On the Edge
By Jim McLellan
Tim Roth has been on the edge of major success for years. But now, with the much-praised gangster film Reservoir Dogs, his time may have come. Will Tim Roth get rich, or will he just piss people off again?
Barcelona, 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. Sipping his first beer of the day, Tim Roth is telling me how, for a few hours, he was rich. He was lined up to do this independent film "which for once had some decent money attached". His agent was sorting out the fine print. Almost time to start thinking about buying the car. "It was all go. We went off to go see Husbands and Wives, because one of the actresses in that was going to be in the film, someone I wasn't that keen on. Doesn't matter who, but I thought I'd better check her out. So we went and one of the other agents came into the cinema, found my agent who was with us, and started negotiating, and suddenly, just like that, it was all off." He hoots with laughter. "Maybe it just wasn't meant to be. I'm obviously not meant to be rich . . . he says pouring himself another beer in Spain!"
Tim Roth may not be rich. Perhaps he never will be. But, as he admits, he's not doing too bad. He's spending an afternoon in Barcelona, knocking back beer on someone else's account. He's also in one of the year's best films, Quentin Tarantino's stunning directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, a blisteringly comic dissection of tough-guy manners which also stars Harvey Keitel, Chris (brother of Sean) Penn, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen. Plus he has plenty of other work on the way: Bodies, Rest and Motion, an existential romantic comedy for the twentysomething generation in which he plays opposite Bridget Fonda; and the low-budget Jumpin' At the Boneyard, in which he plays a Bronx street kid trying to straighten out hi crackhead brother. More importantly, as his anecdote about the fortune that came and went suggests, he's back where he belongs, back in the game.
Things certainly look better than back in the late Eighties, when he went unemployed for nearly two years. There just wasn't any work, even for someone with his track record. The edgy, intense performances he'd racked up (as the raging skinhead in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, as a retarded teen in Mike Leigh's Meantime, as a gangster hooligan in The Hit), the Most Promising Newcomer Award the Evening Standard gave him -- none of it really helped. After all, it's not much use being fingered as someone who's going places if there's nowhere to go. As he says, the British film industry is permanently shut. So to pay the rent he had to go off to Czechoslovakia and Australia to do films he knew weren't much good. He did a couple of commercials, even the odd British film. He did The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and had a laugh trying to get Peter Greenaway to loosen up. But the yobby sidekick he played was a kind of retread of his earlier roles, a dead-end kid that signalled the career cul-de-sac he was facing.
Then Robert Altman cast him as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincent and Theo. People who say Roth just does aggressive yobs have got it wrong. His early performances always brought out the vulnerability behind the front, the uncertainty behind the violence, the sense of sliding out of control. And playing Van Gogh, he caught the descent into madness perfectly. It gave Roth a chance to underline what he was capable of (Vincent wasn't just another lad). It also got him known in America.
Perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually have to follow the likes of Gary Oldman across the Atlantic. But whereas Oldman always seemed to have mainstream Hollywood in his sights, Roth was aimed instead for the booming American independent sector. As he says, it's an actor's heaven on earth. People are making films which require actors rather than special FX, which run on good dialogue rather than a high body count. OK, the salaries might not be much to write home about, but successful indie films can pay off in other ways. "You get to travel round the world. We've had a blast with Reservoir Dogs. We've been able to lif round the world." All down to the fact that American independent films -- particularly something like Reservoir Dogs, which comes complete with established names and a huge critical buzz -- are in demand on the festival circuit. And though Cannes gets all the attention, there are hundreds of film festivals around the world, all keen to "premiere" the latest hot American independent.
This week the Dogs gang (Roth, Tarantino, and producer Lawrence Bender) are doing Spain -- first Sitges, Barcelona's beach resort, for the annual horror and fantasy festival, then Madrid. Next week they'll be in New York for the US premiere. "Really this is the Quentin Tarantino roadshow," says Roth. "He's probably had two hours of sleep in the last seven months, but he doesn't care." Unlike Roth, who's been working. Tarantino has been everywhere with Reservoir Dogs. Chatting in the bar at the festival centre, the 30-year-old writer/director shows a few signs of wear (a bad back, a persistent cold) but is obviously still riding the adrenaline rush of getting his movie made after years of struggling on the margins of the film industry.
As we talk, Dolph Lundgren waddles by. Dolph is Sitges' big star this year, here to puff Universal Soldier, his team-up with Jean-Claude Van Damme. "My first job in the movie business was as an assistant on the Dolph Lundgren exercise video," Tarantino comments. "They shot part of it outside in this lot which was just covered with dogshit. My job was to clear it all up so Dolph wouldn't mess up his trainers." Surely big Dolph will remember him with affection then? "I don't think so. All he did was yell at me to get out of his trailer."
Though both might be called guys' films, there's a world of difference between the boy's own homoerotics of Universal Soldier and the deconstructed gangster pathologies of Reservoir Dogs. That both can find space at Sitges is tribute to this perversely funky festival. Middle-brow types might write it off as just a splatterfest -- this year's big event is the world premiere of Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness: Evil Dead 3. But it's showing some great films (the Japanese tech noir classic Tetsuo 2, and Man Bites Dog, a stunning Belgian film about film about a charismatic granny killer). "What they're interested in is the cinema of the extreme," says Tarantino. "And on that level we fit in. Reservoir Dogs does have some pretty extreme scenes."
