Hangin' With Mr. Orange
Tim Roth is a monster from England on the American actor scene, and he has opinions.
By Arty Nelson
"John Candy, I fuckin' dig John Candy! I think he's a great actor. I think he's a fantastic actor!"
We're sitting in some bar in East Hollywood. The chandeliers are made of deer antlers tied together and there's a bug zapper the size of a rottweiler hanging over our heads keeping time. We're talking movies.
"Loved Salvador . . . Platoon, since then, JFK kinda pissed me off, because it was a fuckin' great movie all the way through I thought. The premise was good, the whole conspiracy theory . . . doesn't matter . . . but until the end, where Costner looks into the camera and says, 'It's up to us!' The whole thing, the family coming into the court in tears, oh man, it's like a soap episode. But until that moment, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy . . . Epic! . . . Kevin Bacon . . . and Gary [Oldman] doing Oswald, that's a very tough thing to do in this country. It requires someone to do an impersonation, there's nothing you can do character-wise. You can't really stray too much from it. We know what we've seen, the images are like burned into our heads, and he did them. They were completely and meticulously reconstructed. I dug the movie until the end, and then I wanted my money back."
The bug zapper lets off a huge electro-groan. Roth leans back in his chair and pulls another cigarette out of his pack. "That's a bug killer, there's a bug up there with an Uzi."
No Vanity. What an odd thing to think sitting with an actor. Tim Roth is just a guy, who happens to be a really good actor. No overblown sense of self-importance, no fay mystical stern-faced rap about the "process" or his "motivations". Nothing. I tell 'im I just turned 28. "--32 . . . oh, I'm fuckin' ancient, it's a downhill slide [from 28]. I kinda dig it, as an actor I wanna look like Beckett, like some kinda old brown paper bag."
"Yeah, like that guy, Lawrence Tierney, in Reservoir Dogs?"
"Larry . . . I mean his life is all over his face . . . he's a nut, I love Larry and Eddie, Eddie Bunker, he's the real fuckin' thing . . . No Beast So Fierce . . .He came in, did one scene . . . Hoffman played him [in Straight Time, the movie made from Eddie's novel, The Beast]."
"So what's up, are you doing any more stuff with Quentin Tarantino?"
"I'm doing his next one, Pulp Fiction. I'll be working with Quentin I think all my life, unless he steals my wife off me. I think we'll be friends forever. Small parts, big parts -- it doesn't matter. I'm game for it. I love his writing."
A pudgy, sunburnt longhair sits next to us, guzzling screwdrivers. He howls as the codger next to him peels up his lips and flashes his dentures.
"And Harvey Keitel?"
"Great . . . he's part of the reason I got into being an actor. I wasn't an actor when I saw his films. The idea that it could be a great thing to be an actor. Him and a guy called Phil Daniels who did a film called Quadrophenia. It kinda looked like if these guys can do it, then anybody can do it, right? Good or bad they made it accessible 'cause they were playing real people."
"Speaking of 'real' [tired, over-used and treacherous cliche that it's become] I really like Laws of Gravity."
"Yeah, Laws of Gravity, One False Move, Man Bites Dog, sicko sicko flick. I wanna see Romper-Stomper, heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, sicko movie! El Mariachi, I like him [the director, Robert Rodriguez, who made it for $7000], knew his shit. Anyone can make a film. The real power's in the hands of distribution. You can make a film but no one will see it. Be kind of interesting to see if anyone would set up an independent distribution company . . . and could get in there . . . Cineplexes or whatever 'cause those people are fuckin' powerful!"
Roth talks and I'm drawn into what the guy's saying. I'm almost a little bit giddy. I'm excited. I'm bouncing in my seat. He's got that actor thing, makes little shit look cool. Cheeseballs in L.A. spend thousands of dollars and cry on empty stages in front of classes for years, to try and get what this guy gets when he runs his hand through his hair. Style, Tim Roth has true style.
"The corporate monster . . . " I throw in, "This town's full of people who did two cool things and then signed on as a shiny sprocket in the machine."
"I knew his [Tarantino's] first film was gonna be good but his second film is what means a lot, I think, as far as this town, 'cause the producers can always turn around and say, 'Oh, he was a flash in the pan.'"
"Quentin has a couple other scripts being made, doesn't he?"
True Romance and Natural Born Killers, and they turned around and offered them to him to direct and he said, 'Oh no no no, they were all supposed to be first films. I've made my first film. I don't wanna go back and make it again.' He's just moving on. NBK has nothing to do with him anymore, just nothing. Oliver Stone. TR he kinda digs 'cause he gets along with Tony Scott a lot. He was very respectful of Quentin . . . NBK is Stone's movie."
"So yeah, you think you'd like to keep working with Tarantino?"
