Look Back in Anger
America has helped Tim Roth to exorcise his British demons. It has made him a happier man - and a difficult interviewee. Andrew Smith meets a Hollywood player.
We're in the car park of a North Hollywood Tex-Mex restaurant, walking to Tim Roth's generic American 4x4. I'd always imagined that peculiar stiff-legged gait, which makes him look shorter than he really is, to be some kind of arch, actorly affectation. But no; he really walks like that. He used to walk like that a lot, in fact: until very recently, he was the only person in LA who didn't know how to drive. For his first year here, he hired out-of-work actors to drive him around, which must have been weird as he was an out-of-work actor himself for most of that time. Now he's taking us down the road to somewhere that might be quieter. He is wearing his interview uniform of jeans, black leather jacket and T-shirt and, at this point, he's remarkably chatty. He's playing the regular bloke, as he does with British journalists.
That's not how they see him here in LA, though. The restaurant we wind up in is altogether swankier than the Tex-Mex. The waitresses' eyes flash recognition; their steps quicken a fraction, their voices rise half an octave as they chirp 'Sure!' and 'That'll be no problem!' when asked if we can have a table, just to drink and talk at, on this frantically busy Saturday night.
It would be hard for them not to recognize Tim Roth. His fame is not confined to this town, but is something very close to ubiquitous. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction established him as a face, but right now he is starring in four different movies simultaneously. You see his name everywhere.
Encountering his lop-sided face on the sides of buses, or 40-foot high on billboards, is strange. His generation of Britpack actors included Oldman, Day-Lewis, McGann, Firth, Phil Daniels. Of them all, Roth was the one you'd have banked on never to crack America. The others were handsome, sexy, talented: Roth was talented. But here he is, better known in the US than at home. Tim Roth is a Hollywood star.
Roth will tell you that he never wanted this, or at least that it was never his chief aim, and up to a point you have to believe him. His career has been informed by his ambition to work with gifted people on interesting projects and to avoid glossy dross. He has made plenty of bad films, but even with such pictures as the absurdly dour Little Odessa and Captives, where he plays a prisoner who seduces the young and sexy - and bafflingly female - prison dentist (Julia Ormond), you can see why he was attracted to the script. And this approach has born plenty of fruit: he's been directed by Peter Greenaway, Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, David Hare, Steven Berkoff, Robert Altman and, of course, that man Tarantino.
Films due to open in Britain soon include the stagey and unsatisfying independent production No Way Home; Woody Allen's musical Everyone Says I Love You; a low-level studio yarn called Hoodlums, co-starring Laurence Fishburne; and Gridlock'd, a funky, bleakly humourous tale about a pair of trip-hop musicians trying to kick their heroin habits but thwarted by red tape. This latter, a kind of junkie's Catch-22, is based on the experiences of young director Vondie Curtis Hall and co-stars the rap star Tupac Shakur, who was murdered in Las Vegas just after filming finished. Roth was due to start work with him on post-production the next day. Gridlock'd was never going to struggle for publicity.
Sitting at the restaurant bar while the staff try to find a table quickly, in case the (studiously polite) star gets impatient and leaves, Roth is at his best. Later, the snap of my record button has the same effect on him that a pistol being fired in the next booth would on me. I am not to be the first journalist to find myself, halfway into an interview with him, thinking: 'He's not saying anything.'
If you go through the articles written about him since he moved to LA, you'll find the same quotes recycled over and over again. His lexicon consists mainly of non-committal shrugs, vague evasions and angry assertion that 'that's my business'. Unlike writers and directors, actors are often boring to talk to; you wonder whether they've spent so much time pretending to be other people that they've forgotten to have a personality. But you know this isn't Roth's problem. You sense his reticence is about something different. What, though? For the time being, he is holding forth merrily on anything at all. There's his three-week-old son ('I'm on the four o'clock shift,' he smiles with a mock yawn). There is his wife, a former fashion designer named Nikki Butler, whom he met at the Sundance Film Festival and thought 'way out of my league'. She'd never seen any of his films, which was 'a good start'. (Too right. Roth's rare love scenes always have two things in common. First, he puts his hand over his partner's eyes. Second, he treats their breasts like Play-doh. If Butler had seen his films, she would probably have worn goggles and refused to take her coat off.) Then there's Jack, the son he had at the age of 23 ('much too young') with his girlfriend Lori Baker. Jack, now 12, is the only thing he misses about England, he says, although he sees him often. Roth loves kids. His job, he says, is 'just like being a kid, playing cowboys and Indians forever'.
