Shock the Monkey
Who was that masked man? Tim Roth trades his dramatic props for a gorilla suit in Tim Burton's new big-budget petting zoo.
By Steve Garbarino
Tim Roth has spent a lot of time in bed with Bonzo lately.
Portraying the evil General Thade in Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton's mutant update of the 1968 camp apocalytic classic that turned Darwinism on its head, Roth -- known for his hairy work in Vincent & Theo and Pulp Fiction -- has just wrapped five months playing second banana to Mark Wahlberg (in the Hestonesque Homo sapiens role) and Helena Bonham Carter (the chimp fatale who loves him).
It takes a real man to play a monkey. According to Roth, 40, most of today's young actors are just pretty boys. "They looked as if they stepped out of a magazine," he says with a snort. Only a true thespian, Roth asserts, can plumb simian emotions -- and not just that standard Curioud George knuckle-drag, either -- after three hours of having one's face lacquered with latex.
"It was like going back to silent-movie acting -- you have to exaggerate all your expressions," Roth explains. Today, he's on his fourth Corona and a fresh pack of Winston Lights at his favorite Irish pub, a fish-and-chips joint just a few blocks from his Pasadena home. If it weren't for the tan he could pass for a New York narc undercovering as a Venice-boardwalk beach bum. "It's a very old-fashioned form," Roth continues, "because the mask is completely sealed to your face. You have to create a new kind of behavior. You have to think like an animal."
If only it were that easy. Apes' Academy Award-winning makeup guru, Rick Baker, says a pretty boy would actually have served the part better. "Tim's was the worst face you could get to turn into a chimpanzee," Baker reports. "To make it work, you look for actors with the right physiognomy: small noses and long upper lips. I begged Burton not to cast anyone with a big nose." In the end, talent trumped anatomy, and Baker showed true primate colors. "It proved to be an asset," he says," because it made Tim look different from the others." For the new Apes, shot in Hawaii and the Mojave Desert, Baker birthed more than 100 primates. Think of Roth as the proboscis monkey.
Before Roth could hang with the likes of Dr. Zira and Dr. Zaius, he studied ape choreography with a Cirque de Soleil performer; he learned tics of the trade from an animal behaviorist. Roth's face and body were covered with a downy coat of yak fur. He was, says hair supervisor Sylvia Nava, spared large swaths of the "more feminine" rabbit angora enjoyed by chimps of the kinder sex. According to Apes' movement consultant, John Alexander, "Tim was very convincing in the battle scenes. He looked fierce. Nose notwithstanding, he was an ideal chimpanzee." Even though Roth's virtually unrecognizable, this well-compensated monkeying-around (he earned a reported $1.5 million for the part) was a dream for the actor, who considers himself a throwback to the acrobatic tradition of such alpha-men as Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, James Cagney, and more recently, Christopher Walken. Which reminds him of another thing he dislikes about young actors. "A lot of them kind of whisper their way through films because they think it's cool," Roth says. "Basically, they take very little risk." Or, as the gorilla guard in the original Apes scoffs: "You know what they say -- human see, human do."
Risk is part of Roth's résumé. The actor, who says his real surname is Smith (his journalist father changed the family shingle out of solidarity for World War II Jews), has made a career out of the leather-sports-coat parts Pacino owned in the Serpico seventies, heavies on both sides of the law. His back-to-back work with Quentin Tarantino, as the gut-shot undercover cop Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs and the rabbity robber Pumpkin in Pulp Fiction, added a little silver to his back.
Oddly, Roth has complained in the past that interviews make him feel like a "performing monkey." But he comes across like one of those Heston-era humans who have lost their ability to speak. Did anything bizarre happen on the Apes set? "Not really. It's a job." Did he have to swing from vines? "Not really, no." Does his character bite? "Uh, yeah, he does. He's the evil monster from hell. I told Tim [Burton], you've got to make him a juicy baddie." Would he like another beer? "Yeah, sure, I've got time for one more."
Roth, who wanted to be a painter as a kid and got into acting on a high-school dare, looks as if he's about to bare his teeth when anything even remotely personal comes up. "I like being away from Hollywood and all that shit," he says, his eyes shooting back and forth anxiously. He prefers to talk about a gig he's scored behind the camera: directing a film version of King Lear (tersely) adapted by Harold Pinter. And Roth wasn't about to give up the particulars of the Apes plot, which is more carefully guarded than a simian research lab.
No party animal, Roth insists that "living in Pasadena is the safest way of having a life. It's not like I want to come home and immediately head to a club." The names of his three children are tattooed on his right arm; he doesn't read reviews or magazines. Quaintly enough, he has no knowledge that Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan are no longer an item. "Is that so?" he says indifferently. "That was fast." Roth makes a habit of blowing off awards ceremonies.
"You get to those things," he concedes, "and just hit the bar."
The cocktail bar, not the monkey ones.