The Fruits of Roth
Tim Roth garnered an Academy Award nomination for his flamboyant performance as a murderous fop in Rob Roy, and could have used it to secure roles in big-budget Hollywood popcorn movies. But unlike his old friend and fellow "Britpacker", Gary Oldman, who these days pops up mostly in hokum like Air Force One and The Fifth Element, Roth still prefers to appear in less lucrative, but artistically more rewarding, small-scale features, such as his latest film, Liar. And it's not because the opportunity to enter the world of blockbusters didn't present itself after his close encounter with Oscar.
"I got offered all those kinds of movies," he confirms. "But I'd just get past the first few pages and then I'd start to doze off. They can be really good parts, and I like to watch them on airplanes, but I'd much rather get a script like Liar, because, in the end, if you do a whole series of those films, then that's what you've become. You may be rich, but I'd rather be an actor all of my life than somebody who knows a lot about cigars."
Written and directed by Jonas and Joshua Pate, identical twin brothers making their feature debut, Liar is a pitch-black thriller which showcases the London-born thespian at his most cruel. It is small, like most of Roth's films, but it's big on style, intelligence, atmosphere and acting. And, while Roth has essayed a string of dark and dangerous characters already in his career ("They're fun to play and usually they stick in people's minds; I'd rather play Iago than Hamlet or Romeo"), none of them has been as memorably psychologically sadistic as the epileptic Princeton alumnus who, in a tense psychological game of cat-and-mouse, constantly turns the tables on the two cops (Michael Rooker, Chris Penn) interrogating him over a murder. Did he do it, or didn't he? That's the question.
Roth was still filming Giuseppe "Cinema Paradiso" Tornatore's latest film in Rome when he received the script for Liar. Usually he makes a point of not reading anything new while he's working but, in this case, he made an exception because the Pates needed an answer quickly. He was glad that he did.
"People know that I will make films that are low-budget and so they send me these scripts with a little letter saying, 'It's kind of a Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction thing,'" says Roth sarcastically. "I don't even read those. They go straight in the bin. I try and read everything else, but most of it is usually shit. But then you get the occasional one that's great."
"When I read Liar, I thought it was extraordinary," he enthuses. "It's a very dense, very wordy, cleverly crafted piece of writing, that's not at all like the sort of thing that normally comes out of America. And the character intrigued me. The whole idea of putting yourself in a bizarre, dangerous situation, and the game of trying to get out of it, was fascinating."
Having decided to accept a role, Roth says that the next thing he does is check out the director. As he's worked with the likes of Alan Clarke (Made in Britain), Mike Leigh (Meantime), Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You), Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), and Quentin Tarantino in his time, he knows a thing or two about directors, and says that experience isn't everything. "The fact that someone's done 60 films doesn't make them a good director. They have to convince me that they know what they're doing. Or, at least, if they don't, that they'll have a good go."
After years of observing directors at work on-set, Roth is now trying directing for himself. He's currently overseeing The War Zone, for Channel 4, an adaptation of Alexander Stuart's novel about a teenage boy who discovers incest in his family. Roth, a father of three, says that "I've always liked films like The 400 Blows and My Life as a Dog -- great films about children -- and it's always been a passion of mine to make a film like this." While loath to discuss at length its controversial issues, he has said that he thinks Channel 4 is "very brave" for taking it on, because the subject matter is "very graphic and very horrendous."
As well as enabling him to make a film about something which he feels so passionate about, The War Zone has also given Roth a rare opportunity to work in England, having moved to Los Angeles in 1991 after the work virtually, and inexplicably, dried up for him here. He's glad to be back. But will he be staying?
"I like to be where the films are. And although there are more films being made here, I didn't get any of the scripts. So I go wherever scripts are, and, right now, that's in America. Or that's where I get them, from America, and that takes me to other parts of the world. I'd like to live here, but it's too expensive. Seriously, it's a joke to live here."