spicoli as the stoner and now everybody knows Floyd. I love Sean Penn, he’s the greatest. The utmost respect for Spicoli, but Floyd is brilliant. And he’s like, ‘You guys you watch Wonder Pets? I got kids, that’s what I watch.’ He watched Wonder Pets.”
“So Quentin and I got into discussion the first day about Zombie vs Shark,” he continues. “And Brad’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Zombie vs Shark! The zombie falls off a boat and is walking under water and then a shark bites him and then the zombie fights the shark. Brad’s just looking at us, and Diane Kruger and everyone is like, ‘what are you talking about?’ Quentin and I go, ‘dude, this is the greatest scene ever.’ It’s low budget, so you know it is really a real shark. How do you put a guy with a real shark? They did it! It was 1979, there were no rules, so they just shot it. Zombie fights a shark. The effects guys are like ‘oh yeah, Zombie vs. Shark, I have a t-shirt.’ Quentin got his print and we showed it in the reel and Brad says ‘this is the greatest movie ever!’”
Not all of their movie choices went over that well with Brad, though – especially Roth’s own horror work. “We were in this bar,” he relates, “and they were showing Hostel and he says ‘nice casting, Eli. I gotta see this.’ Then he came in the next day and he says “Man, you bastard! I was alone in my house last night when I watched that thing and it freaked the shit out of me. That was disgusting!’ It was great to take our love of cinema and infect Brad Pitt with it.”
Roth had his own moments of freaking out on the set – he had to, because it was part of his character. He’s a madman that really has to strike fear into the hearts of these Nazis to spread the word of this vengeful squad of bastards. “We did it a number of times,” he says of the gruesome scene where Donowitz first makes his mark on the audience by beating an uncooperative Nazi to death. “We spent I think five or six days shooting it, and it was the first thing we shot. I was back in this cave just working myself up, ready to kill, and Quentin would be like, ‘And that’s a cut. Let’s wrap for the day.’ I’d go ‘ugh!’ and then Brad would say to me ‘easy tiger, easy tiger.’ For days, I was just working myself up and then Quentin would say ‘that’s a wrap.’ We’d never get to it! I worked myself up to tears and then never get to shoot it. I said ‘Quentin, your blue-balling me every day!’ but he’d do it on purpose. Finally, we got to the scene and I was just ready to explode. I just unloaded on the guy, and it was great to finally beat him and do it over and over and over and over. I completely blew out my voice and then we had to film the reactions of the guys, cheering me on. Quentin said, ‘you know how these guys gotta be loving this and they gotta be laughing.’ So I just started f**king the dummy – like 69ing it, like skull-f**king it. That’s what I was willing to do for my fellow Basterds.”
What was involved in the process of ‘working himself up’ for this scene? You might be surprised. “I didn’t want to be to actory and try to get all emotional,” he offers, “but I was listening to heavy metal to psych myself up to kill, like Iron Maiden, Misfits and Guns N’ Roses, Dead Kennedys, punk rock. And then my girlfriend at the time had put Hannah Montana on my Mac as a joke and I was like ‘duh do duh, Everybody Makes Mistakes.’ I was f**king singing Hannah Montana and then I thought ‘what if Brad Pitt came back and said ‘what the f**k are you listening to?’ What if Quentin said, ‘what are you doing? You’re listening to Hannah Montana?’ She put this on as a joke, but now I’m kind of enjoying it. Now I’m secretly embarrassed about that and that just made me go crazy. I had total Hannah Montana shame! So if I really wanted to instantly go to my psycho place, I would just put on Hannah Montana. I thought ‘what if I was at a concert and I had a bat? Would I just go nuts and start wiping the place out? Then what if I was Hannah Montana, how would I pull that off? I don’t even look like I’m in college, let alone high school. Would I be a teacher who is also a pop star? Oh, gotta film the scene!’ Quentin’s saying ‘man, you’re so intense. You’re so in the zone.’ And I’m thinking ‘what if I was Hannah Montana?’ You never know what takes you to a place of insanity.”
How much of Donowitz is insanity, and how much is just being from Beantown? “I grew up in Boston and let me tell you, you use your baseball bat off the field more than you use it on the field in Boston,” Roth states matter-of-factly. “I mean everybody had baseball bats in their cars in Boston. That was just a big thing. I remember in high school we were getting drunk on a Wednesday in this girl’s basement and some kid came down, with his nose broken, this kid Matt Casey. We were seniors and they were juniors and they said ‘the juniors f**ked up Casey and we’re like ‘kill the juniors.’ Everybody had bats like within seconds, and the juniors showed up to finish the fight and everyone’s just smashing these kids, crushing their car with bats. I remember I was staying back and I was watching and this kid jumped in the car next to me and I was like ‘I can’t believe you did that for Matt Casey’ and he goes, ‘who is Matt Casey?’ That exemplified Boston. Everybody just wanted an excuse to smash something.”