What Hath God Roth?
By Juan Morales
Tim Roth wants to make big movies so he can keep making little movies. After a dozen years as an actor, during which he has risen to the upper reaches of the American independent-film ranks, the British-born Roth, with United Artists' Rob Roy, has at last made a big-budget studio film. And he's determined to do more of them, not because of a particular lust for fame and money -- although the pragmatic south Londoner would no doubt welcome his fair share of both -- but rather because the perception of commercial viability associated with studio films will make it easier for independent producers, once Roth commits to a project, to raise money for the riskier, character-driven stories that have become his calling card.
Surveying the professional landscape before him, the 33-year-old Roth says he would like to emulate the career of the uncategorizable Harvey Keitel, who, as Mr. White to Roth's Mr. Orange in Quentin Tarantino's botched-jewel heist drama Reservoir Dogs, had a powerful influence on Roth. "I look at Harvey, and he's got exactly the right idea," says Roth. "There are two reasons to do studio films. One is that it stops you from being poor, and the other is that it helps to make money for the films you really want to do. Look at Harvey: he does Sister Act and then he does Bad Lieutenant -- what a fantastic career to have."
Tim Roth is a sucker for dimly lit bars redolent with the perfume of stale beer and cigarette smoke, and virtually every interview published about the man unfolds in one bluesy tavern or another. On a rain-threatened Thursday afternoon, he holds court at Hollywood's venerated Dresden Room, where he reflects on a year of cinematic milestones. In addition to his first studio film, audiences will also witness his first sex scene -- with Moira Kelly in Fine Line's Little Odessa -- and his first crack at physical comedy -- in Miramax's quadripartite Four Rooms.
Rest assured, this is not the first time Roth has been to the Dresden; it may not even be the first time he's been here today. The preserved-in-formaldehyde cocktail lounge is well known to be the actor's locale of choice for journalist confabs when he's at home in L.A., and the place suits him. Retro and modern at the same time, the Dresden, like Roth, will never be a slave to fashion. Wearing ornately wrinkled khakis and a once-white T-shirt that sags in the many hollows of his lean upper body, Roth, his face sandpapery with stubble, removes the cap from his head and rakes a hand through his lank hair, tufting it outward at spiky angles. The thick-hooded eyes blink slowly. He is a composed man whose infrequent movements are languid and limited to the essential: hand to Camel; Camel to mouth; inhale; exhale. Hand to Amstel; Amstel to mouth; drink; swallow. But his is the deceptive stillness of a lizard sunning on a rock; you think you've caught him off guard, only to discover, the moment you lunge forward, he's been poised to dart away all along. Far from cold, the blood running through those veins is warm, and on occasion -- as anyone familiar with his work knows -- decidedly hot.
The son of a journalist father -- who changed his name to Roth from Smith after World War II to ease travel in areas where Brits were still less than popular -- and an artist mother, Roth and his sister grew up in the left-leaning environment in which sympathy for the underdog was encouraged. Not surprisingly, he developed an enduring cynicism about the British royal ramily. "They all seem like chinless wonders to me," he says. "What was it, Prince Charles brought out a book, and in it said, 'I never really loved her?' Well, fuck you, mister, because we paid for that big fucking wedding you had. You could have said something, you could have saved us some cash. They're incredibly wealthy people -- the Queen is one of the biggest landowners in the world, and they get an incredible tax break. I think they just recently started paying taxes -- I think they should be backdated."
He began acting in the pub-theater circuit after a stint at Camberwell Art College, where he studied sculpture, and eventually found stage and television work. There were many lean periods during which he considered going on the dole, but never did so because he wanted to force himself to look for acting work. "I always felt that if I went on the dole -- and this is not saying that people shouldn't go on the dole, because they fucking deserve it, 'cause it's their money anyway -- but I always had the feeling that if I did, I'd get trapped," he says. "If I did that, or if I took a job working in a bar or whatever, I would get into that, and not carry on acting. I always thought that the challenge of not working would make me work."
