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I Believe In America

By David Cavanagh

Dulwich-born Tim Roth could see his future going nowhere until he took a Jumbo to Los Angeles. Now he can champion his beloved independent movies by taking the odd hugely lucrative blockbuster role.

Tim Roth is a ponce on a horse. Tim Roth stars as a Russian assassin. Tim Roth is a long term prisoner in love with a divorcee dentist. Tim Roth is a busy, busy man. It happens to actors from time to time: three films, made over the course of a couple of years, getting their releases concurrently, raising all sorts of facetious questions (did he ever forget which movie he was in and call someone by the wrong name?) and giving a veneer of steel-eyed workaholism, of purpose and drive.

This would not be a false impression of the L.A.-based Roth, who fair bounds into the subterranean folds of Park Lane's distingué Dorchester Club -- all sofas and artwork -- and grips your hand in mately salutation. Ordering "a lager", he lights a cigarette and relaxes into a cushion or two and take three films one at a time. That's another thing: how do they remember them all so clearly?

In chronological order, he did Captives (1993) -- working title The Prisoner -- a BBC co-production set in an unnamed London jail where Philip Chaney (Roth) is serving a long sentence for a crime he very definitely did commit. Into this violent, drug-dependent milieu (tattoos: Roth's own) comes the beautiful but emotionally bruised Rachel Clifford, a dentist, and she and Roth fall in love during some tricky bridgework.

Difficulties arise when the urgent mutual need for bodily fluid transference arises -- Chaney is not due for release for another decade -- which rather puts the travails of Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in Age of Innocence into context. You start to root for this pair out of sheer pity. The fact, too, that the molar-tugging Rachel is played by the currently supernova Julia Ormond -- Legends of the Fall has made her a Hollywood star -- means that the delay in release for Captives may yet prove a lucrative twist of fate. It's worth seeing, despite its rather BBC2 Screen Two low-keyness.

As soon as he finished Captives, Roth -- who makes a point of reading all scripts sent his way by independent filmmakers -- relocated himself to Brighton Beach in New York to shoot Little Odessa, a tense and remittingly bleak movie set in the old-fashioned Russian-Jewish immigrant quarter of the metropolis. Roth plays Joshua Shapira, a 23-year-old hitman, who returns to his roots to commit an execution and -- against all the rules of his profession -- simultaneously gets caught up in a rekindled local romance and the familial trauma of the death of his moth (Vanessa Redgrave).

In public, Little Odessa is the film Roth raves about most effusively, and in particular its 24-year-old director, James Gray, whose next film the actor has already agreed to do. Like Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs, Gray had his cast for Little Odessa in mind -- Roth, Redgrave, Maximilian Schell as Joshua's father -- and he got them. Unfortunately for all three, Edward Furlong unleashes a terrific performance as Roth's kid brother and acts everyone else off screen.

The third Roth film is something else entirely. To collect the sort of sizable payday that would help him concentrate on acting in independent projects, he put on a Danny La Rue wig and engaged in some horse-riding derring-do on behalf of Michael Caton-Jones' big studio picture Rob Roy, starring that well-known "Scot" Liam Neeson. Roth claims, possibly not facetiously, that money was so tight he'd have done the next Lethal Weapon if he'd been forced to wait much longer.

"It was just as I was coming up to that decision, where you're going to do some stupid film in LA that you'll really regret," he explains. "Michael gave me a call and said, 'I'm sending you over something. Have a look, see what you think.' And it was United Artists, you know, so I though, my God, this could be the answer."

The script was so camp, and his character so devoid of moral fiber, that he accepted. The fee for Rob Roy, interestingly, was the highest Roth had ever been paid for a film. He usually settles for low rates and a percentage, but then his is chiefly script-led. His agent is under instructions not to reject any independent scripts, no matter how awful.

"It was a Godsend," he says of Rob Roy, his gratitude apparent. "And I got to do swordfighting and hang around in Scotland. And it was the lads, y'know -- Liam, Jessica Lange . . . "

In effect, Tim Roth has already answered the question that's been on many people's lips since that day in 1991 that he left Britain and went to Hollywood. Why isn't he a filly-fledged star like Gary Oldman? Because Roth -- who incidentally claims not to have seen Oldman for a while -- would rather be the Charley Varrick of mid-1990s Hollywood; the last of the independents. He's proud of his reputation for being available to any new, young director with a part tailored for the Rothian vision.

