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Roth & Roles

By Kathryn Harris

"I like small dark places," he says, with a glint in his eye. Clad in black Levis and t-shirt, and rather intimidating-looking never-seen-the-like-before black clogs, he steps forth from his black convertible and into the parking lot of the Dresden Room. Does the guy have shares in the joint, I wonder, for he has conducted a number of interviews in this particular small, dark spot.

We settle into a distant, maroon-colored booth -- leather, I presume, although you can never be certain of surface appearance these days -- with a couple of Coronas, a pack of Camel Lights, and a Zippo.

"Do you hate these things?" I ask.

"No, I don't care."

Say good afternoon nicely to Tim Roth, British bad-boy, who has made a career of playing aggressive, often gun-slinging, American anti-heroes. "Well, you can say whatever you like here," I announce bravely.

He smiles broadly, but seems otherwise markedly unimpressed with this license. He has lied to the press before, you see. Well, it was Robert Altman's idea, he justifies. Is it just their way of manipulating the truth, a phenomenon which is seemingly endemic to journalism? I ponder. Is this one going to be as slippery as the characters he plays?

We discuss just how influential media coverage of an actor can be. Siding with the views upheld by his compatriot in arms, writer-director Quentin Tarantino, for whom he has just completetd 10-days' worth of shooting on the latest installment in his sanguinary oeuvre, Pulp Fiction, Tim agrees that criticism is fine, and even encouraged -- as long as it has some basis in reality and is informed, rather than personal or prejudiced. We conclude that the stuff of celebrity interviews is a response to a strange preoccupation by people who want to know what an actor does in his spare time. "It's not a side of journalism I would choose," he says. His father used to be a journalist, and his sister is now doing the same.

Tim says: "I don't do anything in between jobs other than smoke, drink, hang out with my buddies in bars, play pool. Read a lot. Presently I am reading the Marquis de Sade's 20 Days of Sodom." He smiles across at me, maybe wondering what work you (the reader) will make of that. He says that he disapproves of the kind of lazy journalism where writers resort to comparing him to other actors. He hopes that he is not going to be like anybody other than himself.

"And who is that?" I ask. "How do you want to be portrayed?"

"That's up to you."

"A sex symbol? Somehow I don't see you perspiring daily with the other rippling chests down at Gold's Gym," I offer.

"That's right," he confirms. He is amused by the number of actors who devote hours to buffing up their bodies when there is no real need for this evidenced in their movies.

"It's interesting how everyone has to look the same," he says. "I would lose or gain weight, or even have reconstructive surgery if a role required it."

"What kind of reconstructive surgery do you think you might possibly need? You have been rubbing your nose a lot."

He reaches for his nose protectively. "No, no. This is the family nose."

"Who do you regard as sexy?"

"Orson Welles, Christopher Isherwood, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anjelica Huston, Miranda Richardson, Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Amanda Plummer. But it's not what they look like, but what they do, which makes them sexy. I've always wanted to look like Samuel Beckett. I like Harry Dean Stanton's face, his life is stamped on it. That's great as an actor. But here, they are very image-conscious. So many actors come from modeling and TV soaps, so it is just perpetuated. They want to be sex symbols. For me it is about being an actor first, and being sexy is a derivative of that. It's about making the job come first and the rest of it will take care of itself. You look at the beginning of Rear Window, where there's a lot of nakedness, and you actually see James Stewart, an actor with a real person's body."

While we are on the subject of body matters, I ask him about his own penchant for piercing and tattoos. "For me, it's about being in charge of your own physical being. I love it, and many tribalistic art forms. If I wasn't an actor, I'd be covered in rings and tattoos, they are a lot of fun. The tattoos are like a diary for me -- see, I've limited it to just this one arm," he says rolling up a sleeve, but not bringing the body part close enough for my inspection.

He says that he is very interested in Scientology right now. Not the belief system, but the people involved in it. "There are loads of them in the film industry. Actually there are probably more AA people. I find them disturbing. The David Koresh thing was fascinating to me. Religion. What the fuck is that about? How many murders have been committed in the name of different gods?"

