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The Devil in Tim Roth

By Jerry Stahl

Dark artist: The actor's subtle, versatile craft dazzles the eye and chills the soul.

If Satan wore a powdered wig and rouge, he'd look a lot like Archie Cunningham, the sadistic fop played to a lisping T by Tim Roth in the kilt-and-castle epic Rob Roy. Roth, last seen knocking off a Valley diner with Amanda Plummer in Pulp Fiction here swaps his .38 for a rapier. Picture Quentin Crisp tricked out as a psychotic Zorro and you get the idea. It's a whole new breed of villainy.

"My wife was the inspiration for Archie's look," Roth explains, appearing decidedly unfoppish in standard L.A. slackerwear: knit Rasta cap, baggy cords, and flannel shirt worn open to reveal an aggressively dingy undershirt. "She's fascinated by women's diaries from 1700s France. They describe these guys from court who were wonderful lovers, very athletic very strong, and very virile. . . . Then you see paintings of them, and they're completely effeminate and absurd looking. They look like very, very ugly men in drag."

All of which makes the actor's performance that much more amazing. What should, by all rights, be caricature unfolds as a nuanced, chillingly real study in soullessness -- a subject, according to Roth, for which the peculiarities of his own life prepared him nicely.

"I was middle-class growing up, see, but I failed all the exams to go to the posh schools and ended up at a very, very rough school in Brixton, in South London. So I know what it's like to be bullied. I was around some people who were truly fucking scary.

"Like Archie Cunningham," he adds, with a dead gaze and a half-sneer almost casual in its cruelty. "No conscience at all."

The sneer turns into a smile, but the eyes stay cold. You wonder if he's acting.

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