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Cinema Verite

Tim Roth has made a career out of playing independent film's everyman. This month he enters the land of major motion pictures with a leading role in Rob Roy.

So far as I know, Tim Roth has never been in a bad movie, which is why it seems fit to meet him at Musso & Frank's, the very place where Tim Burton's Ed Wood is inspired to new heights of spurious genius by a chance encounter with Orson Welles. Ah, Hollywood, I think fondly, sidling up to the bar, you ludicrous, mean-spirited bitch of a whore of a town, parading around in your crooked blonde wig with all the charm and gumption of a taxi dancer with Alzheimer's -- thank God you've finally gone daft enough to allow such strange and wonderful creatures as Tim Roth to pass for serious actors.

"You know," he says sleepily over an afternoon beer, "if you were a white guy, and you played a black 65-year-old lesbian single mother of four who was crippled with multiple sclerosis, and you directed yourself, you'd get an Oscar -- you'd get several."

Roth really is too good for it. Though he's frequently lumped together with young British bucks like Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis, the honest craft of his poised, emotionally bright turns in such films as Stephen Frears' The Hit (1984), Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), and Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo (1990), not to mention anything by Quentin Tarantino, puts him closer to the unassuming virtuosity of actors like John Hurt and Patrick Stewart.

He freely admits that the only reason he's in Hollywood is to gain the clout to carry small independent films like Little Odessa, in which he portrays a grim-faced Brighton Beach hit man. "I was looking at Harvey Keitel and going, Hmm, here's Sister Act and there's Bad Lieutenant -- there's something going on here. It took me all these years to figure it out." Little Odessa is already gathering good reviews in Europe, though it stands little chance of becoming an American blockbuster. "It's sad and relentless," he says fondly. "I like it because the only sentimentality comes from a complete asshole."

Speaking of sad and relentless, how was working for Nicolas Roeg on Heart of Darkness? "It was completely confusing," Roth says with a wave of his hand. "But I don't think it's necessary for actors to understand their characters. You can come up with ideas -- but they certainly don't have to be the truth. Young actors think that to be taken seriously they need to undergo some kind of transformation. They talk about how they became the character, then you look at the movie and it's shit. You can't understand why they bothered."

Roth's first big studio film is Rob Roy, in which he plays a murderous 18th-century fop who terrorizes the sweet and noble Jessica Lange and Liam Neeson. It's an over-the-top, enchanting -- nay, festive performance that nonetheless manages to glance at the soul of evil with tender and devastating pity. And it's all done in a wig that would embarrass Dolly Parton.

It is his ability to play the ridiculous without resorting to camp that makes him independent cinema's favorite everyman. In Four Rooms, due out later this year, Roth stars as the one consistent player -- a bellboy -- in four vignettes directed by Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez, and Alexandre Rockwell. "It's a comedy," he says, unfazed by this compendium's potential to sound like a modern moviemaking hall of fame.

Roth has been in all of Tarantino's films. It's a sensibility that comes naturally; for Reservoir Dogs (1992), he prepared -- typically -- not at all for his role as an undercover cop. "Quentin showed me cartoons -- Speed Racer and Gigantor. Then I just did it from the script." He laughs suddenly. It's kind of scary, and cute. "And my character is a liar, so everything I'm presenting is fake."

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