He guesses that people are on the lookout for spirituality when they become aware of their own mortality. "as yet, I don't have [a religion]. Maybe I'll become a Catholic next week. But somehow I doubt it, with the amount of child abuse cases that are coming up in the clergy. The most interesting people that I have met are Native Americans whose spirituality is earthbound. That makes more sense to me than anything else. Of course, we slaughtered the fuck out of them," he sighs.

"What about Karma?" I ask.

"I used to give out so much bad shit in the past," he admits. "Yeah, I was a terrible human being, abominable. Now I'm trying not to be like that. That's what I'm working at."

"How were you a bad person?"

"I used to lie and cheat. I would cheat on women. I didn't give a fuck about anybody. I was consumed with guilt, but I just couldn't stop. I was very selfish. I think that I am being quite successful in making a change. I've grown up a bit."

Aspirations? At age 32, Tim Roth has worked with a good number of prestigious movie directors, as well as alongside an awesome list of actors. So I ask him who's left. "Oh there are a lot of brilliant people out there to work with, and there are new ones coming up all the time. It's just that their films tend not to be made. That's the tricky bit," he adds wryly.

Tim Roth favors a good story, and has leaned mainly toward art house moviemaking with his role as Mr. Pink along with Harvey Keitel in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, arguably one of the most original films of last year, and so controversial it has been banned in Tim's native England. He was also in one of Stephen Frears's early films, The Hit, Mike Leigh's Meantime, Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Nicolas Roeg's as-yet-unreleased Heart of Darkness. So who else would he like to work with?

"I'd like to work with David Mamet. You'd have to be asylum-bound if you didn't want to work with Martin Scorsese. I really like Jennifer Jason Leigh's work. She has such incredible presence."

Clearly, his committment to good material must inevitably make his path thornier than some, working as he does for scale because so much of the good material is low-budget and independent -- and there really isn't an abundance of great material out there. "But hell," he says, "I am making more money than my mother or father ever did. And I can't do films that I am uncomfortable with at the time, and going to be embarrassed about afterwards. My father would have turned in his grave at some of the things I could have done."

"What about studio pictures?" I ask.

"I'd love to do one," he say miscieviously. "Because I'd get paid a lot of money. It'd be great." More seriously, "It just hasn't happened yet. I'm just waiting to find one that's a good story. Actually, I am doing a studio picture. Pulp Fiction is being made by Miramax, which is now part of Disney. That's interesting. I'm doing a Disney movie," he announces proudly, but with a dash of incredulity in his tone. He tells me that walking onto the set of Pulp Ficiton was like walking back in time, because Tarantino has tried to use the same crew and has returned to employ some of the same actors.

"What's it about?"

Tim shrugs as if in disbelief at the question. How could he explain what a Tarantino movie is about? Or if he could, he isn't up for it. So what I get is, "It's three interwoven stories. 36 different characters. It's so funny and so sick and twisted. He's a great story teller."

"Reservoir Dogs looks like you guys probably had a lot of fun making it."

"It had its rough moments, but working with Quentin, he's fun, he's infectious and the way he writes his stories . . . you can't have egos on the set, there's not enough time or money, so it's really about acting -- like being in a fringe theater group in London. In Pulp Fiction, I'm playing an English robber," Tim says, affecting a strong cockney accent. "It's funny, scary, and sad, and there is a good mix of people in it."

To be specific, he duplicates a strong cockney South London accent, for that is where he originally hails from -- an elysian pocket of tranquility, a stone's throw from the bustle of Central London -- but with enough street credibility because of its proximity to Brixton -- called Dulwich Village, most famous for its prestigious boys' school, Dulwich College (P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler attended there). But like so many contemporary heroes, Tim was a talent and persona unrecognized early on in life, and attended the far less glamorous Dick Shepherd school, where he spent the best part of five years hiding.

"What from?"

