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Handle With Care

Derek O'Connor meets the Cool Brit whose directorial debut is cool grit and finds the man himself is equally complex.

Let's get this straight from the beginning, okay? Tim does it his way. Want a photo? Releases had to be signed and sent to his people ina LA a fortnight ago. Want to shoot a TV interview across the street from the Back Bar of The Clarence Hotel -- where he's holding court to assorted Irish hackdom? Not a chance. Tim's staying put. Want to arrange a chat between him and an up-'n-coming Irish actor-turned-director (you know -- quirk up the item a tad)? Don't think so. Tim's just talking to journalists. Want Tim to play word association with items plucked from a box (you know, hand him an orange, say -- 'Hey! Reservoir Dogs! Mr. Orange . . . yadda yadda yadda' -- quirk up the item a tad Plan B)? Two chances. Want Tim to look to camera and say 'This is bleh bleh bleh and I'm . . . ' Sorry. It's not you, Tim just don't do that sort of thing. Tim's got a cold. And a headache. Ask him a relatively innocuous question about his sons being named after his favorite authors (Timothy Hunter after Hunter S. Thompson, Cormac after Cormac McCarthy), and you'll be told without hesitation that his family is something he's not going to discuss today. Why not? Because . . . Because he doesn't have to. He is Tim Roth, after all.

'If you're gonna deal with this, if you're gonna take on a subject like incest, then you'd better get it right. Otherwise you're just . . . you're an abuser.' So says Tim Roth, director of The War Zone.

The War Zone is Roth's directorial debut, and like the man's onscreen work, it doesn't pull any punches. A harrowing, unflinching picture of incest in the family home, it's a willfully stylized work; aloof, enigmatic, disturbing and ultimately heart-wrenching. The imagry -- contrasting tiny, troubled human beings against the harsh, massive beauty of the desolate British coast -- is striking. Unforgettable, even. What you'll remember more than anything, though, is the performances the tyro film-maker gets from his cast; Ray Winstone (in a turn absolutely different to -- but equally as memorable as -- his work in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth) as Dad, Tilda Swinton as Mum, and two first-time teenage actors, Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe, both astonishing as the daughter and son. Roth's camera pulls no punches while remaining completely objective, at times excrutiatingly so. He doesn't cut away when you'd like him to. It's unlike anything else you'll see anytime soon. It's also a tough sell. That's why he's here today.

'It's me -- it's all for me,' he says. 'This entire film is for me. Now if I get it right, then it's for (points) that person over there, that person there, absolutely -- and then what happens? Is it just for people who've been abused? Is it just for abusers, is it just for the curious . . . I mean all of that stuff I have nothing to do with. Every actor says it in the same old interviews again and again -- "it's not my job . . ." My job is to do the work and hopefully be proud -- which actually helps to deal with critics -- but I don't know how to get an audience, I really don't know . . ."

The War Zone represents two years of Roth's life. Two years' break from acting to doggedly pursue this adaptation of Alexander Stuart's acclaimed, controversial novel, itself the cause of a minor storm when it was awarded -- then promptly stripped of -- the prestigious Whitbread prize when some of the judges violently objected. And unsurprisingly, he's passionate about it. 'It entertains the hell out of me,' he counters when I question his intentions (suggesting that 'entertaining' wouldn't be the first objective that comes to mind when describing the movie), 'It entertained the hell out of me in the same way that Krzysztof (the Three Colors trilogy) Kieslowshi would or movies like My Life As a Dog or Breaking the Waves, brilliant entertainment . . .'

Is that what you were aiming for?

'I didn't get asked to any of those events. I read this book and it changed my life. I said I was looking for something to direct and they gave me this book and I read it and it blew my head off. Reading the book changed my life and now I have to live up to that event . . .'

Living with such intense material day-in, day-out for so long naturally took its toll; 'It's like 'this is in my house, this is in the atmosphere, I've got kids running around, my wife is having to deal with this now, my friends are having to deal with this -- some of them already have -- but now I'm taking this on. Not for the six weeks that a low-budget film takes for me as an actor to make, I'm taking this on hugely. This is all of my life, now. Like I said -- this film is me'. Not that the actual shoot proved problematic -- 'It was bloody hard, but absolutely wonderful,' he remembers, 'I have never experienced anything like the making of this film. We had people who were huggers, who were gentle, who were heart-broken, who swept me through this, who gave me the absolute ability to sit down quietly at a time when they were going 'shit, he's not going to make it through the day . . .' It was film-makers, not just a film-maker. Egos were left.'

Basic biography bit. Born in London, 1961. Family's original name Smith, changed to Roth after WWII. Dropped out of art college after 18 months, drawn to acting (no conventional training). Got big break in legendary director Alan Clarke's incendary TV film Made In Britain after dropping in on audition by mistake to borrow a bicycle pump. True story. Initial early acclaim (in the likes of Mike Leigh's Meantime and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover) somewhat scuppered by lack of decent acting work in Thatcher's Britain. Pissed off, jumped ship to the US to do little-seen indie flick (Jumpin' At The Boneyard), perfected an American accent, hooked up with a geek named Quentin, resulting to date in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and (hey, I like it, okay?) Four Rooms. Remains resolutely loyal to independent cinema (Little Odessa, Gridlock'd, Liar), does his first major studio gig -- his scene-chewing turn in Rob Roy -- and lands a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Does a musical (the lovely Everyone Says I Love You) with Woody Allen. Just did a day on Wim Wenders' Billion Dollar Hotel (sic) -- co-written by Bono, kids. Plays pool. Three kids. Pound for pound the most consistant, prolific and interesting actor of his generation. Vincent Gallo despises him. But that's Vince for you.

Do you still get people who think you're American?

'Yeah. They're usually people who can't read.'

After close on a decade in La-La Land (Los Angeles to you), he's more than ready to deal with the topic of (a) violence in movies, (b) alleged copycat violence and (c) the real bad guys; 'Let's talk about the NRA for a while,' he says. 'National Rifle Association. Who's running it? Charlton Heston. Charlton Heston is a very powerful man. The NRA is a very powerful organization that finances politicians that end up in The White House. Nobody in The White House admitted their guilt -- ever -- for any of these killings so far, and I include that arsehole who shot his children, that other Nazi fucker, I include Columbine, I include -- I dunno, next week give me another 11 dead . . . Clinton should have stepped up and said 'I killed those children. I killed them.' It (the right to bear arms) was in the Constitution because they wanted to keep the slaves down -- 'Watch out or those niggers are gonna come and get you for what you did . . .' Take it out. Get an amnesty. If you don't hand in your guns, we're gonna come in your house and we're gonna melt them down. And Charlton Heston is a bad fucking actor. That guy should be put in prison.'

Tim Roth. Talks the talk. Walks the walk. Sawggers slightly bowleggedly, actually, come to think of it. Geezer.

Would you like to do a movie you kids can see?

'I would love to do a children's story. I wanna do a Disney voice. And I want a figure made of me. With a smaller nose. Very important.'

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