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A Real Page Turner

Hair trigger psycho on film, avowed family man in real life. Now, Tim Roth is developing a nice line in adapting and directing his favourite books, finds Lanie Goodman.

Tim Roth does not look like a movie star, at least not according to Monte Carlo standards. His baggy camouflage pants, faded Hawaiian T-shirt and the vibrantly coloured tattoos on his forearm are enough to arouse suspicion at the entrance to the Hotel de Paris, Monaco's glitzy belle epoque palace where he is staying. The doorman squares his uniformed shoulders and tries to bar the actor from entering the lobby, but Roth elegantly dismisses him with a wave and a mumble and breezes through the revolving doors to settle on the cushy leather banquette of the hotel bar.

Roth has just participated in a panel discussion at Monaco's annual forum on writing and cinema, a four-day fest of debates, masterclasses and screenings, aimed at bringing together an international mix of authors, publishers, screenwriters, directors, actors, producers and literary agents.

Though the British-born actor isn't entirely sure what's expected of him at this event ("I wasn't working, so I thought I'd take my wife to Monte Carlo and have a look around"), Roth has the distinct advantage of being able to talk about his experiences on both sides of the camera.

As Roth explained earlier to his audience, his directorial debut in 1999 -- The War Zone, based on Alexander Stuart's painfully compelling novel by about a family torn apart by incest -- was prompted by the simple fact that he fell in love with the book.

"Quite often, when I hear that people are making film adaptations of certain books, my first reaction is, 'oh no, they'll ruin it'!" he now admits, taking a draw on his Marlboro Light. "But from the beginning, the idea of The War Zone was to get the essence of the book into the film. The script became a very different animal, but with the consent of the novelist. It's all very well to come up with a screenplay, but just try speaking it!"

Which brings him to the subject of his latest writing project -- a film that Roth also plans to direct called Turning Stones. "Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of a book of case studies by a guy he knows named Marc Parent, an emergency childcare worker in Manhattan," Roth explains, stubbing out his cigarette.

"Child abuse was such an emotionally difficult subject for me -- particularly after having just finished The War Zone -- that the book sat on my shelf for years." It turns out that this very same friend recently came to stay with Roth at his home outside LA and kept leaving the book everywhere the actor happened to be sitting. "So I finally read it and was absolutely devastated. It broke my heart."

These words, of course, come from an avowed family man who carries the names and birthdates of his three kids inside a big red heart tattooed on his arm.

The young waiter from the bar hovers over Roth, trying to pour his beer. He's quite possibly the only fan in this wedding-cake crystal-chandeliered splendor who has recognised Tarantino's blood-soaked Mr Orange from Reservoir Dogs or Pumpkin, the thug from Pulp Fiction.

Roth regrets that he had already committed to a film that was scheduled to shoot at the same time as Tarantino's upcoming female warrior saga, Kill Bill, went into production. "I guess I had my fair share of working with Quentin," he concedes. "It's just that as an actor, you always have such a great time with him."

But what Roth really wants to do these days is direct. It's no longer a secret that he plans to bring King Lear to the screen in an adaptation by Harold Pinter. Not all that surprising, Roth explains, since like The War Zone, "King Lear is also about a dysfunctional family."

From what he's willing to reveal (and he's mum on the "very interesting cast"), Roth has no fear of betraying Shakespeare. "I think it'll be the actors who are likely to feel more betrayed when they read the screenplay. They'll be looking for their soliloquies and it turns out that we don't need them in a film because we can show them instead. You have to be quite brutal. If you don't treat the play for cinema, then you might as well do it on stage."

But don't expect to see Roth in any of the films he's directing. "I get to stop acting, which is really quite a relief," he sighs with a smile.

"Film is a director's medium and the actors are pretty much there to serve the director, which is as it should be. So a lot of the films that I have made as an actor wouldn't be my taste particularly," Roth declares. An oblique reference to his hellishly uncomfortable monkey suit in Planet of the Apes perhaps?

Yet, even though Roth appears to be bookish at heart and seems to enjoy chatting about what he's reading (" mostly stuff on the Roman empire at the moment"), he draws the line when it comes to researching a historical role. He's just finished playing Oliver Cromwell in Michael Barker's Cromwell and Fairfax where he decided not to do any outside reading about his character. "There were stacks and stacks of books and, in the end, I would have been too upset that certain things didn't make it into the film."

The same thing was true for his role as Vincent van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, made in 1990. As a former art student and sculptor, Roth already knew a certain amount about the Dutch artist's paintings but, overwhelmed by the wealth of published information, chose to talk to his own father instead ("Van Gogh was his hero.").

"And you know you're going to get killed by the purists anyway," he shrugs, "so what's the use?"

This triggers a discussion about artistic control in Hollywood and the regrettable fact that many small independent film companies have been absorbed by the major studios. Though Roth still spends most of his time in California, he's been coming back to Europe more often these days, "because as a director, that's where the work is."

"Someday, what I'd really love to do is a film of Paradise Lost," Roth enthuses, "though I'd have no idea of how to do it. When I read Milton as a kid, it seemed like the greatest piece of science fiction ever written. The story made total sense to me: I mean, there's the Devil and all he's really trying to do is get back home. But whenever I've mentioned the idea about adapting it to the screen, people look at me crosseyed." He pauses dramatically, then lights up another cigarette, squinting through the smoke.

"And right now, the devil is the kind of thing you don't bring up in America," he adds darkly.

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