The End of Violence
By Evan Wiener
In movie after movie, he shot, he fought, he bled, he died. Now Tim Roth is looking to get really violent.
If you want to be an authentic movie star -- if you want the fat checks and fatter trailers and your face on a thousand screens -- then it's probably a good idea to live and work in America. In Hollywood, to be precise. And if you're not in Hollywood, then it's probably a good idea to get there, however possible, as soon as possible. Tim Roth got there. And now he's not there anymore. At least not right now.
At the moment he's in Paris, on vacation and on the telephone, talking about a film he just directed called The War Zone. Before he can adequately address the issues raised by the film, or the perils that come with a first trip behind the camera, Roth is distracted by one of his children. He momentarily begs out of his conversation and, in a tone that is patently British, patently paternal, he turns to his child:
"What's up? . Well he shouldn't do that, should he?  Did you tell him he shouldn't?"
The voice is both familiar and unfamiliar -- recognizable timbre, fresh inflection. It's the voice that went flat in Reservoir Dogs, snively in Rob Roy, dead in Little Odessa. Talking to his young son, Roth uses a concerned, exasperated, instructive tone.
"Did it hurt?" he asks. "Well, tell him he shouldn't do that.  Well, you tell him again."
Roth, 38, has three children, all boys, none older than 15. The boys don't see his movies, he says, which is just as well: Most of his films are covered in carnage. Pint for pint, more blood has been shed on-screen in this decade than in all the others combined, and Roth deserves a gold star for being one of the screen's principal donors. This is a man who, over the course of two years, appeared in two films in which a character has an ear hacked off. A good chunk of Roth's characters abide by the motto "Kill or be killed (or both)."
Real-life violence is another matter entirely, and it's the real-life violence that has Roth spooked, especially when he thinks about his career and his kids. Maybe this explains why he has spent the last few years living and working in Europe, taking acting jobs in Rome and Berlin, vacationing in Paris, making his own movie -- a bleaker than black domestic drama -- in the UK. He says he's not in exile, self-imposed or otherwise.
"I've got to figure out where I want to live and also where I want to bring up my kids," explains Roth, who moved from England to Los Angeles at the beginning of the decade, when his career was launching. "The Columbine thing scared the crap out of me. People asking, 'Why does this happen?' Meanwhile the gun companies are churning out handguns and giving them to hormonal teenagers. It scared me a lot."
Excusing his own bloody flicks from cultural culpability ("They don't arm children; I think Charlton Heston is in the process of arming children, to a certain extent"), Roth now awaits the release of a pair of films: The Legend of 1900, in which he stars, and The War Zone, his directorial debut. Legend, an unthreatening flick from the director of Cinema Paradiso, tells the story of a virtuoso pianist who, fearing the outside world, spends his entire life aboard a ship; Roth's character's only weapon is the instrument. The War Zone, though, is stuffed with instruments of violence. Not smirky, ha-ha violence, but the dank, domestic kind, the kind that bleeds into incest, into sodomy, into howls of household rage. This is precisely the kind of work you might anticipate from an actor who has grown weary of pointing prop guns.
If he really wanted to, Tim Roth could well become one of the cinema's legendary sneerers. The opportunity is there; he says he is offered plenty of roles -- in Hollywood and elsewhere -- that will allow him to jut out that snout and deaden those eyes and push dialogue past those wobbly bottom teeth. (Roth can do more acting with his mouth than other performers do with their whole face.)
The chompers are products of England's fabled crooked-teeth industry; Roth himself is a product of a British acting invasion that gained momentum in the mid and late 1980s. It wasn't a formal movement, just a steady migration of actors with accents and classical or BBC training who quickly found roles in American movies, often playing wispy, lispy bad guys. Roth established himself as the mangiest of this bunch, the runty younger brother of Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis, the bastard child of Kenneth Branagh and Anthony Hopkins. He was the Limey who wouldn't use his accent to charm you, because he was too busy biting you in the kneecap. While a guy like Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) could fold himself comfortably into Hollywood product -- and Roth could do the same when he set his mind to it; cf. Rob Roy and Hoodlum -- the little guy preferred little movies like Little Odessa, a film in which the blood stained the sidewalk and wouldn't go away.
Little Odessa was directed by a first-time director, as were a number of other Roth vehicles, including Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Reservoir Dogs. Because most actors -- especially those who regularly play bad men -- itch to direct, Roth's move to directing would seem semi-inevitable. "Directing is the sexy job," he admits. "Acting is not the sexy job on a film set. Actors generally get in the way." And yet even with the example set by countryman Oldman -- who went from playing goons to directing drama with Nil By Mouth (1997) -- Roth remained reluctant to make his own film. "I didn't want to give up acting," he says. "I didn't think anyone would want me back after two years of being away. You know, this fear of unemployment. I decided to go for it anyway."
The War Zone ended up costing about $5 million and became one of the year's festival finds. They even liked it at Sundance: "I didn't think we could make this film in America, or with any kind of involvement from America, because of the sort of political and moralistic right wing," Roth says. "But when we showed it at Sundance we were absolutely shocked with the reception. I am very, very pleasantly surprised."
Nonetheless, The War Zone will probably make no money, and Roth knows it. The film doesn't even have a rating; the material is far too despairing to earn the R that greeted softer fare like Saving Private Ryan. (Roth describes Pulp Fiction as "a comedy.") Now looking for new material to direct, Roth imagines the opening night crows that will greet his debut: "It will be three guys in anoraks in the back row, going, 'I like that!' Them and a bunch of critics who've seen about 20 films that day and are cross-eyed and just want to drink. But everything now is a bonus, because I thought no one would see this film."
And so Roth works and waits from afar, not unlike his pianist character in The Legend of 1900, who found his peace -- and his place -- drifting in his own direction.