Big Tim Roth
By Theresa Sturley
Tim Roth jokes that he's wanted in American movies because he's cheap. That's funny, because huge demand usually drives prices up.
Thirty-five-year-old English actor Tim Roth is a dirty blond with a sexy smirk and a huge schnozzle. He's short in stature but photographs big. And he's a quick-change artist who can contort his face into a myriad of expressions: His eyes pop, his eyebrows soar, his mouth twists. But it's the way his personality twists that has made him the favorite British vagabond in American movies.
Roth came here six years ago after landing the part of Vincent Van Gogh in Vincent & Theo (1990). He's never looked back, but he's refused to go Hollywood. He sniffs out roles that take his fancy and plays them with feral intensity: hooligans, hoods, lost souls, degenerates, and all manner of edgy lowlifes. He can be an atavistic killer, and he has a knack for being clownish in films that show the comic side of pain.
Roth's intuitive approach to his career seems to be paying off, for suddenly he is everywhere. Already this year we've seen him in Everyone Says I Love You, in which he is a horny ex-con who absconds with preppie Drew Barrymore, and in Gridlock'd, in which Roth and the late Tupac Shakur play musicians who are trying to kick heroin but are constantly stymied by welfare bureaucracy. Next month, he brings ratlike ferocity and an impeccable nasal whine to the role of mobster Dutch Schultz in Hoodlum. Not bad for a lad from Blighty.
Theresa Sturley: How did you develop your acting style? Do you have a method?
Tim Roth: No. Every script requires a different technique and every single film I've done I've treated differently. Sometimes you need to know everything about your character, sometimes nothing.
TS: How do you choose your roles?
TR: No idea. It's just gut reaction.
TS: Do you think your taste in roles is changing?
TR: It changes all the time -- it always has. It could be something romantic, it could be something horrible, it could be something disturbing, it could be something funny. I'll try anything once. Sometimes you find there are certain things you shouldn't do. On numerous occasions I felt I was hopelessly miscast.
TS: Which of your films do you like the most?
TR: The first one, Made in Britain (1983). That's where I lost my virginity. I'd always harbored the notion of doing film acting, more so than stage acting. I had the lead role, first time out. I'd never been in front of a camera before and I loved it. But it wasn't like I was working with an asshole. I was working with one of the best British directors (the late Alan Clarke).
TS: Is it hard finding parts that interest you?
TR: It's been easy because I work with a lot of first-time directors. There's no shortage of interesting scripts in the independent world. And even if the film don't work, the experiences are often amazing.
TS: So you like virgins, too?
TR: Yes. (Laughs) I've only done two studio films.
TR: I haven't liked most of the scripts I've read. Even when I've been broke and I've thought, 'Shit, maybe I should do some whoring,' they've never been things I've wanted to do. Rob Roy (1995) was good because it was made by a bunch of people I knew and my part was juicy. The money was great, too, and that was lucky because my wife (Nikki) got pregnant around that time. Being broke scares me because of the kids. But I've made a deal with my wife: If we're broke, we're broke; if we're rich, we're rich.
TS: You wife's an American. Do you feel like an American now?
TR: Not at all. I'm happy here though. Happier than I've ever been, I think.
TR: Because I'm working. In England, I always had gaps between jobs. At the moment at least, I can work if I want to -- which is all the time.
TS: Your choices are amazingly consistent.
TR: I don't know if they are. Maybe they are subconsciously; I try not to analyze stuff too much. I look back at things like Vincent & Theo, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990) and they seem fairly different.
TS: How did you make the transition from playing British lowlifes to American ones?
TR: (Laughs) The first American lowlife I played was in Jumpin' at the Boneyard (1992), a very low-budget film we shot in the Bronx. Then Reservoir Dogs (1992) came up. But, again, it was subconscious.
TS: You seem to be having more fun with your roles these days. Do you think the success you had as the sadistic fop in Rob Roy freed you up to be more of a comedic villain?
TR: No. I thought I was going to get fired for that. When the first dailies went back to the studio, I said to my agent, "You better find me something else 'cause I think we're out of here." It was really bad, over-the-top acting. But Michael [Caton-Jones, Rob Roy's director] said to me, "You have to go bigger. There's no 'too much' here.'" And he was right. It really worked. I think it's hysterical. And horrible.
TS: Do you think as a result you can now be a bit broader in your roles, as you are playing Dutch Schultz in Hoodlums?
TR: I just said to [director] Bill [Duke], "Tough guys do a lot of whispering acting in movies these days, and it's boring. Can I just do a 30's movie performance? You know, Bugs Bunny crossed with Cagney?" He said, "Fire away. It's all yours."
TS: What was it like working with Tupac Shakur on Gridlock'd?
TR: He was an actor before he was a rapper, so he knew his stuff. He was excited about it because he wasn't playing a gangster role, but a fairly vulnerable, sensitive guy. I think he did it very well.
TS: You bounce off each other nicely.
TR: It's a Laurel and Hardy kind of thing.
TS: Why do you think you're wanted over and over again in American films?
TR: I'm cheap. No, I have no idea. Don't know. I'm glad I am. Otherwise I'd be back in London. (Laughs)