Something of an understatement. At one point a gangster tortures a cop to the bouncy accompaniment of the old Stealer's Wheel song "Stuck in the Middle With You". It's difficult to describe in detail without spoiling th effect for future viewers, something that goes for the whole film. On one level it works as a straight crime whodunnit. The action revolves around a failed robbery and the attempts of the various hoods involved (all dressed in black suits and ties and given colour-coded aliases) to figure out which one of their number is an undercover cop.
Tarantino says he never though he was taking a risk by casting Tim Roth as an American. "I knew stuff like Made in Britain and The Hit. There was no doubt he could do it. And when we met, I just got on so well with him." To help, Tarantino took Roth on a tour of places like In and Out Burger, and gave him a crash course in the kind of trash culture that would have surrounded an LA child of the Seventies -- old TV cop shows, cartoons like Speed Racer, Fantastic Four comics, bubblegum pop. However, a lot of that never made it on to the screen. Wounded during the robbery, Roth (Mr. Orange) actually spends most of the movie slowly bleeding to death, while Harvey Keitel (the sentimental old-time thief Mr. White), Steve Buscemi (the motormouth obsessive Mr. Pink) and Michael Madsen (the quietly psychopathic Mr. Blonde) bicker and brawl about who sold them out.
As Roth says, the film is a meditation on codes of honour, on professional and personal loyalties. "Who is the real bad guy here? Is it the criminal who tortures the cop, who's looking out for his own, or is it the undercover cop, who's selling them all out? Quentin's done it so you support the cop, when maybe you should support the criminals. It's clever. He's done the same thing with the torture scene. He uses the music to suck you in, then you sort of pull back in horror at what you've gone along with."
We always get a few walk-outs with that scene," Tarantino grins. "But I'm willing to bet no one walks out here." Tarantino also has a bet on about his interpretation of Madonna's "Like a Virgin". The opening scene of the movie features the gangsters discussing the true meaning of the lyrics, with one insisting that it's about a nymphomaniac who's been around but has now met up with "some John Holmes motherfucker" -- in other words a guy well hung enough to make her feel "like a virgin" again. "Madonna's coming to see the movie in New York next week. She doesn't know yet. Quentin's going to ask her then if he's right. I think he probably is, but I bet against him. Someone had to."
Exactly. Someone had to pick up the challenge. It's a guy thing, the kind of guy thing which Reservoir Dogs puts under a microscope. Like early Scorsese, or some David Mamet, it's a film which shows the limits of a certain kind of masculinity. Tarantino catches the way men relate to each other, how they talk and what they talk about, but pushes their banter to a blackly comic self-destructive conclusion. "I suppose it depends which kind of men you hang out with," Roth comments. "Personally I think it's more about gangs, group mentality. I honestly think you could take the same script but reshoot it with women and it would work. It would be the most controversial film ever. To have a woman torturing a woman cop. And some of the dialogue like the Madonna stuff, would be even funnier. You could call it Reservoir Bitches. That would piss everyone off."
Pissing people off is clearly something Tim Roth quite enjoys. During the afternoon drinking in Barcelona, I ask him to tell me a joke. He repeats one he once told at an audition for a right-on theatre company. "It was told to me by a black guy: 'What's black with red strips? Freshly whipped nigger.' I've never heard a room go more quiet."
Were you surprised? "It's interesting. If a black guy tells it, it's not racist. If a white guy does, it is. And if a white guy tells it to a bunch of woolly liberals . . ."
So why did you tell it to them? "Because they pissed me off. I think I did end up working for them though."
Actually pissing people off isn't quite right. It's more a question of getting on someone's case. You can see it in his approach to acting. Born in London, an ex-punk who started acting while at art school during a course in sculpture, Roth never actually went to drama college (aside from one afternoon when he got pissed and snuck into RADA to see what he'd missed). "If I had, I wouldn't have been an actor. Once you had to study something, I got bored. That's why I'm not a sculptor."
Consequently he dismisses all talk of method. "Fuck all that. Yeah, I've got a method -- my own." But he does practice a kind of English methodism, an immersion into character he learned on the job from Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. Typically, the way he describes it gives it all an edge, a challenge, like he's looking out to make sure no one can get the drop on him. "It's about building up a character till you know everything. It's like I know what my character did yesterday, did ten minutes before this scene, whatever. It's the safest way of acting -- no one can argue with you because you know all the answers."
Flip through his press clippings and you get the feeling journalists piss Roth off almost as much as liberal theatre types. "I used to get really angry, but now I don't give a shit. The thing is my father was a journalist, and he taught me all the fucking tricks. Like the journalistic silence, where they go 'So you just went through a divorce. Was it painful?' and you nod and they wait . . . You'll be nervous so you fill the gap with all the shit they really want to hear."