"I think so, yeah. We always talked about all of us [Res Dogs], we'll be back. Quentin, if you need us, call us up and we'll be in your movies, cause we love him, everybody. I've never known a director to be so loved by the people he's working with. We'll be in and out all the way through. He can write leads for us and he can write one-liners and we'll come and do them. We don't give a fuck. You know, if you're available, come in and work for a day. Harvey's doin' two days on the next one. I'm doin' 10 days, a really small part with Amanda Plummer. We start the movie and we end the movie -- we're bookends. My kind of actress. Strange and wonderful film."
It isn't tough to get a word out of Roth. The press packet I was handed had a dozen articles written about the guy saying basically, "Oh boy . . . this guy's a human." So I didn't stay up late trying to figure out nifty little ways to get him to say things. We just listen to the bug zapper take lives, feel glad to be in the cool shade of a not-cutting-edge bar where no one gives a fuck about us, and we talk. The bar is full of regulars and it's Friday. A TV flashes, sound cut down by a jukebox. Sinatra comes on and the bar does a sway. Roth loves it, the bartender knows him.
The longhair next to me starts to tie a nice one on and moves down to sit next to another one of his cronies. The seat gets taken by an old Asian guy who seems to think it's funny that I'm taping the conversation. Roth gets up for more cigarettes. "Are you taping what you two say?" the guy asks. "Yeah." I answer and he laughs in my face. I don't bother to tell him what it's all about and he looks back down at the action at the other end of the bar. Some lady's comparing something with the longhair and the crowd's egging them on. Maybe tattoos, maybe stomachs, I'm not sure. Roth sits back down and starts talking. We talk movies, we talk actors, we talk cities. I just plant the seeds.
More on Harvey Keitel: "The Piano [directed by] Jane Campion, supposed to be his best work, fucking phenomenal movie, supposed to be, another one with Abel Ferrara, Snake Eyes with Madonna. He doesn't give a shit, he's out there. What else is he doin'? He's off doing another strange movie and then he wants to get up his own production company. New independent films. New young directors, that's what he wants to do. Fast becoming one of the most interesting actors around, always has been to me, he's got balls."
The guy with the dentures fires coin into the jukebox and Benny Goodman "Take the A Train" comes on. I'm looking over my shoulder for a Jimmy Cagney look-alike to stroll in. Roth's hustled me into a time warp.
Bad Lieutenant: "I loved it and hated it, which I think is good. You know, whatever. At least, I had a reaction to it. I think the screenplay was 23 pages long. Write the shit, put it on and shoot . . . He [Keitel] said to me, you know the Christ scene in the end. He's praying and going 'Fuck you' and the big old crucifix in the script, the foot moves and he actually comes down from the cross, so they had him coming down the aisle instead."
The bug killer cackles and the music changes, somebody walks in that all the regulars know. We stop and look up to punctuate each shift. Roth lights a cigarette, slugs on his beer, waves his hands and I listen.
Violence in Res Dogs: "I don't think it was a particularly violent movie. I really don't, if you're talking body count and shit. Compare it to Lethal Weapon, it just is nothing. What I think is when the violence happened, it was dealt with really head on. It wasn't glamorized. It was fucking painful and disturbing and that's why people look at it and go, 'Shit, it was so violent'." Like a rock video, I add. "He didn't do that. He used the music in a very strange way, had ya tapping your foot and then going, 'Oh fuck', drew you in and made you part of it, made you guilty too, like "Stuck In the Middle With You" in the middle of the ear scene. Got you goin', 'Yeah, this is cool' and then you're like 'Oh fuck,' saying this is what people do, this is what they do for a living."
Two dyed-in-the-wool 'Nam vets sandwich a bleach blonde with enough makeup on to embarrass Phyllis Diller. I tune a spare ear on the convo, something about mudflaps or maybe, muskrats. I'm not sure which 'cause the guy's talkin' like he's still carrying a mouthload of shrapnel.
Theatre: "I want another beer . . . actually it looks like it. Next year, I'll go back to it. The last thing I did was Metamorphosis by Kafka. It was really exciting and it was wonderful too and there's been nothing I've wanted to do in the theatre since then, I've been offered stuff, and also I've been too broke 'cause I've been doing low-budget movies, and you know it takes a long time to do theatre and you don't get any money for it. It sucks in L.A. but I'm gonna go out to New York and do it. It scares the shit outta me, it's fuckin' terrifying, but um, I might do some Shakespeare next. That'll be next year."
I figured that Tim wouldn't be into talking about film, but like he says later on, "I love it . . . that's what I came here to do." You hear so much crap about these actors who shroud themselves in leather, chrome, ink and holistic healing oils. I mean, come on now, what's the big deal! Roth rolls right along with me.
Eric Roberts in Pope of Greenwich Village: "He was fucking phenomenal. I was like, what's that, what's that, how do you do that, I wanna know how you did that! Wonderful. Mickey [Rourke] too."
