Escape From L.A.
Made in Britain: The past ten years have seen Roth move from a first role as Alan Clarke's rabidly desperate skinhead Trevor through to membership of the much-hyped Brit-Pack, and finally Hollywood recognition with major parts in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction
By Jim McClellan
Tim Roth is chatting away about why he wants to move to New York when he suddenly stops in midsentence. We're drinking in an Irish pub, just off the Bowery in Manhattan. Roth is dressed in usual jeans and T-shirt and is, as usual, a couple of days shy of a shave and a shampoo. A couple walking by outside have stopped by the window and are waving in a determined effort to catch Roth's eye. He waves back with a, smile. Rather dopily, I ask if they're mates of his? "Naaah, just fans, I guess."
I don't know why it should seem such a surprise that people actually recognize Roth on the street, but it does: There is something slightly unexpected, slightly askew about the idea that Tim Roth might be a bonafide big-screen star. His face doesn't quite fit. "Roth" and "stardom"--the two words don't quite click. He probably wouldn't complain about that, though. It's pretty clear that he doesn't want to be thought of as a "star."
But then again, plenty of people know his name and his face, whether it fits or not. After a while, some more people come up to the window and wave. It continues to happen every now and then throughout the evening. After a relaxed bar crawl through Little Italy, we eventually wind up getting a burger. Obsessives will perhaps be disappointed that his choice is a Whopper, not a quarter pounder with or without cheese. But as we're leaving, as Roth wanders out, in his odd, slightly stiff-legged walk, a walk just this side of a strut, as he's about to chomp his Whopper, someone yells out, "Yo Tim! Yo Tim! Loved you in Pulp Fiction, man."
"People tend to be very respectful," he says outside, between mouthfuls. "You do get those guys who start off very nice and by the end of the night they want to beat you up. It happened a couple of times in Scotland, when I was shooting Rob Roy. But generally people are really friendly . . . though they will tell you if they don't like your films. I've sat with a couple of young guys in a bar one night and they told me from film to film why they didn't like what I did, which was fair enough."
Of course, Roth has done more than enough to rack up a little recognition value. He has been in two of the most talked about films of the decade--Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. He also took the lead in the most hyped film of last year, Four Rooms, the portmanteau comedy set in a Hollywood hotel and directed by Tarantino, Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez. In between, the wigged-out toothsomely camp excess he brought to his bad guy role in the men in kilts epic Rob Roy picked up a BAFTA award over here and won him brownie points with Hollywood execs.
More recently, he's worked with Woody Allen and even found time to rack up some modeling work--a recent campaign for Prada. "I didn't know who they were at first," he smiles. "But it was a laugh. It only took an afternoon's work and they've been really sweet. They made suits for me, when I got the award. So I've picked up lots of freebies and, yes, I'm up for more work. In the long run, I can see myself taking over from Kate Moss."
Roth has even been anointed by the mega-glossy Vanity Fair, who last year put him on their big fold-out cover shot of up and coming actors in Hollywood, alongside the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and Matthew McConnaughey. But he didn't quite fit in. It wasn't just that at 35, he was a little older than the most of the well-groomed young contenders around him. He looked a bit haphazard standing there. He did, he says, feel a little uncomfortable. "If you look closely at that photograph, you'll see it's actually of me trying to get off the cover of Vanity Fair. I found that a bit embarrassing. It was great to be on the cover. Apparently it's the one to be on and, you know, thank you very much. But it did feel a bit silly. All of us there were sitting around wondering, 'What the fuck are we doing here. We're not this school of actors, so what are they trying to do?' "
It reminded him of another slightly daft cover shoot he did about ten years ago for a Face story celebrating the Brit Pack, a posse of young home-grown actors (Roth, Gary Oldman, Paul McGann, Daniel Day Lewis, Colin Firth) who were, apparently, gunning for Hollywood, on the verge of kicking the Brat Pack's ass. All of the actors involved have done fine since, then, though if you're keeping scores, Daniel Day Lewis has come out on top. He's the one with the Oscar, the one who pulled off a credible stab at an action film--Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans--and also worked with Martin Scorsese. But Roth isn't too far off.
He does own up to being a little surprised by how things have worked out. "It's weird. There was a bunch of us who all came up together. I suppose it started with Phil Daniels, who was the bee's knees, then a whole slew of us came up behind him--me, Gary, Danny, Paul. When I was coming up, I thought Paul was going to be it. He'd done The Monocled Mutineer (the controversial Alan Bleasdale TV series about a WWI deserter), he was the sexiest fucking man on earth and all that, but it never quite happened for him in America, which was weird."