He waited for two years, he reveals, until James Gray found the money to make Little Odessa. His conversation is littered with skeptical, faintly contemptuous references to "studio films". His heart -- and he'll say it himself -- lies with excellent scripts, no matter how unknown the writer, no matter how unlikely the director's chances of getting it up on screen.

"You've got to sit and wait," he says, stoically. "Like I said, it took us two years to get the money for Little Odessa. You want to do it now but you can't. So you try to help them raise the money, you go around and talk to people, be present, put your name to it so they can try and make money off your name. You hang in there. And then, hopefully, when they do get the money, you're available to do it."

In between lighting a few more cigarettes, Roth concedes he is a very fulfilled man these days. Not only has he managed to strike a happy medium between his beloved independent films and the big, breadwinning, sell-your-creative-arse movies of which Rob Roy looks a suspiciously palpable example, but his wife Nikki is also about to give birth to a baby. It will be Roth's second. The birthdate of his first, Jack Ernest Roth, is the subject of one of Roth's deceptive ferocious-looking tattoos: JER 1.9.84. And three new releases or not, he's currently fending off work until the baby comes in June.

Full of the fatherly joys, Roth is neither belligerent nor troublesome to interview. Easy-going, quick-thinking, surprisingly well-spoken -- with the merest hint of luvviedom -- he rattles through his pet hates (Tories, censorship in films, blandness in his life) and his pet loves (his son, his understanding missus, LaserDiscs) and seems to be remarkably on top of just about every aspect of his life.

"I'm very happy," he says happily.

Though Roth made his debut as a NF thug in the TV play Made In Britain, it was Colin, the backward brother of Phil Daniels in Mike Leigh's Meantime, and as John Hurt's cohort in Stephen Frears' The Hit which got him noticed -- walking away with the Evening Standard's Best Newcomer award for the latter -- while his performance as Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo brought him to America and to the attention of one Quentin Tarantino.

The enduring legend of Reservoir Dogs -- a film you'd assume he'd be sick at the mention of now -- brings a grin to his face many times, not least when he talks of his son Jack's friendship with Michael Madsen. Roth confirms what everyone suspected, that he was creasing up in the corner while Madsen was doing his bizarre dance to "Stuck in the Middle With You" in the ear-removal scene. Blood-caked but just about visible, Roth was desperately trying not to laugh out loud. And like Tarantino, Roth has followed the Who Killed Nice Guy Eddie? controversy -- an intense debate in Empire's past -- with an insider's curiosity.

"We all know," he says coyly. "The people who made it, we all know why there's confusion. But I ain't saying, because if it's a point of discussion, then great. Normally you're leaving the cinema without even five minutes' worth of discussion. Quentin had T-shirts made of Who Shot Nice Guy Eddie? and on the back of the T-shirts there were all these different theories and one of them was the magic bullet (Taken, in fact, from page 16 of Empire April 1993)."

What about at the end? Did Orange die or could he pull through?

"I'm not saying anything."

What about his own death? Would Tim Roth go screaming, like Orange?

"Oh God, I hope not," he winces. "No, I want to go out like everybody. I want to die in my sleep."

When a film's shooting is over does Roth ever feel disappointed that the gang is splitting up, everybody dispersing?

"Used to," he admits. "Not any more. Because now I know what it is. You get thrown together really quickly, you have to build relationships, which are all based around the film, and then you meet them a year later and you haven't really got much to talk about. But occasionally when you do a film, you meet people and they remain with you."

Do method actors on a set pair off versus the it's-just-a-job actors?

"It's not that clean-cut. The one thing that tends to draw you all together is an obsession. There are actors who just want to be rich and famous. That's all they want to do, and they do it. But people who just want to be employed as an actor -- which is a bloody hard thing to be, anyway -- they kind of draw together and become a group."

Is it important that everybody likes each other?

"No," he says, after giving it some thought. "Not really. Actors always say, 'Oh, we got on really well.' They lie, basically. You don't want to say somebody is a bastard. It's just not nice. I mean, it's great if you all get on well. You've got to get through the day."

Talking about how intimidated he was to meet Harvey Keitel for the first time on the set of Reservoir Dogs, and how Keitel's erudition and affability put him at his ease, he reveals how he got Keitel to tell him about the making of Mean Streets.

