One on One
By Tom Doyle
Tattooed skinheads, snubbing Spielberg, aggro with Oldman and now grim incest in directorial debut The War Zone. So, Tim Roth, American indies' favorite Brit, do you want to talk about it?
"Gritty" seems to be the way Tim Roth prefers his drama these days. As an actor, he made his debut in Alan Clarke's 1982 TV drama Made In Britain, with a career-founding portrayal of Trevor, the hopelessly dysfunctional yet frustratingly perceptive swastika-tattooed skinhead. Behind the camera, then, it's perhaps no surprise that he should mark his directorial debut with The War Zone, a similarly hardline and harrowing tale in which Ray Winstone and Lara Belmont flesh out the gripping, if stomach-churning, depiction of incestuous abuse in a rainclouded Devon. Notting Hill this ain't.
While making no apologies for the attention-grabbing subject matter, Roth points out that the screenplay of The War Zone was actually toned down from Alexander Stuart's original novel.
"We worked with friends of mine who've been abused," the diminutive actor/director reveals. "We'd send them copies of the script all the time, then they'd go, 'Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit . . . yes'. They were the bullshit detectors."
On a markedly lighter note, Roth clearly relished his directorial role. For the record, yes, he really loved being able to say, "Check the gate".
"I got to say all of that," he grins. "'Action!' 'In your own time.' The stuff I've had thrown at me for years."
Since landing the Made In Britain role by chance (he got a flat tire while cycling home one day, stopped off at the theater where the auditions were being held to see if they had a bicycle pump and waltzed off with the part), Dulwich-born, middle-class Roth has been directed by some of the greatest filmmakers of the modern age -- from Altman to Allen to Tarantino.
Early career highlights included key appearances in Mike Leigh's Meantime and Peter Greenaway's The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover. But in the latter half of the 80's, the roles dried up and a semi-desperate Roth relocated to LA, in the wake of recent Hollywood successes by contemporaries such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman.
Then, of course, his claret-soaked performance in Reservoir Dogs catapulted his star back into the ascendant, leading to his bookending appearance as petty stick-up merchant Pumpkin in Pulp Fiction and subsequent roles as the flitty Archibald Cunningham in Michael Caton-Jones' Rob Roy and as the itching junkie Stretch, alongside fated rapper Tupac Shakur, in Gridlock'd.
Roth meets Empire in the red velvet bar of The Raphael hotel in Paris, on a day off from shooting Vatel -- the story of the legendary chef in the court of Louis XIV -- alongside Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman. It's only midday, but already he's worked up the kind of thirst that only one form of liquid refreshment can satisfy.
"Let's be French about it and have a beer," he motions to Empire, before flopping into a chair and sparking up a Marlboro Light.
Were your actorly instincts stirred by the fact that you had to affect a cockney accent at school?
I dunno. But you know what? I remember when my dad was living in Kent when I was a kid, I convinced the entire population of the village that I had a bad leg. I even got a walking stick. I remember thinking, it's amazing! I can get them to open doors for me. Then I'd find myself sitting up a tree being profound. Shit like that. That's normal kid stuff in a sense. It's just whether or not you choose to pursue childishness into your adult life.
You must be a great believer in fate after the bike pump incident.
Yeah. I was working at this awful little shoe-box office with a bunch of unemployed actors, selling advertising over the phone to people who didn't want it and couldn't afford it. It was a scam. You'd call up and say, "What's the condition of the health and safety in your shop?" So they got the feeling you were a Health And Safety inspector. But you'd gradually bring it round to advertising and try to guilt them into taking out an ad in a Health And Safety magazine. It was all a front.
Anyway, one day, it was pissing down and I was cycling back home. I got to Waterloo, got a flat tire and when I was pushing it past The Oval House -- where I'd done youth theater and stuff -- I went in to see if they had a pump. I went up for the job and got it. So, yeah, it was quite fateful.
In the late 80s, your career nose-dived, but you refused to sign on. Did you ever think about giving up?
Oh no. Never thought about giving up. I just thought I'd never work again if I signed on. It felt like accepting defeat. And that's like buying into capitalist bullshit, but in a way, it was to me.
I was getting some good stuff and then I did some crap, which is really frustrating for actors. When you know it's crap, you get very depressed. I was doing a very bad film and I got a call from a young director making this film (Jumpin' At the Boneyard) in New York. I auditioned over the phone and he said, "Alright. You wanna come and do it?" And that got me to the States.
I thought, well, I'm gonna go back to England and do a radio play if I'm lucky. So I decided I'd stay in the States and see if I could get a job. Then, of course, the next job I got was Reservoir Dogs and that changed everything.
Before that were you jealous of the fact that some of your contemporaries -- Gary Oldman, in particular -- were getting Hollywood parts?
No. Well, I mean, of course you're jealous of other people's success and you're always jealous of their work if it's good. I was pleased by it and envious of it, but y'know, pleased by it. The fact that he was a New Cross boy doing fucking well . . . you've got to be proud of that.
Was there a sense on the set of Reservoir Dogs that the film you were making was special?
