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Tim Roth: Actor With Attitude

By Beverley D'Silva

Tim Roth has an attitude problem. "He can be, well, difficult" is the usual cautionary remark from those given the job of setting up interviews with him. "Is that what they say?" asks Roth, deadpan, proving more diffident than difficult. "I rarely get into rows on set unless I'm totally convinced I'm right. I suppose, if you go around not saying yes to people, that's the reputation you end up with."

In his business, an attitude problem is hardly a liability. It's often an indication of true worth, and Roth has been lauded by other actors who are similarly laconic when it comes to explaining why they do what they do. Steven Berkoff picked up on Roth's sense of underlying violence and enlisted him to play Gregor, the man who transmutes into an insect, in the adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis. When I spoke to Mickey Rourke two years ago, he selected Roth as the member of the Brit Pack most likely to make it: "From what I've seen, Timmy's the boy with the real talent."

Ironically, at that time Roth was languishing in his south-east London flat, going through "the low point of my career - a whole year of unemployment. I was utterly depressed." Of the original Brit Pack - a motley gang including Gary Oldman, Bruce Payne, Daniel Day Lewis and perhaps Phil Daniels - Roth looked least like getting his membership renewed. But then his roles as psychologically twisted delinquents (the psychotic sidekick in The Hit, a skinhead in Made In Britain) convinced Peter Greenaway he'd be perfect as Michael Gambon's vicious henchman in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. It was a role worth suffering a prolonged resting period for, leading as it did to his first cinematic lead, in Vincent And Theo (directed by Robert Altman and released here this month). Roth plays the once-ostracised Van Gogh, daubing at canvas, eating paint and suffering syphilitic dementia like he was born to it.

Being around oil, canvas and the drawing board is not such alien territory: Roth went to Camberwell Art School before acting, and his mother, Anne Roth, paints landscapes for a living. "So it was easier for me to fake it than for someone who's never drawn," he says. "But I've never lived in rotting attics like Vincent, never tried to stab anybody and never completely wigged out. Suffer for my art? If there was no social security like in the 1880s, I probably would have."

Timed to coincide with the centenary of Van Gogh's death, the film rides on its topicality. Each scene is as beautiful and balanced as a Dutch masterpiece, although Roth's sarf-east London sounds incongruous next to the Oxbridge tones of his brother-come-benefactor, Theo (Paul Rhys).

Roth gets to play around more with accents in the upcoming Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, a screen version of the Tom Stoppard play about two minor characters from Hamlet, and co-starring Gary (Oldman. "Stoppard picked me up on my enunciation. He's very particular." Roth had worked with Oldman before, but both reject the idea of a British answer to Hollywood's brat pack. "There's not such a community of actors here. Gary and I decided a lot of it's down to film makers not wanting to put British actors of the same ilk together. And actors don't tend to hang out together here, like the Tom Cruises and Charlie Sheens.

"There's a difference between the job of acting and being a personality. Personalities, like Cruise, are good at promotion. But someone like Sean Penn is interesting: he doesn't look like he's stepped out of a glossy magazine: and I'm not sure I, or any of the supposed Brit Pack, would be offered a big box office movie - we're not considered a financial proposition. Can you imagine me promoting that sort of movie?" he asks, with his best bad attitude sneer. "There would be no future in Tim Roth dolls."

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