Through the whole of this early discussion, there is no mistaking the fact that Tim Roth is happy here, in a way that he seems never to have been happy before. A first clue as to why lies in the way his accent has changed: his Brixton drawl has flattened into the standard English they speak in neighbouring Dulwich, where he was born. His father, Ernie, was a journalist, his mother, Ann, a teacher. Tim was still in primary school when they split up and the family began to slide down the economic scale. He ended up at the Dick Shepherd school in the tough end of Tulse Hill, which has since been closed. 'I had a Cockney accent down within two days,' he says with a scowl.
Later, having failed his 11-plus, he moved on to the equally rough Strand comprehensive. Being small and awkward, he was picked on. He has admitted that the rage he brought to his filmic debut as Trevor in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain was partly about 'paying all those bastards back. Alan knew how to get that performance out of me - he tapped into my anger, a real bitter hatred.'
For years afterwards, he blamed his father for this hatred. Only in his mid-twenties did the pair manage a rapprochement. 'When he died unexpectedly about eight years ago, there was still a lot of unresolved stuff. I was in Ethiopia, playing Vincent van Gogh in (Robert Altman's) Vincent And Theo. That was hard, especially because Vincent was my dad's hero and I'd based that character on his feelings about him. I couldn't get back for his funeral, but he was cremated with a photo of me as Vincent and some sunflowers. Which was. . . nice. You can never know how much something like that is going to affect you until it happens.'
The US has liberated Roth from the shock of the young boy so cruelly confronted with the ugliness of the English class system. What's more, his almost comic hostility to Margaret Thatcher is, you feel, directed more at the country as a whole, the country he feels rejected him. Because, for all the good work he'd done so far, 1988 saw Roth, who never went to drama school, shoot one TV play in January and spend the rest of the year unemployed. He and Baker split up during this period, too. He got drunk a lot and slept around. In his darker moments, he thought about 'getting a day job'. He was offered Absolute Beginners ('Absolute Bullshit', he calls it) but turned it down. The next year was better, but he couldn't see a future for himself in a country where so few films were being made. He still talks, with a trace of bitterness he tries hard to hide, about the powers-that-be in Britain in terms of 'They' and 'Them'.
In America, Roth doesn't have to think about all this. His anger doesn't follow him around the way it does 'at home - in England'. He wasn't as cagey in interviews when he lived in England. It may be that he doesn't want to talk in any depth about his alienated past because he doesn't want to be reminded of it, doesn't want his new life to be infected by it. Not that he liked LA any better for the first two years.
He didn't like the superficial people, the laid-back atmosphere, the beach, the movie overkill ('film here is like a car factory'), the gym culture, the racial divisions, the lack of Indian takeaways. He didn't like the fact that you couldn't get anywhere without a car, or the way they put sprigs of parsley on your eggs in the morning. For two years, he was 'very depressed', but things gradually improved. He became friends with some 'real human beings - rare in LA' including one Quentin Tarantino, who had seen Roth in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern and sent him the script to Reservoir Dogs. They've stayed mates: 'I love him. He's so passionate. I mean, he'll read me his bad reviews - if they're well-written. He'll say, 'Well, the man's got a point, you know.'
In a limited way, Roth is a player now. His involvement can help to get small-scale indie productions like No Way Home made, in much the way that Harvey Keitel's presence did with Reservoir Dogs. 'It's always the same. Someone comes to you with a great script, but they have absolutely no money and it's two years before you get to make the film. It's a struggle, but I started to enjoy that struggle and to get involved in it.'
Keitel is surely the model for the type of career Roth wants. Whether he will ever be as versatile as Keitel is hard to know, though they would doubtless agree on the subject of celebrity.
'It can be a problem, because it takes you so much by surprise. In the beginning you court it, because it's so fascinating and quite wonderful to be applauded for what you're doing. Then it moves on a stage, to being applauded for being famous rather than for the quality of what you're doing and suddenly it's a bit uncomfortable. And you can't switch it off when it gets to that stage. You can be having an argument with your partner, then you have to switch off because somebody wants an autograph. Over a period of a day, all the places you go and the things you do to relax can disappear. I'm not complaining, because it's an extraordinary thing to have happen to you, but sometimes it does get scary.'
Roth has a solution to this. Later this year, he is due to direct his own film. War Zone will be based on an Alexander Stuart novel of the same name, about a 14-year-old boy who finds that his sister and father are having an incestuous relationship. This will take him out of the acting frame for at least a year, long enough for Hollywood to forget that he ever existed. For the moment, however, he remains Hollywood's unlikeliest star. You can tell he's a star, because after he's swept out, I realize he's left me to pay the bill.