Chris Penn: "Chris is a fucking good actor. At Close Range, oh, that's a great movie."
Crispin Glover: "I'm sorry, Crispin doesn't do it for me, but he does it for a lot of people, and I'm sure he's a sweet guy."
Nothing personal, he just isn't that crazy about the guy's work.
Christopher Walken: "I love him. Met him once in NYC. He drank I don't know how many bottles of red wine, he spilt one. Shit happens . . ."
Acting: "Never studied, never ever ever studied, just liked it and did it. I just do that same thing . . . if I'm not working I hang out with my son or have a fuckin' beer or shoot some pool but I get the people who dig it but it doesn't do anything for me and I'd rather do something else."
Bodies, Rest and Motion: ". . . was a weird movie, written by boys. I like my movie, it was a separate movie, road movie for me, I just went off and did my shit. Pissed everybody off." It was like a used car salesman role, I add. "Absolutely, that's the only thing I dug about it. Real great guys, I'll probably work with them again on something . . . a little heavier though. They were cool people, very cool people."
At this point, I decide it's time to throw in a little corn, just to keep it all fresh. I'm like, "So man, do you paint or anything in your off time?" It's the Renaissance Guy question.
"I stopped doing that. When I did Vincent and Theo I painted a lot, I got into that, just isn't what I do. I used to be a sculptor before I was an actor and I stopped doing that too. I did bronzes and plaster work and woodwork, crazy shit. Dug it. I love being an actor, I don't wanna do anything else. I take pictures, Polaroids wherever I go, keep a diary of everything. It's very hard to take pictures with Polaroids." Yeah, you know Hopper has taken some cool shots, I say. "He's a wackaday, I love him."
I tell him I think Hopper's an L.A. fixture, like Musso and Frank's or something, and we start on about L.A.
"Everyone's so down on L.A. It's like why, 'cause it's not giving you what you want. I mean L.A. gives me everything that I fuckin' need. Gives me a fuckin' job. We're working, look at this we're workin'. I mean what more do you want . . . and this is work!  It's great if you're workin' but it's a toilet if you're fuckin' not. To be poor in L.A., I mean to be poor in any city, anywhere, to be poor is a bad thing, but being poor in this fucking town in unforgiving. Nobody wants to fucking know because you remind them of what they could be and that's scary. I'm alright, I can pay my rent now. When I was living on Gardener [off Sunset] I phone up my agent and I say, I can't pay my rent. Gets me a job playing this mass murderer in Texas. I'm like, alright, I'll do it . . ."
You can't talk about the City of Angles and not talk about ink, baby.
"I love it. I keep doing it and doing it. If I weren't an actor, I'd be covered in 'em . . . really, it's just too much of a drag with the make-up. So I limit it all to one arm. But I wanna get a piece. I was with Johnny Depp and he was gonna put me together with this guy in New York and I never ended up in New York."
With the mention of New York, we head off on a tour. Roth loves New York. The bar's at full volume now and we're almost screaming at each other.
Paris: "I love it. I used to live there for a while. I had an apartment with a communal bath. It was 200 francs a month, that's how shitty it was."
I tell him I don't think I'd ever do anything, if I lived there.
"No, that's the trouble, sitting there, you look at women. The women pass, just pass. I was filming there with Ed Harris a long time ago. I love him, what a great actor . . . scary, did you see State of Grace, that's the scary shit."
"Yeah, you know, I like that movie. Gary Oldman did a better Hell's Kitchen sleazebag than any New York actor ever has . . . I think he shoulda won an Oscar!"
"The thing about Gary is that he's not worried about looking ugly, and a lot of American actors are really worried about that, it's a very serious consideration. I get that, I understand the image thing, it just isn't anything I care about. Gary doesn't give a fuck either. I played Van Gogh, right. I kept getting, in America, I was offered a lot of painters, it really pissed me off. You know, I've done that. So I did a Tales From The Crypt playing a painter who kills people and uses their blood and bits of their bodies in his paintings, and I thought, I did it. I put the nail in the coffin. I ain't gonna have to get up to play a painter again, and sure enough, I didn't. That was it. I won't do anymore painters. Spend all my life being a fuckin' painter . . . in a movie, gimme a break, so I kinda nailed it."
America: "I never wanted to come to America unless I was invited which I ended up being invited and then I wanted to play Americans and not Englishmen. It worked out that way, 'cause if I played English bad guys over here . . . those wimpy kind of romantic figures, it would just bore me. American bad guys are more interesting . . . In Quentin's next movie [Pulp Fiction], I'm playing an Englishman. I'm playing my own voice."
