By David Eimer
Tim Roth starred in the film of the year, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Now, with upcoming parts in the next Tarantino movie and Nic Roeg's Heart of Darkness, Britain's hardest is fast establishing himself in Hollywood's major league.
If you had to pick out one British film from the early '80s, a vital, vibrant drama which captured the mean tempo of the times, then Made In Britain, notwithstanding the fact that it was made for TV, would be high on the list. Directed in 1983 by the late, lamented Alan Clarke, its story of a discontented bonehead was an early expression of the bite that would slowly seep out as the decade unfolded. It also introduced Tim Roth.
It was an extraordinary debut. Angry, confused, and vulnerable, Roth was totally credible. And while Clarke's early death robbed us of a director who wanted to take on difficult, contemporary subjects, and scriptwriter David Leland's subsequent films have lacked the same urgent snap, then at least Roth's career has maintained and exceeded the promise which alert viewers spotted ten years ago.
It's taken a move to America for that to happen, though. Soon after heading west in 1991, Roth landed the part of Mr. Orange in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and found himself swept up in the torrent of publicity that was generated by Tarantino's fantastically self-assured debut. But for the moment, Roth is back in his native London shooting the final segments of Nic Roeg's Heart of Darkness. Sipping a beer, with his trademark flop of hair firmly pushed back, he's friendly enough but also clearly switched into interview mode: anticipating questions when he can, and looking forward to lunch.
Ostensibly we've met to chat about the twentysomething drama Bodies Rest & Motion, his latest movie, in which he plays an uncommitted, easily distracted TV salesman, Nick, whose slackeresque inability to get it together disrupts his relationship with his girlfriend, Bridget Fonda. Roth, though, seems happier musing on the changes he sees in the UK: "They don't want you to have fun here," he exclaims. "The police and government nail anything that looks like it might be too much fun."
It's the first of a catalog of ills that he attributes to England (depressing weather and the high cost of living are at the top of the list), and if you didn't know anything about him, you'd type him as yet another Brit seduced by the money, glamor and sunshine of LA. You'd be wrong. "I left because there wasn't any work for me. I spent two years solid out of work and I went fucking crazy," he says simply. The fact that his jobs in the States haven't been in big, glossy studio productions, but exclusively low-budget independent projects (in order to make the $3 million Bodies, Rest & Motion, he turned down another film that offered "a lot more money"), backs that up.
Nevertheless, working exclusively in the indie sector brings advantages that elude actors who work for the majors. There's the hipness factor, which Roth has in spades; then, if those debutant directors score heavily, as Tarantino has done, there's always the chance that they'll take you with them as they head up the Hollywood hierarchy. Certainly, being in at the beginning of the Tarantino phenomenon has worked out for Roth, and he's set to appear in Pulp Fiction, which marks Tarantino's return to directing after a brief hiatus sorting scripts for Oliver Stone and Tony Scott.
Roth's ability to suggest the little lost boy that lurks behind the psycho and gangster, while also capturing the basic, brutal charge of such characters, is what induced Tarantino, who'd seen him in Made In Britain, to cast him as a police grass amongst a group of hard-bitten armed robbers. From the moment Roth read the script he knew that was a filmmaker after his own heart. "Quentin, he's just the best. He's enthralled with it. He's wanted to make movies since he was a little kid," he raves. "His mother told me he used to be on the floor with two Action Men, going 'motherfuckin' cops' and she'd go 'Quentin!' and he'd go 'it's not me, it's them'. He's always seeing films in his head."
Roth spent much of the movie bleeding over the back seat of Harvey Keitel's car and sprawled in a bloody heap in the gang's warehouse hideout. But in the flashback sequences, as he's trying to convince the head of the firm that he's the right man to go on the job, he gives a near-perfect performance that leaves an indelible impression: Roth in the loo of a seedy bar, psyching himself up to tell the story that'll establish his credentials, all twitches and intensity. You can sense the fear and exhilaration a cop or a spy must feel as they infiltrate an organization.
That aspect of the movie got pushed to one side in the futile and fevered press debate on the film's violence. But violence was never an issue for Roth. "I like to be shocked," he says. "Films should make me cry and laugh, and violence in film is just a part of it. Reservoir Dogs isn't a particularly violent film but it picks its moments brilliantly and it's deeply disturbing."