Still, if you'd been taking bets ten years ago, your money would have been on Oldman. Perhaps because they shared the same son of lower-middle-class south London background, Roth and Oldman have always been lumped together in the public imagination. Certainly, they broke through over here doing the same kinds of parts--young men slightly out of place, out of kilter, with too much energy to quite know their place, young men pushing at the hierarchies and class barriers of Britain.
They worked for the same people. Roth's first role was as the rabidly desperate skinhead teen Trevor in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain. Clarke also gave Oldman one of his best ever roles as the mouthy estate agent/football hooligan in Al Hunter-Ashton's The Firm. They also worked together in Mike Leigh's wonderful study of estate survivalism, Meantime, with Oldman this time playing the skinhead (famously going nowhere in a concrete barrel) and Roth as the gonky loser Colin, sniffing and shambling under a hale of fraternal abuse from elder brother Phil Daniels.
The link with this Lewisham-born mate hasn't always worked in Roth's favour. For a while, he was almost in Oldman's shadow. Just before the release of Reservoir Dogs, I remember a Spanish journalist at a film festival near Barcelona suggesting to Roth that he could be the next Gary Oldman. Certainly, it always seemed as if Oldman was going to do the business in Hollywood. But since the relative failure of Dracula, he seems to have gradually lost his way, winding up recently in spectacular clunkers, like the vaguely barmy Beethoven bio-pic Immortal Beloved or Demi Moore's slice of silicone-injected Hot Gothic, The Scarlet Letter.
In retrospect, Roth seems to have been cannier about it all, though he denies ever calculating things much. But by not attempting to "take Hollywood," he has gradually carved himself out the sort of career enjoyed by the likes of Harvey Keitel or Steve Buscemi, a career in which he can balance more interesting work in the independent sector, films he really wants to do (e.g. James Gray's ferociously downbeat Russian-Jewish gangster flick Little Odessa) with the odd low-key studio picture to pay the rent and keep his profile high (e.g. Rob Roy).
Things are going well enough for him to be able to think about moving away from L.A. He never wanted to wind up in Hollywood, he says. His dream was to live in New York. Now he thinks he's established enough to be able to pull it off, so he's here looking at lofts, wondering how to convert them into family homes or build roof gardens for the kids, checking out the view. He's just come from the perfect place: "You should see the view. On one side you've got the Empire State and the Chrysler Building, the other side it's the Twin Towers."
All in all, he's not done too bad over the past few years. Back in 1993, he was still paying off debts and back taxes and living in a fairly small Hollywood apartment. I know, because one night I broke in. Journalists who interview Hollywood actors are always hustling for more access, though perhaps this was taking things a little too far. Actually I don't even have the excuse of work. I broke in mainly because I was a bit drunk and desperate for a piss.
Perhaps I should explain. When Reservoir Dogs was on the international film festival circuit, I interviewed Roth in Barcelona. Perhaps because I didn't spend hours trying to probe his psyche but got drunk and messed about instead, he seemed to quite enjoy it. When I went to L.A. to interview someone else, he invited me over to a party at his place. I went with another journalist, but by the time we arrived--not that late--everyone had gone. The place was empty but the lights were on, the windows open. It looked as if they had just nipped out. The people in the flat upstairs thought they might have gone for a beer.
So we hung around on the balcony, drank the beers we'd brought and pretty soon needed the toilet. There was a pot plant outside, but it didn't 1ook like it could bear both our contributions, so I decided to hop through the window and look for the bathroom. When, I told Roth about it later, he said it was lucky he hadn't switched the alarm on. "It's hooked up to some kind of rapid response team, real Nazis. They would have bundled you into a van and dumped you straight in jail. And I didn't come back for a while, so you'd have been there for the weekend."
If I'd been professional about it all, I guess I would have made the most of the opportunity and started rifling through the bins and nosing round the bedroom, in search of used tubes of pile cream or nipple clamps and strap-ons. As it was, I had other things on my mind. After locating the bathroom, I went to the kitchen and checked the fridge. Roth and his mates had cleaned it out. There was no beer in the house. Bastard, as he might say.
Perhaps I should have looked a bit harder for "useful material." After all, when you interview Roth, you don't come away with that much of it. Not that the experience isn't fun. But you don't get to indulge much in-depth analysis about why he does what he does. "Who the fuck wants to talk to actors, I mean, really," he says now. "My problem is that it becomes so important, so much weight is attached to what Tom Cruise has to say about whatever. Push comes to shove, I'd rather not do it at all. I really wouldn't. If it were possible to get away without doing it, I would, but you can't do that now. It's in your contract, when you do a film."
