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View Man: Tim Roth

By Ken Loach

Why this actor known for playing thugs and lowlifes may just owe it all to a band of school-yard bullies

Ken Loach: How did you get into acting?

Tim Roth: I think I always wanted to be an actor. I was around it very little, and I didn't really know how to make it happen. But as a joke I auditioned with a friend for a school play, and I ended up getting the part and doing it. That's when I was bitten by the acting bug. I went from there on to various community and youth theaters around South London.

KL: It was [director] Alan Clarke's film Made in Britain [1982] that first got you noticed, though, wasn't it?

TR: It was. He changed my life.

KL: For those who never saw it, Made in Britain is about a very aggressive, racist young skinhead.

TR: What was so fascinating about playing Trevor the skinhead was that he was a great natural debater, so they could never pin him down.

KL: It looked like a very liberating performance -- there was a ferocious energy about it. Did you know people like that growing up?

TR: I went to school with a bunch of guys like that, and many a time I ran in fear from them. My formative acting years were spent trying to get my way out of trouble when people like that were coming at me.

KL: Did you go right from the Clarke film to working with Peter Greenaway [on 1989's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover]?

TR: Well, the next thing I did was Meantime [1983], which Mike Leigh directed. I went from Alan to Mike to Stephen Frears [with 1984's The Hit], one after the other. [laughs]

KL: How did you end up in America?

TR: Because of Robert Altman, initially. I went to work with him [on 1990's Vincent and Theo], and then we did some press in the US, and I got myself an agent. I couldn't find any work, though, went back to England, had a terrible time there, and ended up doing a not very good film in Australia. And then I was called by this young filmmaker name Jeff Stanzler in New York City. He wanted me to do this film called Jumpin' at the Boneyard [1992] -- a tiny film he was shooting up in the Bronx. And so I did that. And then I though, 'Well, I'll just stick around and meet people and see if I can drum up a bit of work.' And the Americans just started employing me.

KL: You've worked with lots of directors in America, including two -- Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino -- that I'd imagine are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how they work.

TR: Yes. Altman placed incredible trust in the actors; he just gave you the script. With Tarantino you had your script, and in a very fast-paced way moved through things. I think we did Reservoir Dogs [1992] in about five weeks.

KL: Tell me about the two new films you have coming out. One is [Francis Ford] Coppola's Youth Without Youth.

TR: It's based on a novella by Mircea Eliade, which Coppola adapted. The idea of the film is that the character is struck by lightning and becomes physically young again, even though he's still an old man. So he gets to try to erase the mistakes of his past. As a result, I had to play someone what was 70 years old, and then 18. I suppose, in doing this, Coppola was exploring issues around the end of one's life -- looking back across the years and at how you've used them. As an acting exercise, it was fascinating to guess how I will be when I'm -- well, if I get to 70 or to 80. I had to make a physical and mental jump.

KL: And Funny Games? I saw the original German version -- this one is also directed by Michael Haneke, but in English, right?

TR: Yes. Shot for shot it's just like his original. The character I was playing is someone who's in a horrendous situation; his family is being destroyed around him, and he's unable to do anything about it. It was one of those films where you start your day crying and you end your day crying. [laughs] On the one hand the captors are caricatures in the style of A Clockwork Orange [1971], but the other side is as realistic as possible. The little boy in the movie looked so much like one of my children that it was very hard for me to be involved in it.

KL: I sometimes think the business of acting can destroy you, because you use your own feelings to tell a story.

TR: I absolutely agree. Until shooting the film, I had never been a victim of such distress, so I suppose I wanted to see if the emotions associated with that kind of experience were available to me. In some of my past roles, I'd been the person perpetrating those emotions. But this was the first time I was required to respond to them and pull the appropriate emotions out of myself, and I didn't know if I could. But, my God, they were there. There were one or two times when Haneke would say, "Cut!" and I'd have to leave the building.

KL: Well, the best actors are the vulnerable ones, so I think there's an obligation [on the part of the director] to respect that and take care of them. Anyway, I hope these two films do well -- I'm sure they will.

TR: Whether they're good or bad, both were definitely odd, interesting projects that made me excited about acting again.

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