The Apes of Roth
Tim Roth turned down a part in Harry Potter to star in Planet of the Apes.
By John Hiscock
For Tim Roth, the memory of his old friend Roddy McDowall cast a long shadow over the set of the new Planet of the Apes movie. He had formed a close bond with his fellow English actor prior to McDowall's death three years ago. And during the six months of filming the re-make in Hawaii, Arizona and Los Angeles, the physical absence of McDowall -- who'd starred in most of the previous Planet films -- provoked a deep sense of loss.
"I wish he was in this one," says Roth sadly. "It would be fantastic to have him around."
McDowall famously played the chimpanzee Dr. Cornelius in the first Planet of the Apes in 1968. He also starred in three of the four sequels and the subsequent two TV series. Before he died -- and long before Roth was cast in the current film -- the pair had long talks about the problems of portraying an ape.
"He obviously had a glee about the series, but we also talked about how painful it was," recalls Roth. "There was even less flexibility with the make-up in those days. He talked about the weirdness he'd gone through for such a long time, so he was my real connection with Planet of the Apes."
The unlikely friendship between South London lad Roth and McDowall -- the fey, fastidious British expatriate who was the confidante of Elizabeth Taylor and who entertained the Hollywood elite -- began at the Academy Awards ceremony in which Roth was Oscar-nominated for Rob Roy.
"He said, 'Can I take your picture?'" recalls Roth. "I said, 'Of course you can', because he was Roddy McDowall. And then he invited me to dinner.
"He had these extraordinary dinners which he'd plan for months. He would invite people such as Gore Vidal and Anthony Hopkins and we'd all tell anecdotes. I still feel part of his world even though he's gone. I really got to like Roddy very, very much."
Roth, 40, even turned down the role of Snape in the forthcoming Harry Potter movie to play Thade, the tyrannical leader of the ape armies in director Tim Burton's dark and violent "re-imagining" of a world where apes rule and humans are enslaved. He says he does not mind in the slightest that he's playing yet another villain.
From his film debut in 1983 as a neo-Nazi skinhead in Made In Britain, Roth has thrived by playing twisted characters. From the simpering sadist in Rob Roy and undercover cop Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, to the petty criminal who starts Pulp Fiction by brandishing a pistol in a coffee shop -- all are vividly-etched, intensely memorable characters.
"If you do a juicy villain, it gets remembered," says Roth. "When I play good guys, nobody seems to care about them, so if I'm typecast, it's my own doing. And I can always say no."
As the militaristic, human-hating Thade, he is outstanding in Planet of the Apes. Menace seeps from behind his mask as he swings and leaps from branch to ledge, the most powerful and sinister of all the apes.
"Thade is definitely the villain of the piece," says Roth. "He represents a certain point of view in the ape culture. He's a bit of a fascist. Thade doesn't like the human traits that are invading apedom. As a species, he finds humans disgusting. They smell very strange and don't groom themselves. They're monsters."
Talking in a New York hotel on the morning of the film's US premiere, Roth is planning to take his 16-year-old son Jack to the screening. But he's leaving his other sons, Timothy, six, and four-year-old Cormac, at home with their mum Nikki Butler, Roth's wife of eight years. "It's far too loud and scary for the little ones," he explains.
Thankfully, in person Roth seems happy and relaxed, and not the least bit villainous or terrifying. Although he enjoyed making Apes, he confides that certains aspects of the shoot weren't much fun. For starters there was spending four hours being transformed into Thade every morning, sometimes having to be up by 3am.
"You get depressed by the make-up sometimes because you can't get out of it," he says. "You can't take it off at lunchtime."
Unlike co-star Helena Bonham Carter, he did not spend much time studying in "ape school" because he was filming in Europe.
"Once I got my basic walk down, a lot of it was just improvising," he says. "Because you are creating a new species you can do anything."
However, Roth disliked and distrusted the real apes on the set. "I wouldn't go near them," he says with a shudder. "They're dangerous. They could eat your head. They had handlers to look after them, but they were scary. They're very strong. If they reach out for you and get you, you'll never be able to get away from them, even the small ones. Very scary."
Another of his co-stars he had little time for is Charlton Heston, who starred in the first two Planet of the Apes films and who was brought back by producer Richard Zanuck for a cameo role in this latest version. Heston, whose pro-National Rifle Association views are directly opposed to Roth's liberal sympathies, plays Thade's dying father Zaius and he and Roth share a deathbed scene together.
"We rehearsed, we shot it and I left," reveals Roth. "I didn't want to get into any angry conversations with him because it was inappropriate for the workplace.
"I think speeches made in public by people like him could end up damaging my children as it is so easy to get guns in the US. I find his views really offensive, but I respect the other parts of his life."