At this point, we cut out of the bar and head over to Hollywood Billiards. We have a couple dogs. MTV Real World crap shoots out of the wall set over the entire place. Two guys are arguing in that MTV NOW-WOW '90s confrontational style which gives us both a headache. The guy working the register is also the guy making our dogs and pouring the drinks. Most of the tables are empty and the lights are down. Roth suggests we shoot a few racks. We play eight ball, it looks like I got him at first but he's a comeback guy and all three games come down to the final shot. He's better than he claims to be but I take him on the eight in the third game.
I tell him I love the part in Res Dogs where he creates his fake drug-dealing tale, the story blooms right in front of the camera.
"It's a lie, then the lie within the lie within the lie. Such a great film, like a novel. Fuck everybody, that's his [Tarantino] thing."
With the pool game over and money running short, we decide to hit the bank machine and go back over to the Dresden Room on Vermont. It's calm in there, it's not a daytime joint at all which makes it even better, just some news on TV, no hyper-real MTV stuff, and we sit down.
"It's nice in here, man. I like a bar in the day," I say.
"Better than at night. Quiet. You put some real lights on in here and you wouldn't wanna come in here. You need a lotta warm light."
The bartender who looks like he stepped out of a Rat Pack Goes To Vegas movie, keeps my soda up tall. I have a Camel with Tim, and we stare off at the news. The waiters are getting ready for the dinner rush, checking all the bus stations but the bartender's an old pro and he doesn't neglect us at the end of the bar. It's been a long afternoon with the photo shoot and the heat and Tim's voice smooths out. We plan to finish our last drinks and see what wife, Nikki's up to back at home.
Roth looks up at the TV and his face goes sour, reaches immediately for another smoke and offers one my way.
"I'd love to play a character like that [TV anchorman] . . . Somebody must teach them that [the way they talk]. Look at this guy, gets off work and goes to leather bars. You asshole. You are not real."
"So do you do any kind of character research, when you're getting ready for a part?"
"I do that, I do that when I need to. I do it very very quietly and I have, like got a thing about not being a thief. If I'm gonna meet somebody, you gotta try and kinda be a little bit honest about what you're doing. Especially people I play are not wealthy people. You gotta go places and hang out with people who don't have a particularly good life. You gotta become fairly honest about what you're doing. Personality thieves. And then they don't. Be true to it when you go to the film. If you then turn to something totally bullshit, that's wrong. Then you're looking down at the people you've been studying. People you're being with who are trusting you . . ."
At this point, I gotta ask the guy a question: "All these articles I read about you, got all over the fact that you'd jumped on a few trains. They were all just so excited about it, some of them even listed it as 'what you do in your free time' like, 'Oh yeah, I got a couple days to kill, I think I'm gonna go jump on a few trains and just be my Kerouac self!'"
"Oh that shit, they eat that shit up, right. That's fuckin' bullshit. I went on one roadtrip with a friend of mine who does that 'cause he's low on money. You can get home that way. He gets itchy every year, he's like 'I gotta get outta town.' So we hitched and we jumped freights a couple times, took it easy, saw the country, and it was fucking amazing. It was a fucking drag, I mean we hated each other and we liked each other. Five weeks, we were on the road, six weeks, saw a lot of America. I'm really glad."
Heart of Darkness, directed by the legendary Nick Roeg with John Malkovich in Belize: "It was insane [six weeks in the jungle]. I love working with John. He's fun, he loves his basketball -- the Bulls -- started Steppenwolf [theatre group] in Chicago with Gary Sinise, yeah, that's his thing. I'd like to go and work there with him, specifically. I liked him. He's a really good man. He likes his clothes . It was a tough gig but I dug it. So fucking weird and that's what my character is, he's just walking through an asylum . . . on the boat, up the river and everybody's fucking crazy. Everybody. Then I get up there and he's kind of the guy who's running the asylum. By the time I get up there, I'm as crazy as he is."
We leave the Dresden and head over to Tim and Nikki's place. It looks like we're locked out. I love it. Half of Hollywood wants to ruin this guy's career and put him in some sequel and he's still forgetting his house key. We have to knock on the landlord's door and ask for a spare key. While we're waiting, Nikki opens the door fresh from a little siesta. We sit down on the front porch and I turn the tape on. Tim and Nikki don't mind. I look back over at them and turn the tape off. "Fuck it!"
Nikki and I chat about designing and jewelry (she's a clothes designer). I ask her if she knows my girlfriend's stuff. Nikki's totally cool. I swill back Pellegrino, try to come down from all the Soadie Pop I've had. Tim asks if there are any phone messages and if there are, "Are they work or play?" Our groovy little encounter a la Bikini is winding down, right as the sun drops below the city.
"Get yourself a pair of rollerblades!" he yells 'cause I told him I used to skate, and with a grin ducks behind Nikki. The door closes. I turn my car key and look back up at the porch. Christ, the guy told me he loves John Candy in Uncle Buck, watches it with his kid, Jack, and laughs his ass off, maybe that was the whole interview right there.