This Year's Andy Capp!
Tim Roth, star of Made In Britain and The Hit is quickly carving out a reputation for his portrayal of working-class outsiders. Here, in conversation with Hugh (Loco Weed) Morely, he gets to the heart of the perils and paradoxes of the acting game.
Tim Roth sits supping a beer; a diminutive figure with pale skin, a slicked back haircut and a large nose. A bit of a lad really. His pink shirt hangs open to reveal a white vest tucked into faded jeans slit at the knee Ramones-style!
Like the best actors, he carries a touch of the chameleon about him. He looks smaller than his screen image, more wiry. Now and again, one of the characters pokes through. The curl of the lip, the blank stare, the hint of a swagger. Trevor, Colin, Myron; these three have made him.
"When you think about it," he declaims, "in the three years I've been acting, I've done three things, but they were eccentric things. They were interesting. Another actor might have done them -- but it's something I did . . . It comes down to being careful what you do!"
These 'three things' were Made In Britain, Meantime, and The Hit, the last of which brought him a BAFTA nomination and an Evening Standard award for Best Newcomer. At twenty-four, the pundits have got him marked down as the 'next big thing'. With his lack of formal training and an education at a South East London comprehensive, they like to cast him as an 'outsider'; a working class foible to the likes of public/drama school-reared Rupert Everett. It's not true, but it sticks. The three roles just happened to be tough, gritty and grotesquely realistic portrayals of the struggle to get up from the bottom of the heap. The Sunday Times posed him in a white vest, hands in pockets like some insolent young 'Andy Capp'. "It's always good copy isn't it," he admits.
Unlike pop stars, however, actors don't survive on good copy alone. Tim Roth is a consummate professional. Billing doesn't matter, money doesn't matter. Scripts do. He talks of a fellow actor and one senses that this is the crux of the matter. "John Hurt is an actor. He doesn't play the star or any of that. He's just a very, very, extremely hard-working actor. There's no aura -- he just gets on with the fucking job."
As the conversation unfolds, he maps out the writers and directors he admires; a seemingly disparate bunch who share few things in common. Perhaps only one. No bullshit! De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson and newcomer Mickey Rourke are cited without hesitation. A bit of poking around and we get back across the Atlantic. David Leland, who wrote Made In Britain, Alan Clarke ("the best director in the country") who directed it, Mike Leigh who created Meantime, Phil Daniels, Alan Parker. And of course fellow East Ender, Bob Hoskins.
"It's funny with Hoskins because I've never met him," says Roth with a hint of longing. "In fact I stood next to him once and never had the bottle to talk to him. He terrifies me but he's a brilliant actor. Brilliant film actor as well as stage actor. We don't have many good film actors in this country, but he can do it. That's why they love him in America."
"The Americans have got it," he continues, relishing the thought. "They've all got something more. They're not just acting the character or just demonstrating the character, they are actually being it. Ninety-nine percent of American films that you see here are terrible but there's that one percent which they've got and we haven't which is the De Niro's, the Nicholsons, the Pacinos, and the Mickey Rourkes."
And of course the Francis Ford Coppola. "I sent him a letter once asking for a job." Did he answer? "Nah. I've still got his phone number though. The thing is you can never get through . . ."
"My mother was a painter and my father was a journalist. I had a regular middle class upbringing," explains Roth popping a few myths. "The first five years of school I hated. I wasn't a bully or anything and when you get picked on, you have to hold your own in those places and I didn't. I wasn't able to, so you tend to hide up in the art room like an eccentric and get out of it by being silly."
After a brief spell at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in the Gorbals -- at which he admits he "had a terrible time, I was appalling" -- he gained his equity card and was playing Othello when Made In Britain came up. Head shaven for Othello, he auditioned three times and got it.
"It was a very, very good script," recalls Roth of his first impressions. "For any actor to get a script dealing with that sort of subject and a script so well written that isn't embarrassing, not like Oi for England which was dreadful . . . this was the opposite. It was clean cut and it was mainly observations. The audience just basically observed three days. It didn't tell you what was right and wrong, you drew your own conclusions."
The conclusions were obvious. The story was of three days in the life of a skinhead, caught in a downward spiral from court to care and destined inevitably for prison. It was one of the most savagely poignant plays to slip past the censor. Even the second time around, it provoked scores of complaints after screening. "I think it was political," remarks Roth over the outcry. "They didn't like to think that this country was producing people like that."