"The school bully, of course. But the last two years of school were great, because most of the bullies split and ended up either in jail or dead. Not that I care that much. It just meant that we got to have conversations about things other than football." He pauses, lost in reverie -- or is it his beer? -- for a breath. "Yeah, I hope my son doesn't have to go through that. Bullying. He's nine years old. He looks a lot like me. He used to want to be an actor, but now he wants to be an ice hockey player. He has appeared in several of my films. His favorite film is Reservoir Dogs, and he does fabulous impersonations of the whole cast. He comes out to visit me at the end of every school term. He's a little moster. He's very independent. He's learning how to play the trumpet, takes ballet classes and martial arts lessons, and recently I taught him how to burp. See, I'm equipping him with all the necessaries." Necessaries of life or acting? I wonder.

Tim went on to study art at the once highly reputable Camberwell Art School, doing figurative sculpture in bronze and clay, but soon realized that if, as he suspected, he really wanted to be an actor, he'd better commit to that at the expense of his sculpting. "I did a lot of auditions, tried selling advertising space, signed on, and eventually got some decent reviews for Give Me Shelter, a Barry Keith trilogy I was in at Ealing. I got a part in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, and went on from there."

"What makes you so good at what you do?"

He looks neither embarrassed nor flattered. "Only in the eyes of other people. I think I'm good, too, at acting. I don't know. Becoming the character. I have such fun doing it. I get really excited. It's such a fun way to make a living. It's also addictive."

"Do you come down when you finish a job?"

"Generally, I'm really exhausted, and I need to take a break. But then after a week, I'm itchy again, and want to go back to work."

"Do you have self-doubts at those times?"

"Oh, yes. I think nobody wants me, I'm useless -- and then you get another job, and you forget about the doubt immediately. It's miserable and horrible and then it's over. The same cycle, and you know, it's such fun. There was one period in Paris, after I shot a movie, I stayed on there and I was broke, ran up a lot of debts, and didn't work for about two years. I was very unhappy."

Times couldn't be more different for Tim Roth right now. He has four films lined up back to back. He has just finished Roeg's film for TNT of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with John Malkovich, which will be released theatrically throughout the rest of the world (and may possibly get a theatrical release in the U.S.) and will go to the Milan film festival. "It was very stressful. It was shot on the river in Belize, in the rain forest, and we were all worried that a big American ego was about to arrive in the form of Malkovich. But he couldn't have been nicer. He likes nothing better than to talk about basketball and Chicago and theater. Those are his obsessions. I want to do theater with him. I very much want to work with the Wooster group. In fact, I'm thinking very seriously of moving to New York, so that I can do that. Kevin Kline has been talking to me about doing some Shakespeare -- the Richard plays."

"What other roles do you have your eye on?"

"I'd like to play Iago in Othello, Macbeth, I would have loved to have played some of the roles Pacino, DeNiro, and Harvey Keitel have done."

"You got married while you were shooting Heart of Darkness?"

"Yes, I got married close to the Guatemalan border to Nikki."

Nikki, a fashion designer Tim met while at the last Sundance film festival, is currently at home in bed with the flu -- and their cat, whom Tim adores because he reminds him of Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch, who lives in a dustbin (he means trash can, but having been in the country longer than his three years, I will translate), and hates everybody.

"He is so annoying and cantankerous." He does a fabulous impression of his Oscar facsimile before returning the matter of Heart of Darkness.

"Nic Roeg is cutting it now, so I don't know how it will turn out," he says. "But it was a lovely experience, you're never sure where he's going. I love his work. I was brought up on his films, really. He takes a step forward, and then one to the right, and you're not sure where it is. But the little I saw during looping looked good."

Tim is excited because he is about to return to London for the first time in a long spell to do a BBC film called The Prisoner, a very dark love story between a man in jail and a female dentist who works in the prison. It will be shot at Wormwood Scrubs prison with director Angela Pope. He will follow up The Prisoner with the role of a learning disabled person opposite Sissy Spacek in I Run in a Field of Rain, which he says is like the title promises -- a very beautiful story. How do you think you would like to be portrayed in the photographs which will go with this interview? "Oh, I don't know. It's up to the photographer. I think they have several ideas. One was to shoot me in a strip joint. Another was to use the race track as a location."

"I see, all the seamier sides of life, huh?"

"I s'pose. I wouldn't mind if they sent me to Hawaii for a week and watched me drink rum punch on the beach."

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