After grabbing national attention in the early 1980s with roles in films by three of England's most vital directors -- as a belligerant skinhead in the late Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, a slow-witted East End teen in Mike Leigh's Meantime, and a dangerous rookie gunman in Stephen Frears's The Hit -- Roth, except for the occasional distinguished appearance in such films as A World Apart and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, found himself by decade's end something of a journeyman. Paying the rent by following jobs to France, Czechoslovakia, and Australia when the depressed British film industry offered few prospects. Finally, after appearing as Guildenstern to Gary Oldman's Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and as a magnificent Vincent van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, he made the seemingly inevitable move to Los Angeles, where, following the lead of his countryman and occasional co-star Oldman, he vowed to play Americans.
"God, he really helped me out by coming here and playing Americans," says Roth of Oldman, with whom he first worked in Meantime. "British actors have always come over and played Americans, but it was a new generation, and he did it -- and he did it so well that directors said, 'That went nicely,' and that's why I got to plays Americans in films."
Playing Americans has liberated Roth from the restrictions Hollywood often places on British actors. "When I first came to America, I was very insistent that I would play Americans," he says, "[because] if I went into films being English, that's the only thing I would be cast as. In the independent films, I could play American characters, and it's worked for me. I can go back and forth -- they don't worry about casting me as an American, and they don't worry about casting me as English.
"Americans are quite thrilled with English accents, on the whole," he says with amusement. "You'll say something, and they'll repeat it, and have a great time doing it. So I sometimes, just to avoid all that, will do American vowel sounds." In between takes on the set of Jumpin' at the Boneyard, in which he played a Bronx roughneck grappling with a crackhead brother, locals were surprised to hear Britspeak from the guy who moments before had been barking like a native New Yorker. In Reservoir Dogs, he was a pitch-perfect, trash-talking undercover L.A. cop. He was a bored, flat-toned Arizona TV salesman in Bodies, Rest & Motion. As thrill killer Charles Starkweather in the disturbing ABC miniseries Murder in the Heartland, he was a drawling Midwesterner. And this spring, he is again a New Yorker -- this time a Russian-American hit man -- in Little Odessa.
"It's a fucking nightmare," he says of the process he goes through to nail an accent. "But I have a brilliant dialect coach, Suzanne Celeste, and she's amazing." To prepare Roth for a film in which he must master a dialect, Celeste (who has a seconds-long cameo in Reservoir Dogs as the motorist who plugs Mr. Orange with a bullet in the belly) works with him for several weeks before shooting starts. She generates lengthy word lists, and they review vowel sounds over and over, for hours every day. During production, she's the first person he sees in the morning, and on the set she listens with headphones to ensure the accuracy of his pronunciation. Then, during post-production, she's present during dialogue looping to help polish any rough edges.
Roth was able to give Celeste a breather while he made Pulp Fiction, in which he adopted the brisk tones of a working-class Englishman. As the diner hold-up team Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, Roth and Amanda Plummer bookend Quentin Tarantino's cinematic Mobius strip. After Reservoir Dogs, Roth was eager to work with the filmmaker again, and also with Plummer, with whom he had done a short film. "I introduced them," Roth recalls, "and I said, 'I want to work with her -- but she has to have a big gun.' And he said, 'OK. Cool.'"
Roth has shot -- and been shot by -- his share of big guns on screen, and during most of Reservoir Dogs he is sprawled on the ground, writhing in an expanding pool of blood. The film is one of several that have been banned from video in Britain, where rigid anti-violence restrictions have been imposed. Of the "violence on screen leads to violence in society" arugment, he says, "I understand why films have violence -- they always have. So has theater. Going back as long as there's been theater, I suppose. Look at Greek tragedies, look at what Marlowe was writing or Shakespeare was writing -- it's incredibly violent. Artists tend to pick up on those extraordinary events in life and put them on the canvas. I think the issue is not about violence, I think it's about censorship."
Flashes of violence again surround Roth as a taciturn hit man in Little Odessa, an emotionally wrenching drama about the death and decay in the Russian-Jewish Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn. Filmed in 1994 during the worst New York winter in 150 years, Odessa, the debut of writer-director James Gray, an unusually articulate 25-year-old, is an elegaic, unsentimental work at a time when American films seem hopelessly addicted to optimism.