"He had an amazing time," Roth says enthusiastically. "They were just like kids. He was an ex-Marine and they were kids and they were all looking to get laid . . ." He pauses. "You know, I think Mean Streets was actually a studio movie. I'm not sure, but I think it was."

He shakes his head in scorn.

"The chances are it would never be made today."

In fact, Mean Streets was not a studio movie at all. In Mary Pat Kelly's book Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Scorsese talks of the film's budget being so tight they had to shoot most of it in Los Angeles. But Roth cannot let this topic lie. Working free of studio interference and studio values is clearly his driving force.

"I'd love to be in the situation Harvey's in," he admits. "He can do Sister Act and then he can go and do Bad Lieutenant. Without being criticized for doing Sister Act. One, it pays the rent. Two, it fulfills an obsession. I used to be terribly . . . Oh my God, integrity, integrity. Fuck it! How am I going to make these films otherwise?"

Purely for the bread, then, he has appeared in an American TV drama called Take Me Away, and an as-yet-unreleased film set in Czechoslovakia which he thinks may have been called A Perfect Husband. As for actual actorly fame -- million-dollar paychecks, chat-show namechecks, Oscars -- he views the possibility as a pragmatists might. It would boost his earning power. Then you'd really see him make some independent films.

"I think it's a damn shame that Oscars exist," he reflects, "in the sense that, how can you put one film up against another and say one's better?"

But since they do . . .

"But since they do, it would be lovely to have one," he grins. "Oh, bollocks . . . I'd love to get one. Plus, it slaps your wages up."

Interestingly, no matter how fired up he gets about the studios, one thing Roth won't do is lay into Hollywood as a culture.

"They know what it is," he shrugs. "They take the piss out of it themselves while they're doing it. Another car rolls off the assembly line. A lot of the English go over there and run it down all the time. I get bored with that. You can give it a big dismissive whack, but they've been very fucking good to me. I wasn't being employed (i.e. in Britain) and Americans employed me. I got to do what I wanted to do with my life. I'd love to have done it here, but they wouldn't let me."

Now resident in L.A., he comes back to Britain when there's a job for him -- not unlike a hitman, really. He berates the Tories twice in the interview but admits he has never voted. In his L.A. home he keeps up with Britain via the English newspapers, which he has sent to him. A keen music fan, he laments the state of British pop.

"The electronic club music scene is just fucking boring," he says animatedly. "I don't like what Britain's doing musically, I find it tepid and fashion-oriented. The club scene? They've taken way too much Ecstasy. They should shaddap. They've got no balls. I like madness in music, absolute craziness. I much prefer Rage Against the Machine, The Pixies, Jane's Addiction, Soundgarden -- those guys."

Had he heard about the guest appearance on Blur's Parklife video by his old Meantime co-star, Phil Daniels?

"Ah, I saw the video. Didn't like it . . ."

For the role of Philip Chaney in Captives, Roth re-activated his sporadic relationship with in-depth research. He researched his first screen role -- in the late Alan Clarke's Made In Britain in 1983 -- by attending two National Front meetings, much to his distaste. Thereafter, he has researched parts intermittently, depending on the scripts. His voice coach steered him through the rigors of Little Odessa, for which he has to do a New York accent flavored with a shot of Russian. He does it well, too, better than Redgrave, who admittedly spends most of her time coughing and dying and not saying much. And of all Roth's assassins, Joshua Shapira is the coldest yet.

Roth has a horror of guns in real life and an even deeper horror of prisons. To his profound discomfort, he elected to research Philip Chaney by going to H.M. Prison Brixton to talk to a couple of longterm inmates. What had he wanted to find out?

"What you do. What fills up your time -- because there's a lot of it. How you get away with whatever you get away with. And I think my character was scared of prisons. Think, though, how easy it is for it to happen to you. That's part of my fear. If something happened . . . and suddenly you're plucked out of society and put in this insanity. Prisons are full of people who have done things because, for one second, they snapped. They will probably never do it again, but it's too late. It's terrifying."

But Philip Chaney, Mr. Orange, Joshua Shapira. All that blood, all those guns. Researched or not, is it easy to click those characters off and go back to normal life?

"It generally takes a week for them to wear off," he says. "Then you're all right. It's not my problem," he laughs, reaching for the ashtray. "It's my wife's problem. But I have an incredibly understanding wife. I'm very lucky . . ."

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