The intensity of Roth's portrayal of Trevor the skinhead, lacerated the script with a warped sense of nihilism; a malevolence that caressed and popped from the screen like a jackboot. You could almost feel the hate throbbing inside his head. With no training to look to, he had to pick up the character from the basics.
"I used to go to skinhead pubs as the character. I went to National Front meetings. I used to drink with the people and talk their politics as Trevor. Just to get inside and find the character, because I had no technique to fall back on. That was the only way I could make it safe for myself -- to become the part. It's a very dangerous thing to do because you can't switch off. I became very aggressive for a while."
The technique contains echoes of Robert De Niro's obsessive predilection for apeing the characters for months before rehearsals. The saxophone playing in New York, New York, the cab driving in Taxi Driver. Is this what they call 'the method'?
"I never read any books on acting," says Roth. "They scare me shitless. At the time, I knew who I admired -- mainly De Niro -- but I didn't know how they worked. It just seemed the failsafe thing to do. You go out and if you are the person, no one can argue with it."
His next role was Colin in Meantime, a classic mirthless comedy of mores and manners, wallowing in the petty foibles of the working class. The participants stink. They fight, they bitch and they do very little but sit around and watch TV and drink.
"The thing about Mike Leigh's stuff is that you know people like that," contends Roth. "He gets slagged off for taking the piss out of the working class -- but that's rubbish, these people exist."
The other thing about Mike Leigh's plays is that they don't have a script. "He just comes and says: 'This is going to be a play that's set in the East End. This is the form of the script: scene one, two people in a room; scene two, three people in a room . . . think of anyone who's working class who's in your age group'. So you come back with a list and talk about these people extensively and you narrow it down, in my case to one person I knew at school. And that's what you base the character on."
Sometimes the results get fairly extreme. In one of Leigh's earlier plays, Anthony Sher was so wired up for the part, having worked alone on the character for weeks, that when they finally came together he was violently sick. In Tim Roth's case, as the retarded Colin, he didn't wash for sixteen weeks. Constantly preyed upon by his older brother, Colin wanders around saying nothing. By the time it ended, Roth was so introverted that he didn't talk to anyone.
Along the way, Roth took a few parts that he cares not to mention too loudly. There was an American TV movie which he did "because Bette Davis was in it and to pay the rent", a stage play called "Cries From The Mammal House" by Terry Johnson and a (unintentional) caricature of a punk in Ray Davies' flawed Return to Waterloo.
Then came the role of Myron, a trainee killer, in The Hit; a part for which he was suggested by Joe Strummer who was the original choice. Didn't he worry about getting type-cast as a 'thug'?
"I have no qualms at all. I'll do a script if it's good whether it be televized or the theatre or whatever. I read the script and it was a straightforward story. Some bits in it I wasn't too keen on but I thought the character was alright -- something I could work on and build up. Then I asked who the other actors were and they said John Hurt . . . I'd have done it for a tenner!"
He researched it in the "very trendy, very lapel" area of the Old Kent Road getting pissed with kids with "no money, but their own cars". As someone who had only ever been to Paris before, he found the whole thing "bizarre": the entire crew slowly driving up from the South of Spain to Basque country stopping on the way to film a story about two psty faced killers taking an ex con/grass back to be killed. Bizarre . . . but successful.
"The only really bad review I got was from John McVicar who said Myron would have been dead within about five minutes; and it's true. He was appalling, a failure. If you think about it, a hired killer would have taken him straight out. My theory was that he was hired as a last minute thing -- they needed a driver."
At the moment he is about to embark upon rehearsal for a new play Grafters to be shown in Hampstead and appears quietly confident about a four part television series about a man who helps Bengali's out in the East End. He prefers to remain diplomatically tight lipped about his non-appearance in Absolute Beginners, now being filmed, but harbors a serious distaste for pop stars turned actors.
But for all his relative success, the lot of an actor is a precarious one. However far up the ladder you go, there's no turning away from the constant gnawing worry . . . maybe this is the last work I'll ever get!
"Yeah, I get terrified. But then I'm still turning things down. You have to think 'Well my career has to go in this direction, and the bank account is going in this direction . . .' It's a fucking dodgy business! You talk about integrity but there comes a point where you have to pay the rent. What do you do? Do you pay the rent or do you do shit work? . . . I've decided not to pay the rent and do good work!"