During production, Gray intentionally worked to thwart audience expectations. "Tim and I talked about making this guy the least cliched movie hit man ever," Gray says. "We didn't want to do some hipster shooting everybody with nine-millimeter silver guns and being really cool. We wanted a guy who drove a shit car, who was completely emotionally repressed and sociopathic." Gray's unconventional take on the material also influenced the film's lovemaking scene. "It's a very bizarre sex scene," says Roth. "It's got a very strange quality to it. It's quite disturbing."
The challenge facing distributor Fine Line will be how to market a somber, somewhat ambiguous film to an audience accustomed to action, laughs, or, at very least, a neatly resolved narrative. Most likely, the company will emphasize the actors -- Roth, Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, Moira Kelly, and Edward Furlong. "You cast your crumbs on the water, and back come beautiful lilies with a cast like that," says Gray, who is especially effusive in his praise of Roth, whose involvement was instrumental to launching the film.
Gray wrote the film with a young Al Pacino in mind -- someone with both a menacing and a soft quality -- but could not think of anyone suitable. Depressed and discouraged, he went to a movie at an L.A. revival house. "I saw Vincent and Theo," he says, "and I thought, Who's that guy? He's amazing. I was apparently the only person on the planet who hadn't seen Reservoir Dogs at the time, so I went to see that, and he was great." Through his agent, Gray sent the script to Roth, who read it and, after meeting with Gray at a Hollywood bar, agreed to do the film.
"The amazing thing is that incredible leap of faith," Gray says. "I owe him so much in a certain respect, because he just got this script -- it wasn't set up, I was 23 at the time, I had made one short film in college. I had never written a feature before -- and he said, 'I'll do this.' He attached himself even though it had no cachet whatsoever, which was a very gutsy thing to do."
Roth says he had no resistance to working with a first-time director. After all, he'd done it before, once with a then-unknown guy named Quentin Tarantino. "I don't think it's any different from working with a director who's done a lot of films, because they can be shit, too," he says. "Generally, with the first-time directors I've worked with, they've written the script themselves, and the first thing I come across is the script. If that's good, it makes me want to meet them. Then you get an idea of whether they know what they're doing. Everyone -- Scorsese, Kubrick -- all of those guys -- did their first film at some point. If the script is really good, you have to just go for it. You want to be a part of it."
Roth was already angling to make his first studio film when his friend Michael Caton-Jones, the Scottish-born director of Memphis Belle and This Boy's Life, sent him Rob Roy. While the script was not without its formula elements -- a love story -- good guys pitted against bad guys -- Roth says the quality of the writing elevated it above the majority of mainstream material. And at a time when he was looking for a studio film, he was grateful to make the transition with Caton-Jones and Liam Neeson, both of whom he has known for years.
Roth fist met Caton-Jones at the George, a pub on London's Wardour Street. It was the late '80s, and the two had already admired one another's work. "We had a lot in common," says Caton-Jones, "a pair of working-class lads, good at our jobs, ambitious, with a healthy disrespect for authority. Also, we were unacceptable to the media establishment, and were the antithesis of the Merchant Ivory-Branagh-Oxbridge thespian nomenklatura that stood for the acceptable face of British film. That's probably why we both ended up in Hollywood, along with others of a similar bent, like Liam Neeson and Gary Oldman."
A grand, tartan-splashed saga of honor and treachery in 18th-century Scotland, the film stars Neeson as the morally upright Highlander Robert Roy MacGregor, Jessica Lange as his wife, Mary, and Eric Stoltz as MacGregor's kinsman Alan McDonald. Roth is Archibald Cunningham, a foppish, powdered-wig-wearing Englishman who, as a thief, rapist, and murderer, more than lives up to the first two syllables of his last name.