These days, he often wants to help the films he's in all he can, so he does it, and tries to have some fun or at least a few drinks in the process. Leaf through some Roth cuttings and you find that most of his interviews take place in bars. You also find a fair few journalists perplexed by his refusal to talk about his childhood or his parents' divorce. They want to know "where all the angst and violence in his performances comes from and where it goes" and they get miffed when they all get cut of Roth is "that's my business" or "fuck all that."
You can understand why that might be frustrating though you can also see why Roth doesn't necessarily want to play along. If you're serious about understanding your past, there are people much better at helping you than the average celebrity interviewer. Beyond that, you get the feeling that confessing to hacks about your inner pain is another part of the "star role" that he'd rather pass on. Stars are expected to delve for our delectation. Behind it lies a fairly crude pop psychological stereotype--the idea that actors are somehow damaged, all over the place, in the grip of an inner chaos and, by implication, a gift they can't control. You can understand why some people wouldn't want to play along.
For what it's worth, it's clear that his past contains a measure of everyday sadness that somehow feeds into his work. "I suppose you could say I had an absent father," he says. "My parents split up when I was pretty young. We visited all the time and spent time with him, but I never really got together with him. I think I loved him always and forgave him. I think that's one of the most basic things about children--that they're prepared to forgive anything. But when I was in my twenties, I realized how wonderful he was and that, for all his mistakes, I loved him; and then he died, so it was all kind of too late. That kind of residue is . . . there. You don't realize it, but the incredible effect they have on you . . . a male figure in your life. He was the male figure in my life . . . for good or for bad."
Divorce doesn't just cause psychological pain for the kids involved. It also dislocates them socially. Family can slide down the social scale, find themselves shunted out of the comfortable life they were living. You wonder whether Roth didn't experience something like that. Clearly, things didn't quite turn out as planned. He failed exams for the grammar schools in his area and wound up at a seriously hard Brixton comprehensive.
Ditching his middle-class accent for something more street-level became a matter of survival. It might sound too close to stereotype to say that was there where he started acting. But you can still hear something from his past when he talks now about his approach to work. He once told me that his "method," influenced by Mike Leigh, was to try to know everything about the character, so "they"--journalists, critics, whoever, can't "get you."
The standard critical line is that with his tough-guy roles, Roth is compensating for being bullied at school. Maybe. Actually, when you hear him talk about his school, it sounds as if other kids were the least of his troubles. He has plenty of stories about dodgy teachers who didn't care, in particular a Mr. Black. "He used to beat us, used to beat children. There were some nasty fuckers there, people who were just really bad with kids, bad at teaching kids. Go figure. Bastards, I hated them all."
Roth obviously used his experiences at school and the rage that built up inside while he was there in his debut, Made in Britain. Even now, well over a decade on, it's still a blistering performance, a superbly controlled study of youthful energy blocked and frustrated so that it turns sour and self-destructive. All that was a long time ago, but clearly Roth is still affected by his experiences.
It's interesting how often the subject of violence towards kids comes up when you talk to him. And his first stab at directing will be a film about child abuse, an adaptation of Alexander Stuart's novel The War Zone. Roth and Stuart have just finished working on a first draft of the script. Roth insists he's staying firmly behind the camera. "Acting and directing would be to much to concentrate on. The lead part is a 14-year-old boy, who's in every scene, so, as a director, I've got my work cut out."
So why did he choose this for his first stab at directing? "I read the book and thought it was phenomenal. And favourite films of mine are things like My Life As A Dog, because it's about what we do to our kids. As a father, I think about it. I'm lucky to be in a position to make films about that, though probably no-one will see it. It has no car chases. It's not hip guys with guns. I want to make a disturbing film about childhood. So consequently it will have an audience of three."
It may be a while before The War Zone appears, but in the meantime, Roth has plenty of films on the way. First out seems likely to be the new Woody Allen movie, Everyone Says I Love You. "It's a full-on musical, singing and dancing and all that. I sing two songs, two duets with Drew Barrymore. I did the singing. It was very embarrassing. They're not looping someone's else's voice over it. I was very surprised. It's probably a crap old fucking performance. I pretty much don't care--I had a good time working on it. He's somebody I always wanted to work with."
Also on the way is Buddy Giovinazzo's Gasoline Alley, a more typical Roth indie low-budget effort about the relationship between two brothers. Peter Greene, the deeply dodgy back-door copper from Pulp Fiction, co-stars. There's another low-level studio film, currently called Hoods, a Thirties gangster movie set in Harlem starring Larry Fishburne, Andy Garcia and Vanessa Williams. Roth plays Dutch Schultz: "My performance is very physical, very over the top. It's a bit like Rob Roy. It will either work or it will just go through the fucking floor and I'll get killed for it."
