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Trevor the Skinhead Mellows in the L.A. Sun

Tim Roth has a reputation for being "difficult" in interviews. He's been known to pick fights with, or simply stonewall interviewers; to appear amenable, only to leave his victims to sift through the lies he's told them later. So on arriving to talk to the actor and finding only a packet of cigarettes on the sofa, my heart sinks. While his publicist disappears to find him, I dig out the press notes for his latest film, Liar, and gaze with trepidation at a menacing close-up of Roth's eyes glowering from deep-set sockets. Above it are written the words: "You come looking, you might not like what you find."

When Roth appears moments later, I'm ready for a monster of the lank-haired, low-life variety he portrays on screen. Instead, I'm met by a small man in designer black who pours himself a mineral water and cheerfully tells me to "fire away."

Early screen roles such as Trevor, the psychopathic skinhead in Made in Britain, and Colin, the teenager with an ingrowing Parka in Mike Leigh's Meantime, established Roth as a bit of a lad -- a chippy Londoner from the scabby side of the river who knew how to handle himself. It was not an entirely accurate image, but one he played on for a while.

Although he still speaks Saarf London, the 36-year-old Roth was born to middle class parents, growing up in West Dulwich before studying sculpture at Camberwell College. Sure, he has "always liked drinking and playing pool", but he's never injured anybody, only been arrested by mistake, and refers to his tattoos as "body decoration." He spent his last holiday with his fashion designer wife and in-laws, showing his "young 'uns" London.

Dropping out of art school after 18 months, Roth got his Equity card doing Genet at Glasgow Citizen's, then scarpered for London. He got his first big break as the lead in Made in Britain. He says director Alan Clarke, and photographer Chris Menges, "taught him everything."

Roth gradually racked up an impressive body of arthouse roles with the likes of Berkoff and Greenaway, but it wasn't until Robert Altman cast him as Van Gogh in Vincent and Theo that he became a star. Since then he's been living in Los Angeles, bleeding to death in Reservoir Dogs, crooning in Everybody Says I Love You, and hamming it up in Michael Caton-Jones's Rob Roy. He wants to leave, he says, "but likes to work".

If he does escape from LA, it won't be to return to Britain, whose rigid class system, he argues, leads to stereotyping, while America offers broader opportunities. "In the States, it's about whether you've got any cash or not. I've never come across the prejudices you get here."

Which perhaps explains how in Liar, Roth was cast as John Walter Wayland, a Princeton-educated millionaire murder suspect. Film-makers Joshua and Jonas Pate wanted him to play the interrogating cop but he told them he wanted to be the alcoholic and epileptic compulsive liar. Once known for his meticulous Method research (he sported a skinhead and went to National Front meetings for the part of Trevor in Made in Britain), Roth says he did little preparation for the part. "The boys found a tape for medical students which discusses epilepsy and seizures and then shows them. We picked the ones we liked, a kind of top 10 seizures, and went with those. The eye rolling I could do as a kid."

Free from actorly affectation, Roth finds analysing acting "boring" and claims he "doesn't really have any technique." As for performance skills, he has "worked with both schools, the drama school mob and the ones who haven't had any training. I don't see any difference except that if you go to college you get three years of doing what you want. Let's face it, you might never get the chance again".

Out drinking with Irish actor John Lynch some years ago, they decided to ramraid RADA for a look. "I told him I'd never been to drama school, so he said 'let's go'," Roth recalls. "We crashed a class and scared some young actors. My only experience of acting lessons."

When he first arrived in America, Roth made a similar strike upon Hollywood, doing the round of Tinseltown parties. "It was great fun for about two weeks," he says, "then it got dull. The people I came across didn't really have much to do with filmmaking. It's just business."

Since then, he's stayed away from the studios, sifting through the scripts of first time filmmakers for roles. Film festivals are also a good place to meet exciting new film-makers, he says, "although the danger there is they'll hand me a script when I'm in a pub, and I'll get drunk and just give it to the bartender."

These days Roth's name is enough to get a project like Liar off the ground, but it wasn't always so. For many years, he lived in the shadow of fellow Brit packers Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis, Oldman appearing at times like a more successful Roth doppelganger. "When I was starting out I would turn up for an audition and Gary was always sitting there," he recalls. "If he was busy, they'd give it to me."

They finally worked together on Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but only because Roth had another lucky break. "It was a wonderful script and I really wanted to do it. Tom Stoppard gave me a lift to the station and said, 'I've got to tell you, I'm going across the river now to see Danny Day-Lewis in Hamlet. The distributors want him for the role. I think you'd be great, but that's how it's looking.' He dropped me off, and went to see Hamlet. That was the night Danny saw his father's ghost and had a breakdown on stage," he chuckles. "I got the part."

Roth considers Reservoir Dogs and Little Odessa as being among his best work, although he's unwilling to select a particular performance. "It's odds and sods, you know? Some things you get away with. It's all just smoke and mirrors," he mutters, before admitting his few romantic roles don't rank among his favourites.

Roth's wonky face, peculiar blend of sinewy violence and doe-eyed vulnerability seem to brand him a criminal. In one of his few romantic leads in recent years, Roth enjoyed his love affair while on day release from prison. "I just don't look right," he laughs. "When we did Captives it was...." he shudders. "When you see the way you look at somebody when you're supposed to be in love with them, it's something that you never actually see yourself doing in life. So when you watch it up there on the screen, it's kind of yucky. You don't really want to be exposed in that way. I don't mind portraying it, I just don't like seeing it. It's like looking in the mirror while you're shagging."

For now, Roth can avoid such self-consciousness as he's decided to step behind the camera. "I wanted to make a film about kids," he says, "because I've got three." This is no cute, family comedy, however, but an adaptation of Alexander Stuart's novel The War Zone, about a boy who discovers his father and sister are having an incestuous affair. Tilda Swinton and Ray Winstone have been cast as Mum and Dad, and Roth describes it as "a film about what people do to children."

Roth's directorial debut will probably ensure his name continues to be linked with Oldman, following the latter's success behind the camera with Nil By Mouth. Mellowed by success and family life, Roth no longer cares. "At least I'm in good company. It would be pretty heartbreaking to be lumped with someone who was crap."

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