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The Greats of Roth

By Robert Abele

He could give bad-guy clinics, but he mines new veins of skill in Hulk, Funny Games and Youth Without Youth.

With his 1982 film debut as a window-smashing skinhead teen in Made in Britain and his Oscar-nominated sadist fop in the Highlands period drama Rob Roy, Tim Roth has routinely been considered one of film's most exciting performers. The actor, though, has at times gotten bored with it all and considered quitting. To keep fresh, he's taken less-than-desirable jobs so he can then do the smaller, more stimulating gigs that don't pay anything -- only to have lingering bad feelings over the money gig.

But even Roth has to admit that lately his career has gotten awfully interesting, with three movies in a row that thwart pigeonholing the 47-year-old Brit: a Romanian linguistics professor in Francis Ford Coppola's highly personal, dreamlike Youth Without Youth last year, a terrorized family man in Austrian auteur Michael Haneke's disturbing Funny Games and now special ops soldier Emil Blonsky hunting an on-the-run Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) in this summer's newest superhero picture, The Incredible Hulk.

"If you're going from Francis, a very gentle little film about how he feels about where he is in life right now, to Michael and something about violence in society, then to running around shooting guns and saying 'Grr,' it's great," Roth said recently at a hotel near his home in Pasadena. "I mean, what a trip!"

Although Roth has already made a name for himself with figures of menace, donning the mantle of comic-book villain for The Incredible Hulk was worth it for the chance to turn Blonsky's flirtation with the anger-triggering gamma radiation that bedevils Banner into the stuff of junkie drama. (Before his inevitable computer-generated transformation into the Abomination, that is.) "Once he gets his first fix, he's chasing the dragon, and every time he gets a warning that it's not very good for you, he's like, 'Screw that, I want it!' " said an animated Roth, letting out a few nasty giggles. "That it comes in increments was interesting. If it was just, suddenly he's a big monster, it would have had no interest to any actor, really."

Initially, though, it was Marvel Studios that wasn't interested in Roth, who has been in the business for 25 years.

The film's director, Louis Leterrier, had championed the actor, even re-crafting Blonsky's story to take into account Roth's age and jagged countenance: The character would now be an experienced, scruffy, battle-crazed warrior eager to stave off physical decline with the military's most dangerous new biotechnology. (And because there was no Russian dialect coach, the ex-KGB character of the comics became English.) But Marvel was afraid a fringe character actor best known as a Quentin Tarantino regular instead of a hot young star would mean a return to the audience-unfriendly psychodrama that many believe burdened Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk film. The first dailies quickly changed everyone's mind.

"It was amazing," said Leterrier, citing an early scene in which Blonsky learns from Gen. Thunderbolt Ross ( William Hurt) the who, what and how of the green behemoth that's just decimated his men. "He started with doubt and anger and finished with awe and excitement. Right off, Marvel said, 'Thank you.' "

Dad, on the dark side

Leterrier added, "He can sell vice like no one. When we were shooting a scene when he's in front of the mirror and sees his body changing, people gathered around the monitors to see Tim Roth perform. People were like, 'What's he gonna do?' "

For Roth, however, a primary concern was that he and the movie not embarrass his kids, 13-year-old Timothy and 11-year-old Cormac. (Roth has a grown son, Jack, from a previous relationship.) "I would like them to be able to see something that Dad's in that has an edge and is fun," he said, though he's nervous about their reaction. "They're vicious critics."

Besides, they're not going to be seeing last spring's Funny Games any time soon. Haneke's shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 German-language original about two young men's methodical torture of Roth's and Naomi Watts' well-to-do family was one of his most challenging experiences. "Shaking it off afterward was very hard," Roth said. "I hated it, but there were certain things I did in that film that I didn't know I was capable of doing. So as a consequence, I now really cherish that time."

And while he also called working for Coppola "extraordinary," he's not sure he'd acquiesce to a seven-month shoot in a far-off land again, which was what filming Youth Without Youth required. But it also means he's holding off getting behind the camera himself again. Roth's directorial debut, The War Zone -- his grim yet painterly drama about incest -- was, he says, "the best thing that ever happened," crediting it with helping renew his passion to return to acting. But it meant being away from his family for two years. "My kids don't have that much childhood left, so when they're done with that, I'll go back and direct again."

Unless . . .

"If someone came to me with a job and said, 'You should do this,' and I read it and went, 'Oh, my God,' and for some reason the script was about to burst on fire after a certain date, then you know. . . . " Roth said, laughing. "I'd have to sit with my guys and say, 'Hey, what do you think?' "

Industry moment

Until then, he's done his part to stay connected to the legacy of a generation of British filmmakers -- Alan Clarke, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh -- whose unvarnished social realism inspired him to be an actor, and who all directed Roth early in his career. Except one. Recently, Roth was a guest programmer on TCM, and as one of his selections he picked movement pioneer Ken Loach's mid-'60s poverty drama, Cathy Come Home.

"I've always wanted to work with Ken," Roth said. "So while I was dealing with him and his producer, I said, 'Listen, thanks, and if you need a tea boy on your [new] film,' and they went, 'Yeah, you got it.' They sent me a contract and I ended up taking orders online. So right now I'm hired on!"

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