When we meet, Roth has just come from the Chicago set of Gridlock. Roth is full of enthusiasm about the project and his co-star Tupac Shakur (who died a couple of weeks after this interview). "It's about two junkies trying to get off heroin in downtown L.A. Me and him are the junkies." So how did he find Tupac? "Old Six-pack--he was sweet. He's two different people. When we were inside and he didn't have to be the man that they all want to see, he was the funniest fucker, very witty, very intelligent. But when he was on the street . . ." he mimes the shutters coming down. "I actually said to him what's it like to have to do that all day. He said it was fucking exhausting. I really liked working with him."
So, if he has the time, will he be renewing his working relationship with Quentin Tarantino at some point? There have been suggestions that Roth is "Tarantino's De Niro"--one of those silly, slack comparisons journalists love. If anything, Tarantino is his own De Niro. Still, the pair are firm friends. Tarantino cast Roth very well (as guys trying to keep it together in sticky situations, trying to maintain as things spiral out of control) in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Roth comes on rather protective when the director's name comes up. "People are really ripe to kill him now. People don't like his acting stuff. The thing about that is he's really doing what he wanted to do. I think he always really wanted to be an actor and it never worked. Now he can, so he's doing it--love it or hate it. I'm sure he's hurt by what people say about him, but it doesn't stop him. He's certainly got balls, Quentin."
Both Tarantino and Roth caught a measure of critical flack the last time they worked together, on the ill-fated Four Rooms. Roth wasn't surprised by the overall reception, though he blames it all on the studios. "When we started doing it, when we were doing it, it was a little experimental movie. But they did the full-on Disney hype to hell, financiers in the editing room, the whole thing, so it deserved what it got. I saw a really early rough cut which was kind of fun, because each section had a distinctly different style, and that was the idea."
He picked up some criticism for the Jerry Lewis jitters of his performance as the nervy, nerdy bellhop Ted. "Yeah, but I also get a lot of compliments from it. I meet people who say they love it. They get it on video, get drunk and have a good time. You can have a laugh with it. I decided the first day on the set to be broad with it. Being subtle wouldn't have worked. But then you rely on the editors' sense of comic timing. And each director has a different approach to timing, so it was always going to be difficult."
He says, as far as he knows, Tarantino is laying low. "A while ago, he said to me, 'I'm sick of fucking picking up a magazine and seeing myself. I'm trying to hide and it just doesn't work.' I think he's managed to drop out of sight now and he's writing, which is what he does best." Any idea what he's doing? "Who knows . . . I know he loves blaxploitation movies. He said he wanted to do one himself. Perhaps he's doing that. But I really have no idea." So will he be working with Tarantino on one of his self-penned projects? Roth grins. "If he was making a movie and called me up and said I want you to be in it. I would do it, whatever. You know you wouldn't need to see the script. You'd just need to say yes."
At some point in a leisurely bar crawl, Roth takes me to the Bowery Bar. Though this place is not what it once was, nobody here is about to wander over and ask Roth for an autograph. The sound system is playing an Eighties nostalgia compilation, Spandau Ballet warbling their way through "True," that sort of thing.
When you get Roth on to politics, it can feel as though you've started up some kind of old Eighties loop. Perhaps because he got out at the start of the Nineties, he has the kind of vehemence you remember having, but have somehow lived through. He fulminates about "Lady Di" ("she was always a fucking right-wing bitch") but saves the bulk of his scorn for Margaret Thatcher. "She's being treated like Nixon was over here--they ask her opinion on things, but this woman was a fucking disgrace. She should have been jailed for what she did, sinking the Belgrano. But she gets millions for writing her memoirs--I wouldn't piss on her memoirs."
"There's something about being a displaced person," he continues. "I've watched the run up to the election over here with a dispassionate point of view and it's very interesting. I never felt it was very interesting at home. I just felt they were disgusting. I just wanted her to fucking die or get caught in a really bad sex scandal with 14 queens from Addis Ababa."
In a way, all this is tangled up with the frustration Roth felt during the Eighties. It seemed to be going well enough for him at the start. With Made in Britain, Meantime and The Hit, Stephen Frears' existential Brit gangster flick, under his belt by the middle of the decade, he seemed like the archetypal post-punk success story. But again, things went out of kilter. He found himself blocked, unable to get the kind of work he wanted. He became, by his own admission, a bit of a self-destructive pain. He drank, slept around, pissed off his mates. The thing was, he says, he needed to work and "they" wouldn't let him. So he had to go.