Although Roth says he was not sure Caton-Jones would be able to cast him because he has no track record in the studio system, Caton-Jones says, "The studio was very receptive to the idea of Tim. In fact, because of the incredible hands-off attitude of United Artists, this film was made in the spirit of an independent picture, and is probably as un-studio a project as he'll come across."
The day after he returned from Scotland, Roth started work on the ultra-independent Four Rooms, a feature constructed from four segments, written and directed by four different indie filmmakers -- Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging, Mi Vida Loca), Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and, once again, Quentin Tarantino -- and with an ensemble cast including Bruce Willis, Antonio Banderas, Madonna, Marisa Tomei, Lili Taylor, Valeria Golino, Jenifer Beals, Ione Skye, and Seymour Cassel. Unlike New York Stories, which featured three stand-alone short films, Four Rooms, set on New Year's Eve at an L.A. hotel, is a single cohesive piece that happens to have been assembled by a quartet of filmmakers. The link between the stories is an English bellboy, played by Roth.
"I'm in all of the rooms, and the inbetween bits," he says. "I did it because Steve Buscemi turned it down. I think he was doing something else and couldn't do it -- thank you, Steve. It was very strange, because I had to keep the character and his responses correct under all these different situations -- with four different directors and four different cinematographers. The directors each wrote their own stories, and they have their own ideas of what comedy is...the stuff I was doing was very physical, not at all subtle. So we'll see. It makes me sweat thinking about it, because I've never done anything like that before, ever."
Now that Four Rooms has wrapped, Roth is occupying his time doing publicity before beginning his next film. "I used to be kind of reticent about doing press," he admits, "and I figured out the reason -- I knew that that was kind of a cool thing to do, to say, 'Oh, I don't talk to the press.' But then you go, 'Why? It's part of the whole film.' So I got myself a publicist now and said, 'Fucking do it.' You've got to do this, you've got to sell it, create some interest. It's important to sell a film, especially the independents, because they don't get the theaters and you've really got to push them."
Such common sense remarks are consistent with what might be called the Keitel Plan -- using studio-film notoriety to launch independent ventures -- a strategy which has already started working, thanks to Rob Roy. "Christ, it helps," says Roth. "We've got the money for these two independent films I want to do. It becomes so easy with just one film, and it's not even out yet. They don't care. As long as you've done one, the financiers go, 'Oh, that's OK, then.' It makes it easier for them to part with their cash."
Recent changes in Roth's personal life, like those in his professional life, suggest a desire to plan for the future. He and his wife, fashion designer Nikki Butler-Roth, whom he married two years ago in Central America while filming Nicolas Roeg's Heart of Darkness with John Malkovich, are expecting their first child in May. This will make Roth a father for the second time; his ten-year-old son Jack lives in England with his mother, but visits regularly during school breaks.
Although he appears to have forsaken Britain for a home in the United States, Roth will always be an Englishman at heart. "It's very interesting to me when you come to L.A., that there are people who get into acting specifically for the reason that they want to be famous and want to be very, very rich. In Britain, and the kind of acting I came from, that was never the idea. The idea was to act. And if you go back, there are people who have been acting all their lives, and as long as they're acting, they're happy. But here, that is kind of evidence of failure. What is evidence of success, unfortunately, is being on the cover of magazines, being wealthy."
Roth is already an artistic success -- people have been praising his work for years -- and now he has also reached a point where he is on the covers of magazines, and is making very good money. But even as he dips into the mainstream, he leads with his conscience. "Unfortunately," he sighs, "the truth is that the [studio films] that are good, the ones that are well-written and interesting, every actor on the A-list is after them. And I'm somewhere on the Z-list, down at the bottom. But I'm trying to find something that reflects at least a modicum of the ideas that I find appealing about independent films. I really, really love the independent film world, and I cannot believe my luck in being accepted in it, because they're the sort of films I've always wanted to make. I'm trying to find the studio films like that."
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of enticing smaller projects. "I just got back from Sundance," he ways, "and I saw films made for tuppence -- nothing -- that showed absolute talent. They may have been crappy, but then there was the one scene where you go, 'That's somebody who's going to go places.'"
If he has his way, Roth is going to help them go places together.