Talking with good bad guy Tim Roth
By Betsy Pickle
Tim Roth is so good at being bad that he earned an Oscar nomination for it. But as with the cold-blooded killer and rapist he played in Rob Roy, he doesn't make judgments about any of the villains he has portrayed.
For example, in The Beautiful Country, "I play a guy who, part of his cargo is human beings," says Roth. To his freighter captain, smuggling people from Asia to the West is just business.
Roth, Nick Nolte and Bai Ling are the "names" in The Beautiful Country. But the star is "this great new kid, a Vietnamese actor called Damien Nguyen," says Roth, who spells Nguyen's surname to make sure the rising star gets attention.
"It's about the dilemma with the biracial kids that are the result of the Vietnam War," Roth says of The Beautiful Country, which he describes as "a really nice ... very low-budget film." "They were, for quite some time, treated abominably by the Vietnamese themselves. ... Even their own families would keep them outside and feed them scraps.
"It's about ... one of those kids whose father was a GI in Vietnam who vanished. It's about his journey to try and find his father, from Vietnam through America."
Roth, 44, has no problem appearing in films that aren't "about" his character. He plays Jennifer Connelly's supportive lawyer in Dark Water and a detective tracking down runaway film star Sam Shepard in the upcoming Don't Come Knocking, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Cumulative assets help him decide whether to commit to a project.
"You start with the script first," he tells reporters in an interview in New York. "Normally, then you go from that to meeting the director, and that can be the end of the line, or it can be somebody that's intriguing to you. ... The next one is, who's acting in it? If that's a scary thing, then you walk away, and you walk away quickly."
He says that sometimes he has to do films he doesn't "believe in" to pay the mortgage, but he tries "to do a good job on them, too."
Roth, who now lives in Los Angeles, grew up in London but easily switches back and forth between characters of different nationalities. He started picking up other accents when classmates at his working-class school gave him a hard time for sounding middle-class.
He's worked with some of the best directors around, including Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, John Sayles, Tim Burton, Woody Allen, Michael Caton-Jones, Nicolas Roeg, Robert Altman, Peter Greenaway, Agnieszka Holland, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and, most notably, Quentin Tarantino.
It was Tarantino's 1992 directing debut, Reservoir Dogs, that made U.S. audiences notice Roth, who played Mr. Orange in the violent classic. Roth went on to work with Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and Four Rooms, and he's supposedly attached to the director's long-gestating World War II film, Inglorious Bastards.
Tarantino has been talking to him about the war film nearly since they met.
"If he wants me in it, I'm there," says Roth.
Tarantino, whose directing gigs tend to get put on the back burner while he writes, acts and produces, has directed only three films in which Roth has not appeared. The actor was disappointed that there wasn't a role for him in the Kill Bill saga.
"I wanted to play the guy with the really long mustache," Roth jokes. "You can't be in everything that he does. ... He's a friend, and you want to be in his stuff. It's great, and he's really fun to work with, and he comes up with weird ideas. It's exciting."
Roth made his directing debut with the acclaimed drama The War Zone, and he is looking for financing for another film he hopes to direct next year. He learned directing in much the same way he learned acting.
"I didn't train; I just got on with it," says Roth, who briefly studied sculpture at art school before an audition on impulse made him go out for acting. "I trained in the theater, basically, onstage. That's pretty much it."
Roth's father was a journalist and his mother a painter and teacher. He's not sure if his 10- and 9-year-old sons, with wife Nikki Butler, will follow his path.
"One of them wants to be a bartender, and the other one isn't sure," he says.
His 20-year-old son from a previous relationship is already trying to act.
"He disobeyed me and became an actor," says Roth. "I've been pushing him to go to drama school.
"What happened to me, there's a kajillionth of a chance of that happening to anybody. I'm very, very fortunate."
Roth, who had shaved his head for a play, was cast in his screen debut as a skinhead in Made in Britain when he went to borrow a bicycle pump in a building where auditions for the 1982 TV movie were being held.
"I think if you get the luck, you've gotta have the talent to back it up, and then you've gotta have the guts to go through with it as well," he says. "But it seriously was luck. I mean, I got a flat tire, and I got a job. And that doesn't happen."