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Tim Roth: Bringing High Art to Low-Rent Roles

By Steve Wulf

Among the more interesting parts in the oeuvre of Tim Roth are the ear he cut off in Vincent & Theo, the ear he watched get cut off in Reservoir Dogs, the tongue he ordered cut out in Little Odessa, and the pinkie to which he did the Ginsu thing in Four Rooms. "Unfortunately, the removal of body parts has become a recurring theme in my career," he says.

Fortunately, Roth will lend an ear to any director with an interesting idea, and because of that willingness to gamble, the 36-year-old Brit has become the most dependable actor in indie movies. Asked why only two of his nearly two dozen features were for major studios, Roth says: "It's quite simple, really. I work cheap. I love working. And I like to be surprised. So I remain happily stuck in Low-Budget Land."

Actually, Roth was stuck in Odessa when he said that--not Little Odessa, but the big one, in Ukraine. He was there to play the hero of The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean, a movie directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paridiso). As a man who is literally born to play the piano on board a ship, Roth is adding another intriguing character to a CV that already includes a British skinhead, a Shakespearean courtier, a Dutch painter, a Brooklyn gangster, and a Scottish fop.

With a schnozz like a shark fin and a bod that defines non-definition, Roth is hardly Hollywood's idea of a movie star. But then, Hollywood's idea of Van Gogh was Kirk Douglas. Not that Roth has anything against Hollywood. He used to live there, he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his turn as the effeminate villain in Rob Roy ("I wanted a Best Supporting Actress nomination," he once said), and he loves the mainstream movies of the '70s. "Films like The French Connection and Scarecrow and Dog Day Afternoon were wonderful," he says. "But the studios don't make those kinds of movies anymore. The surprises come from the people I work with."

The actor's father, Ernie, was a London journalist with socialist leanings, and his mother, Ann, was a painter. Roth was raised to be independent: When an adolescent he started attending school in Brixton, a working-class area in South London. "Basically, I had to speak like a Cockney within days or be killed," he recalls. "I think that explains my facility with accents."

At 16 he made his acting debut in a school production, playing--in a foreshadowing of the ghoulish aspect of his career--Dracula. After a brief stint in art school, where he studied sculpting, Roth turned to the stage, working with the Glascow Citizens' Theatre and at the Royal Court.

His big break came when director Alan Clarke cast him as an angry young skinhead in the U.K. telefilm Made in Britain. After that, unconventional directors seemed to seek him out: He did Meantime for Mike Leigh, The Hit for Stephen Frears, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover for Peter Greenaway. In 1990 he played Guildenstern opposite Gary Oldman in the film version of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Van Gogh opposite Paul Rhys in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo. "Playing Van Gogh was truly a labor of love," Roth says. "I had some training as an artist, and I read Vincent's letters, but my biggest influence was my father, who greatly admired him and died while we were still filming." Indeed, from the first shot, of him chomping on his pipe, to the penultimate shot, of him bleeding in the street, Roth paints a much truer and more poignant self-portrait of Van Gogh than Douglas did in Lust for Life.

Thank goodness Van Gogh's madness didn't rub off on Roth. What did seem to take was the artist's integrity. The 1992 druggie drama Jumpin' at the Boneyard, brought Roth to America for good...and for Quentin Tarantino, who cast him as the doomed Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, the stickup man who frames Pulp Fiction, and the take-the-money-and-sashay bellman in Four Rooms. While many of Roth's characters walk on the lower side of life--a con in Captives, an ex-con in Everyone Says I Love You, gangsters in Little Odessa and Hoodlum, a junkie in Gridlock'd--they are each distinctive and not at all derivative. "There's something so absolutely truthful about what he does," Jessica Lange once said of her Rob Roy tormentor.

Having worked with such directors as Leigh, Stoppard, Altman, Tarantino, and Woody Allen, Roth is eager to try his own hand at the craft, which he will do later this year when he shoots The War Zone, about a boy who discovers that his father and sister have an incestuous relationship. "I hope I've learned a little something from the mistakes first-timers sometimes make," he says, "and from the mistakes I've made on their behalf."

Roth is still a little surprised by his fame, especially in Ukraine. "Everybody knows me here!" he says. "They've seen me in movies I haven't seen yet. The other night at a restaurant, I looked up at a television screen, and there I was in Hoodlum. You could tell it was a bootleg tape because as the credits roll, you can see the audience standing up in front.

From small films, Roth has built a large following. Give the man a hand--figuratively speaking, of course.

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