He reserves his scorn for the Lethal Weapon/Rambo genre, where the body count is much higher but you never get to absorb the consequences of that violence. As anyone who's seen True Romance will realize, Tarantino steps beyond the initial hit or act of mayhem, and lingers on it. "He doesn't just move on and kill someone else and move on again," says Roth. "You stay with it and you find out what it's like to suffer like that. I think that's admirable; he shows you the pain and awfulness of it all."
When you look back at Roth's career in Britain, it's like it was a primer for Reservoir Dogs and the way it encapsulates the lads-together mentality you can see in any pub on a Friday night. Roth's role in such groups would be the nervous guy you see grinning on the edge, not quite certain if he's included, and always bracing himself in case they turn on him. That might have something to do with his upbringing. The middle class son of a journalist, Roth grew up in Dulwich, South London, failed the exams for the local public school, and so found himself shunted off to a comprehensive in Lambeth where he learnt to drop his accent and "spent five years hiding". A short stint at art college followed, but by then he was involved in pub theatre. The next he knew, he'd landed the lead in Made In Britain -- without any formal training.
Roth gleaned much of the nihilistic energy he put into that role from his experience of the punk scene. Born in 1961, he was just the right age for the Sex Pistols' breakthrough, and he revisited the calculated mindlessness of the era in his part as an apprentice assassin in Stephen Frears' The Hit. It was a vaguely comic turn; once again he was playing a character who didn't quite know how to behave, and, along with a fine take on a mentally handicapped teenager in Mike Leigh's Meantime, it established him in what looked like a profitable niche as one of Britain's rising young stars. But it didn't really work out like that. Throughout the mid-80s, he played a decreasing number of roles until he reached his professional nadir and spent most of '88 and '89 sitting on his arse. Robert Altman saved him by casting him as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincent and Theo, which gave him the chance to get away from playing contemporary characters and helped get his name known in the States.
His subsequent move to the US brought initial comparisons with fellow 'rising British star in Hollywood' Gary Oldman. Although they've been mates since appearing in Meantime together, as well as starring opposite each other in Tom Stoppard's labored screen version of his play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, such comparisons are not only insulting to both men, but incorrect. Oldman's specialty is in playing out-on-the-edge loners; it's hard to see him as Nick in Bodies Rest & Motion, for example, because Nick is too uncertain, he doesn't know who he is or what he wants.
By the time we get round to talking about Heart of Darkness, Roth's sunk a few more lagers and loosened up a bit. The film marks the welcome return of Nic Roeg, one of our most underrated and illappreciated directors. It's a straight adaptation of Joseph Conrad's seminal novel (although Roeg's idea of 'straight' is sure to differ from everyone else's), as opposed to the allegorical interpretation of the book that Coppola's Apocalypse Now offered. Roth plays Marlowe, the narrator of the story, a ship's captain sent up river in Africa to confront Kurtz, A European who has set himself up as a god and is inciting the locals to follow him.
"If you start thinking about the story," he enthuses, "about what Heart of Darkness is, it's now." The enduring relevance of the novel lies in its take on the arrogance of man (particularly the white man), and its examination of the bleakness of the human condition. The shoot in Belize wasn't without its problems. "Every day it was 'the horror, the horror'. First fucking day of filming one of the boats sank." But Roth got on with John Malkovich, who plays Kurtz, and that bodes well for the movie.
There are other projects which might or might not happen. One Roth seems particularly keen on revolves around the expat Russian mafia in New York, and there's even the possibility that he might be back in the UK appearing opposite David Thewlis (who, after the success of Naked, is another British actor being touted as the next Gary Oldman). We'll definitely be able to see him next year, though, in Pulp Fiction. Roth describes the script as "just extraordinary", but the secrecy surrounding the film is immense. All that can be revealed is that it's a compendium of three crime stories, inspired by Black Mask magazine, which was published from the '20s to the '50s and ran the first stories by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The lineup of stars includes Dogs veterans Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi alongside the likes of Matt Dillon and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Roth is one of those actors who needs to be working constantly -- "two weeks after I finish a job I'm ready for another one" -- and as he no longer works in the theatre -- "it terrifies me" -- and doesn't fancy a sitcom, it's probable that we'll have to get used to him talking in an American accent. He's left behind the tortured, aggressive adolescents with which he made his name, yet a mellower Tim Roth is still more upfront than just about any other British actor, and a Yankee twang is a small price to pay if we can continue to see him in action.