There was a bit. I remember talking to Harvey about it and he was saying, "Hey, I think this is pretty good." We'd try not to bring it up, in case we jixed it. But, yeah, we thought it was special.
You refuse to read for directors don't you? Why is that?
Yeah. It's not an egotistical thing. I'm just crap at it. I figured I'd lose 50 percent of the work by reading, or I'd lose 50 percent of the work -- happily -- by not reading. Y'know, go and get a tape out of Blockbuster and see if I can speak. I mean, I'll meet with anybody, I don't mind that. But the process of auditioning, I really find too stressful.
Is it true you refused to audition for Spielberg for Schindler's List?
Oh yeah, I refuse to read for anybody. Spielberg always videos his meeting and he turned his camera to the wall for me. I mean, he didn't give me a job, but it was interesting to meet him. He said, "Could you do a German accent?", and I said, "Well I don't know. Which part of Germany are you talking about?" Then he said, "Do you like dinosaurs?" I was like "Whaaa? Yeah. Which ones?" He was lovely, y'know, but obviously I wasn't for him.
You've always worked pretty hard on accents, haven't you?
I just think it's your duty, even though it's a pain in the arse. Nobody used to give a fuck about accents in movies. Y'know, Cary Grant's supposed to be poor and living in the Bronx. Well, he doesn't fucking sound like it. Times have changed, and if I'm saying I'm from a certain area, I think I'm duty bound to sound like it.
When you were making Rob Roy, you became paranoid that you were going to be sacked for overacting . . .
Seriously mate. Day one, I got my clobber on and started hamming it up. Then I was calling my agent in LA saying, "What kind of work is around?" Very seriously thinking I was gonna get fired when they got the rushes back in America. Meanwhile Michael [Caton-Jones], bless him, is going "Nah, nah, nah . . . you can be more over the top than that." And in fact, he was right. I like the film -- parts of it make me laugh -- but it's really not my kind of movie. Still, y'know, I got to do a big fancy swordfight.
What did you take from other directors before you sat in the helmer's chair yourself?
Different things. What helped me as a director, as much as good directors, was bad directors. They give you a clear indication of what not to do. Alan Clarke would have to be the greatest director I worked with because he was a communicator. Alan would treat the teaboy the same as the lead. He had a way of communicating with actors that was truly, truly extraordinary, and that's why he got those wonderful performances out of people.
What I learned from Woody Allen was the benefit of a short day. You get Woody's dialogue, think, Fucking hell, I better learn everything. Then you get on set and he goes, "Well, that line's alright 'cause that'll make them laugh . . . Do what you can to get to there . . . Don't care what you do here . . ." He'd rehearse everything as a piece of theater, shoot it in one and go home. Sometimes you'd be wrapped by two.
Were you inspired in any way by Oldman's success with Nil By Mouth?
Haven't seen the film. A long time before, he came to me with a script that was like that () and said, "Would you be in my film?" I said, "Absolutely. When do you want me?" But it fell through and it was a long time before it resurfaced, as a very different film called Nil By Mouth.
()Listen, there's a lot of actors who direct. The fact that he's a good actor doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be a good director.
Is it true that you've fallen out?
With Gary? Not at all. Is this Ray Winstone stitching me up? The last time I saw Gary was when Ray went to LA and he had a wonderful barbecue at this place he was staying. Gary came up and I hadn't seen him in years. That's what happens. It's like Quentin -- people assume we're really good mates, but I haven't seen him in two years. So it was lovely seeing Gary, and his mum was there . . . But our paths have gone in completely different directions. I don't know him well enough at the moment to fall out with him.
Did the subject matter of The War Zone make for a heavy atmosphere?
No, no. It was intentionally set up to be really good fun, otherwise we'd have killed ourselves. That just comes from my experience of making films that are very heavy. The only way you get through them is by laughing a lot and by hiring people who are emotionally open and who can support each other. I knew there would be tears behind the camera as much as in front.
Shooting the pivotal scene can't have been much fun.
That was a tough day. But we always knew that the tough day was coming. I said to Ray, "That's a separate film. We're doing the feature film, but there's a little short that we're also knocking off on the side." Ray said it was the toughest day he's ever had as an actor. It broke his heart. That was the deal. People were literally heartbroken because they love Dad. It's like, "Oh God, he really is that, isn't he?" The boom guy's bawling his eyes out and the focus puller wants to throw up, and I'm the one saying, "Bring your head up, Lara." And I've got to be like that because we don't want to do this again."
Do you think the film justifies itself? Is there a positive message?
Well, I have my own theories, but they're mine. Part of what the film is also about is a reaction against the kind of filmmaking that I'm seeing all the time where you really are given all the answers. I think it's a bit scary not to be given the answers . . . And I like that.
How many times have you been asked what's inside the case in Pulp Fiction?
Countless. It's a battery and a lamp.
Come on. You know what's in there.
Of course I do. I had to know.
Tell us. It's Bruce Willis' prizefighter belt, isn't it?
() Yeah, that's what it is. () All I'll say is that other people's perceptions of what's in the case are much more interesting than the truth . . .