By Chastity Bono
The Best Supporting Actor nominee says playing fey was all in a day's work
"I wanted a Best Supporting Actress nomination!" jokes Tim Roth, discussing his Oscar nod for the villainous--and effeminate--henchman he plays in the Scottish costume epic Rob Roy. The film stars Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, but Roth stole much of the movie's thunder with his fiendish portrayal of Archibald Cunningham, the ruthless right hand to the marquess of Montrose.
Born in London, Roth is perhaps best known for his offbeat character work in the Quentin Tarantino directed films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Four Rooms. And with those cutting-edge credentials behind him, the outrageous nature of Rob Roy's Cunningham seemed like a logical next step for the actor. "I loved the contrast in the character," says Roth of Cunningham. "He's very fey, almost like a dame from English pantomime, but lurking underneath is a truly lethal sociopath. When you first see him, you think he's a pushover, but then he's unleashed, and you come to realize that he's a very dangerous person."
Despite Cunningham's flamboyant personality, the character Roth portrays in the film is not a homosexual. Neither is the actor, who will have been married for three years in May. Nevertheless, Roth seems quite at ease speaking about gay issues. "I've played with the idea of being gay, but it just didn't catch," he says. "I've always liked girls too much. I think they are gorgeous." In fact, Roth thinks that some of the angst about straight-versus-gay is an invention of modern times. "If you look back at pictures from 18th century Scotland, all those noblemen looked like drag queens," he says. " I don't think they cared either way about sexuality back then. They were very decadent and would fuck anything, but it was the law that they marry a woman."
Regardless of Cunningham's sexuality, Roth says the real challenge of the role was bringing together all the different layers of his character into one cohesive and believable performance. "Michael (Caton-Jones, director) wanted me to be as big and flamboyant as possible," says Roth. "That was hard at first, because I thought that would make for a bad performance. But it really worked out."
In bringing Cunningham to life, Roth not only perfected his "gentleman's lisp," but also learned the art of fencing. While he describes himself as a "novice swordsman," Roth says he had to appear like an expert. "Making it look easy took a lot of hard work," he admits. "It's very physically demanding. It's like learning a ballet. You rehearse every move, and then you put all the sequences together. And then there's the homework," he adds laughing. "Lots and lots of painful homework."
In addition to his work in Rob Roy and his long-standing association with Tarantino, the 34 year old Roth's credits include an acclaimed portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman's 1990 film biography Vincent & Theo and his role as a Russian-Jewish emigre hit man in Little Odessa. To date, however, Rob Roy's Cunningham is the closest that Roth has come to playing gay. Not that he'd mind: "It never occurs to me one way or the other what a character's sexuality is as far as asking myself, 'Will I play him or not?'" he says. "It would always depend on the director and his ability to let me experiment with the role."
Whether or not audiences will ever see Roth play a homosexual, the actor's next starring role is in a spring release, Captives , in which he plays a prison inmate who falls in love with the prison's dentist. These days however, Roth's dance card is filled with more than acting gigs. In addition to his increasing number of feature film roles, the actor can be found sporting a host of fabulous outfits as a Prada model in several men's fashion magazines, including GQ and Esquire. "I don't know fashion stuff," says Roth, grinning. "I didn't even know what Prada was, but they phoned me up and asked me to do it. And once I said the word 'Prada', my wife started yelling, 'Do it, do it!'"
It's no surprise that Roth, as an actor-turned-model, is gay friendly. In fact, he's articulate about the struggles that gays and lesbians face working in the entertainment industry. "I understand why people don't want to come out of the closet if they're involved in the entertainment business, because there's a lot of homophobia here," he says. "And that homophobia exists with gay casting directors and producers as well. They are afraid to hire people because of their own sexuality."
But Roth's concern for lesbians and gays is not limited to the entertainment business. After participating in a February dinner in Los Angeles jointly hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Roth says he has definite opinions about politics and how they affect homosexuals. "I think this government would be much happier if they could still gas people for being gay," he says. "And the idea of registering with the government in Colorado because of sexual deviance makes me think that persecution is going to get worse. So make your presence known," he advises, adding, "I think gay people need to scream."