Most actors approach interviews as just another job. Some treat them like a performance. A few treat them like confessionals, therapy even. To Roth, they're a game of wits: the object being to give away as little as possible. "What this interview is really all about is how many drinks I can get out of you," he informs me, after I've paid for yet another round. A query about Mr. Orange's motivations gets the reply, "I know what I think, I've done my job. Now you do yours. What do you think?" He likes trying it on. He wants to see if you want to play. If you do, he's perfectly willing to let things play out all the way. By the end of the afternoon, after a few more pints, he gets involved in a Q&A challenge -- he says he'll answer any question, so long as I keep them coming.
OK, so who was he in his past life? "The Marquis de Sade." Which does he prefer, great food, great sex, or great drugs? "Great sex, which can incorporate the other two. This is fun, keep going." The part of his body he would like to change? "My dick. I want it bigger. Doesn't every man? Next." The fastest he's been in a car? "120mph, I crashed. Next." The worst haircut he ever had? "I saw Rosemary's Baby, fell in love with Mia Farrow, went to the barber and asked for a Mia Farrow cut. It looked fucking stupid. Next."
Any part of his body pierced? "I did have my right nipple pierced, but I had to keep taking it out for films, so it kept healing up. It became 50 times more sensitive. Piercing is great. If I wasn't an actor I'd be covered in tattoos and pierced up the fucking ying-yang. Next."
On and on he goes. The last time he was high? Five months ago -- mushrooms. The member of the royal family he'd sleep with? Diana. "I wonder if she's into kinky stuff -- still you can guarantee that their idea of perverted is from behind. Do you reckon Andrew's a good fuck? I have my doubts." Did he wear platforms? His mum made him wear sensible shoes (bit of an admission, this). Has he been arrested? Yes, for threatening behaviour (there's a surprise). The one thing he wishes he hadn't done? Slept with a friend's girlfriend (they're not friends any more). Every time he has to wait for a question, he claims victory. "Nailed ya. Come on." When I can't take it any more (after about an hour), he sits back in triumph. "Call yourself a fucking journalist?"
It's 11 o'clock at night and Tarantino, Roth and Bender are onstage introducing Reservoir Dogs. Bender has prepared a short speech in what sounds like Catalan. Determined not to be outdone, Roth delivers a list of the only Spanish words he knows. "Dos cervezas, tortilla, pornografie." He gets the biggest round of applause. Despite subtitles which obviously struggle to get the profane poetry of Tarantino's script, the film goes down a storm with the festival audience, though the torture does send some people scurrying for the door, among them one Wes Craven, director of the first Elm Street movie and much else. Afterwards in the bar, Bender takes great delight in ribbing him over it. "We're going to put it on the poster, Wes. 'Too tough for me' -- Wes Craven."
Next Day Roth has a morning full of interviews to deal with and, despite having been out clubbing till six in the morning, he manages to make it -- although his jeans and T-short look like he slept in them. A photographer from Spanish Cosmo tries unsuccessfully to get him to go outside for a shoot. "It's too bright out there. Too early in the morning," Roth mutters, pointing to his head. He also refuses requests to remove his baseball cap. "My hair's a real mess. I look much worse with it off." He vogues unconvincingly. "Tim Roth -- Cosmo boy."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the interview, Gary Oldman's name keeps cropping up. At the official press conference, one journalist gets up to compliment Roth on his performance alongside Gary Oldman in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. "There was some special chemistry there, I think. Could you tell me please the nature of your relationship?" "We're lovers." Actually Roth and Oldman are mates, though they don't hang out together in LA. "He's always off working, isn't he?" Roth acknowledges that Oldman has opened doors for an actor like him. "I hope Dracula's a success. I'm hoping it'll be Oscar time, either for that or Last of the Mohicans (which stars Daniel Day-Lewis). It'll keep up the demand for English actors. I figure that if people can't get Gary or Danny, then sooner or later they'll go, 'Who's the other one? Let's get Roth in. He's cheap.'"
Oldman's success does have its downside for Roth. Talented actors usually have to learn to live with critics calling them "the new De Niro". In America, Roth has to live with being called the new Gary Oldman. Perhaps surprisingly, he laughs it off. Perhaps he is mellowing a bit. He says the year and a half he's spent in America has helped him grow up a little. He's now the happiest he's ever been in his life. "It has to do with working out my relationship with my son [Jack, aged eight, lives in London--Roth and the mother of his child have split up but remain on good terms]. Americans are better at all that then us. We have this built-in repression, well, not repression exactly, but it's very hard for us to say 'I love you'. Americans just do it, sometimes when it's not necessary. Being there has changed me completely."
So he won't be coming back? "I don't know when I'll be coming home. It's not like I wanted to go. I didn't go because I wanted to be rich. I just had no fucking choice. I don't miss England, but I do feel guilty for leaving. But all the directors I like have left too. I can't get a job. No one's making the kind of films I like. Like Scum, The Firm, The Long Good Friday -- those films are really about our country. Films about people getting slightly fucking cross with each other while leaning on the mantelpiece . . . let's face it, they're not that interesting. Now I'm doing the kind of films I always wanted to do, but in a different accent. As soon as I can do them in my own accent, I'll be back."