His break came when he was cast as Van Gogh in Altman's Vincent And Theo. That got his name known in America, he scored a couple of roles in independent movies, packed his bags and left. For a while he was depressed and guilty about it all. Is he still bothered by going? "Fuck all that. I'm way over that. No guilt over leaving at all. I'm pleased to be out of England because I grew up in the wrong time there. I grew up during Thatcher's rise and fall and anyone who grew up then is better off out of it. I'm very fortunate in that I can live somewhere else. When I first moved to America, I had no money. I couldn't make the next month's rent. Now I can, but it may change, in which case I don't know what I'll do--I doubt if I'd go back to London. I'd rather go to France. I couldn't go back to Britain. I hate those people--not the British people. I hate the politicians over there."
Someone once said that social mobility is the key to Roth. It's true that he hates being pinned down. He hates being placed. That's one reason why he went to America--he got away from class-structures and classroom memories, away from laddy parts and diminishing horizons. He's even (unconsciously) losing the vocal traces of his homeland. Now, his accent hovers somewhere between south London and New York. Strangely, he sounds more convincing now playing Americans than Brits--there was something a little odd about his cockney accent in Pulp Fiction . . .
His decision to go for American roles when he got to the States was the smartest thing he did. Oldman showed him the way, he says. In a way, it's all about flexibility too, escaping categories. "I always thought that if I played Americans and I was good enough at the accent, then with a bit of luck they'd think I was American, then when they found out I wasn't, I would get cast in anything. It would be like, 'get that guy in', not 'get that English guy' but just 'get that guy in.' It's kind of worked out for me that way."
Most Roth profiles note how happy he seems these days. Perhaps it's down to the fact that he has worked a lot over the past few years, and grown up through his work; got a few things out of his system; lost the edginess he had. Roth puts it down to being married and in love and getting a new family together. He and his wife, Nikki, have one baby son, Hunter, and another boy on the way, due around the end of the year. Roth wants a daughter and is thinking of trying again. "If we have another boy, fine. We'll leave it and maybe adopt when we get a bit older". He's also spending a lot of time with his 12-year-old son Jack, from a previous relationship, and blabs away proudly about his achievements at school.
In part Roth's move to New York is for his kids. He doesn't want them to grow up in L.A., around the film industry, wants them to grow up in a "real city." So has becoming a dad again changed him? "I don't know. It certainly sorts your priorities out." He tells a story about being in L.A. recently, driving his son Jack and a couple of his friends to a restaurant. "I realized the precious fucking cargo I had in my old, fucking, beat-up truck and slowed down, became this ridiculous old-aged-pensioner driver. I'm sure one of the subliminal things about moving to New York is I won't have to drive anymore. Driving terrifies me--it's like having a fucking gun and firing off in the general direction."
So will fatherhood and family life change the roles he plays? Is he about to put his name down for The Return Of Flipper? "I don't think so. Actually, that's not true. I would love to do a kids' movie, but one of those old twisted movies made in the Fifties, the scary ones." Tim Roth in a children's film? Actually, it's not that much of a stretch. A few years ago, you could say there was definitely a Roth role, something that mixed violence with vulnerability, laddy aggression with a kind of insecurity and uncertainty. But he's leaving that behind, trying different things, from the clownish physicality of his performances in Rob Roy and Four Rooms to the shutters-down minimalism of his hitman in Little Odessa.
His success has brought a measure of clout in the American indie world. He can help to get some films made. So it will be interesting to see the body of work he puts together over the next few years. "At the moment, I am trying to do as many different kinds of things as I can," he says. There's going to come a point where I'm not going to be able to. But right now, I'm of an age where I can. I'd like to do some wacky comedies so I go off and do that, or some weird shit, or whatever. Those opportunities aren't going to be around for that long. When I hit 40, someone else will probably get offered the parts that are coming to me now."
It sounds as if he's got things all worked out. "I still don't have a game plan, as they say over here. Never had one, don't really want one. The only thing I would like is to be an actor, in the sense that Harvey Keitel or Harry Dean Stanton are still actors. I never want to be the leading man. You start off as a leading man, you're fucked. You're limited. I want to be an actor for all my life. So I have no problem playing second or third fiddle."
For the moment at least, he still has the room to manoeuvre. After he finishes his burger, we chat for a while. He has to go off and meet his wife. They want to check out their prospective new home at night, have another look at the view. I have to get back to my hotel but I'm not quite sure how to get there. Neither is Roth, so he stops someone on the street and asks the way. They don't recognize him at all.