Roth & Roll
By Sari Roman
"Evil, when it works onscreen," says Tim Roth gently, squinting slightly into the sun, "is when people who do very bad things don't particularly have a swagger about them. They don't talk about it that much. Maybe they don't necesarily think they do bad things. Maybe it's like," he adds, sipping on his beer, glancing around the garden restaurant of the luxurious Pasadena Four Seasons Hotel, "they're having a cup of tea. For them, cutting of somebody's head and floating them down the river, that might just be a good night out."
A few weeks ago, enclosed from head to toe in a monkey suit -- a crazy, vengeful out-for-blood chimpanzee named Thade, to be exact -- Roth, a serious actor, director, and doting father of three, had been testing that ethos, and his pliant imagination, to the max. Planted atop a lissome, energetic stallion in the middle of the California desert, he was rousting the troops, leading his gorilla army into battle against the pesky humans. It's a big moment in a big film -- Tim Burton's re-envisioning of Planet of the Apes -- a multimillion dollar epic laden with special effects, hundreds of extras, and thousands of hours of carefully architected prosthetics. Roth, however, his chimp face furrowing slightly, is concentrating solely on his character, the way the malicious monkey sits on the horse, his authoritative control of his army. He had even worked with a movement teacher in the production's "ape school" to absorb simian balance and response, so he wouldn't be seen as a mere human actor walking around with a silly rubber face. And after all that preparation, on this day, Roth finds himself concentrating, focusing, and desperately trying to ignore scratching a monkey related itch that is now reaching epic proportions.
"Let's just say, I'm very happy not to be in that monkey suit any longer, confesses Roth, who out of his ape wear, possesses a primal, street savvy roll to his gait and a profile he has genially said, "looks like a pickax. But I was warned. I actually got to speak with Roddy McDowall about it before he passed. He told me how painful the costume was, and he did it for years on a TV series as well. If it had been anyone else but Tim Burton, I wouldn't have done it," Roth lights up a cigarette, letting the reddened flame burn a little too long. "We weren't supposed to smoke with our monkey faces on, we were very flammable. But the chimp I lust for, Helena [Bonham Carter] and I would sneak outside, get someone to light it up for us. We kind of looked like a science experiment from the '50s," he laughs. "How many actors can say they've watched their makeup man trying to find your other ear in the morning."
One of the original Brit pack bunch -- which includes Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis -- Roth, with his tensile sensitivity to the psychologically twisted, in even the most "normal" of characters, has established himself as a chameleonlike performer with an ability to disappear into almost any kind of role. It's a gift, which Burton certainly called upon when he cast Roth in Planet of the Apes.
It's not Shakespeare, agrees Roth, but especially as it is Burton's world, it is still its own very wonderful beast. "Besides, it's very easy for the Brits to come over and be cynical about 'Hollywood' and all that, but we love getting paid, and we love being in the movies. Yeah, I get tired with it occasionally. And sometimes when I'm doing a scene that's not so challenging, I'll be thinking about something else, like what's for lunch or a fight I've just had. You can put it aside or use it. Sometimes that can work to your advantage and become interesting for an audience. That's usually the one," he teases, taking another pull on his beer, "that will become the Academy Award nominated role."
Roth, 40, has learned that ease from being in the limelight for nigh on twenty years. Originally gaining attention in British TV movies: Mike Leigh's Meantime (1981) and the David Leland-penned Made in Britain (1982), in which he gave an unsettlingly realistic performance as a neo-Nazi skinhead, he made his film debut as a young hoodlum in Stephen Frears' The Hit (1984). But it was the outsize success of Reservoir Dogs (1992) that did what fame does when bequeathed to the right person. It made Roth very much in demand and hugely respected, even as he fiercely held on to his "working man" sense of himself.
"But somehow, nobody seems to remember," he rightly points out. "I was the good guy in Reservoir Dogs. And I spent all that time on the floor, bleeding from the gut, trying to make the fake pain as real as possible. But I've learned to do a lot of fake things in movies," Roth ticks them off on his hands. "Let's see, there's murder, sex, sword fighting. For The Legend of 1900 I trained for six months to fake play the piano. For Vincent and Theo I faked painting, although I did a little myself. Acting," he shrugs, "all you do really, is learn tiny bits of things you don't really complete."
Roth's mother was a teacher and his father, who passed more than ten years ago, a Fleet Street journalist, which is perhaps where Roth acquired his well-documented, outspoken political opinions [at an awards ceremony, he once referred to Tory leader Margaret Thatcher as a 'cunt'], as well as his interest in character detail. When he was younger, he said he became fascinated by American film actors. Although he is a fan of physical comedy, what he found remarkable was their quality of stillness. "I don't think I ever took on any of their characteristics, but I used to love to watch the way certain actors would stand or walk or use their hands. And even though they were beautiful, they were still considered 'a man;' Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, all stunning looking, but they could also act. I don't think it's necessarily what people are into or what sells. Nowadays, film is the land of the model."
Some clearly disagree with Roth's assessment. In Paris, recently, he relates he was literally chased by both fans and paparazzi. "I was on the phone to my wife Nikki, cellphone in hand, running down the streets of Paris trying to lose them. Thankfully, this kind of thing is rare. The people who see my work, well, it does tend to be more obscure. I mean, it's not like I'm Brad Pitt."
Even so, the idea is that by burnishing his bankability in the movies, Roth can use his clout to get his edgier directing projects into production, "as a film directed is two years taken away from the family and the bank account." His directing debut, The War Zone, all agreed, was well worth it. Based on the controversial novel by Alexander Stuart (who also wrote the screenplay), it is the devastating story of a family torn apart by incest. Shocking, superbly written, the film is a harsh and appalling document of damaged lives, accompanied by stellar cinematography and subtly brilliant performances. Roth's follow-up will be Shakespeare's King Lear, which is being adapted by icon-scribe Harold Pinter. To Roth, it is an equally terrifying challenge, but not quite the stretch it may appear.
"King Lear is also about a dysfunctional family. So, in a way, my way, it absolutely connects. Ah, I love directing." Roth slaps and rubs his hands together happily; an auteur in a cinematic vision shop. "It's my toy. Mine! I've always been in other people's films, their visions of how they like the pace of the film, compose a frame. Now I get to do things the way I think they should be done."
"I have been very lucky. When I was a kid, I was very angry, I used to imagine lining people up against the wall and shooting them with a .45, but that emotion went away. Some kids do turn to violence. I turned to acting. The teacher at school who first put me in a play, I saw her a couple of years back. I asked her, 'What is it you saw in me that made you think I could be an actor?' And she said, 'You were such a horribly troubled child.'" A smile twitches at the corners of Roth's mouth. "Now that was a very smart woman."