Roth Discovers Froth
By Miranda Sawyer
In his 12-year cinematic career Tim Roth has done death. He's died if not quite a thousand times, then certainly enough to suggest a morbid preoccupation with expiring. But now, in a personal departure, the young Londoner who has become a Hollywood star thanks to Quentin Tarantino is exploring a whole new theme in his work: sex. And he seems to like it.
If you spend a couple of days working your way through Tim Roth's cinematic CV, from his furious 1983 debut as bovver-boy-next-door Trevor in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain through to the Tarantino years (1993's Reservoir Dogs, a very gutsy performance; then hapless heist wannabe in Pulp Fiction), you will conclude that Roth is, without doubt, one of Britain's most talented and committed celluloid clog-poppers. He's terrific at dying. Tip-top at topping himself; a faultless murderee. Dead good. The gorier and more unlikely the demise, the better. Tim Roth lives each death as if it were his last.
There was his beautifully off-beat send-off in The Hit, his second feature: shot bang through the middle of the left lens of his Aviator shades by an ungracious John Hurt. Some Shakespearian noose-swinging in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Then an affectingly gruesome suicide in Vincent and Theo (aesthetic blood-sopped stagger through whitewashed French streets, final puff on trusty pipe, fin). But Roth's most glorious penultimate moments are undoubtedly to be found in Reservoir Dogs, where he manages to drag out his last gasp for the length of the entire film.
So it comes as a surprise that Roth cops it in only one of his three new offerings (Captives, Little Odessa, and Rob Roy -- let's not ruin the plot by identifying which one). Still, it's a worthy addition to his repertoire. He milks his moment of gory glory in such a spectacularly over-the-top manner -- staggering, buckling, hemorrhaging -- that the film's preview audience, who are by nature an undemonstrative lot, actually laughed out loud. Some whooped. Even for those of us who wanted him to live, it was a definite highlight.
Of course, virtual termination is one thing, but the off-screen experience is far more final and, therefore, worrying. Does Tim Roth ever think about that? Sprawled across a pastel sofa, Roth considers real-life death, as he does most things, in depth, for about three seconds.
"Men go through it at 30, the death thing," he pronounces. He'll be 34 on 14 May. "Before that you think you're immortal. When I started worrying about death, I thought about pain a bit -- enemas -- but really it was in terms of no longer being able to have fun."
He flashes an all-teeth smile, genuine enough, but disturbingly reminiscent of Trevor the skinhead's maniacal snarl or of rotten, puking Mitchell in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover as he cheerily hands a knife to Michael Gambon, even of the smugly vile gaiety of Rob Roy's Archibald, the vicious English fop. Roth's talent for big screen death is not entirely solipsistic: he tends to take a few out with him when he goes, and usually does it smiling. That grin makes you wonder what he really means by "fun". The deliberate crippling of orphaned baby rabbits, for example, seems a distinct possibility.
Disappointingly, Roth turns out to be entirely affable. Swears a bit, smokes a lot, throws himself around his seat with over-energized abandon. But he doesn't pull a gat. He doesn't suddenly spill vital organs over the flowery settee. He says, "Thank you," to the waiter. Still, it's early yet.
We get the film plugs over and done with. There's the British-made thriller-romance Captives, set in a prison, where con Roth gets it together with Julia Ormond, the in-house dentist -- a pleasing, neat little film that would surely sit better on telly, with the benefit of a few commercial breaks. There's the enjoyably rambustious Rob Roy epic, with Liam Neeson doing his usual bull-headed nobility schtick -- this time in a kilt -- plus Jessica Lange acting her gorgeous socks off and Tim getting nasty in ridiculous wigs and pantaloons. "All the swordfights, all the campery -- I'm looking for a nomination for best supporting actress for that one," he says, easily.
And then there's Little Odessa, with Edward Furlong and Vanessa Redgrave, a glum picture of contemporary life in New York's poorest Russian community. Roth plays the very cheapest of hit men.
"I love that film," says Roth. "That's the kind of film I always wanted to make, the kind of American film that I really love. It's dark. It's so dark."
It is that. Roth smiles twice in the whole story -- once at mum, once at girlfriend. I'm surprised that he adores the film so much. It is relentlessly depressing, not easy to watch and, truthfully, Roth does not shine. He's too deadpan and unlikeable.
"But that's how it is there. Depressing. Harsh. James Grey, the director, he wrote it, and he's from that community, so he knows. And we worked on doing stock phrases, like 'She won't say anything and if she does we do her too', we worked on doing them as speeches. Completely dead. Trying for as little emotional information as possible."
That's very hard for the viewer, though.
"Yeah it is. You've got work. It's fucking harsh."
Little Odessa and Captives also mark the first celluloid sex for Roth, who has remained prudishly buttoned throughout his 12-year career.
"I finally lost my cherry," he smirks. "I got a romantic lead! But it makes me embarrassed to watch it. You know when you're in love with somebody and you've got to look like you're in love? When you see yourself doing it . . . " He makes a cheesy face.
In both films' sex scenes -- bulb-lit, fuzzily shot in Odessa; hot, breathless, in-toilet climaxing in Captives -- he puts his hand over the girl's eyes. "Do I? Hmmm. It wasn't really planned. In Little Odessa, me and Moira, that was just what happened. We did it in one take. She's a devout Catholic, I mean, would have become a nun -- and we just had a couple of glasses of wine and went for it."
Despite eschewing obvious fancy-me roles, usually in favour of parts which showcase the more unappealing emotional outbursts -- resentment, frustration, violence, malice, amoral vomiting with spurious gun-waving -- Roth has an army of female admirers. He appeared in Jackie magazine as long ago as 1985, but it was Reservoir Dogs that really did it. Lean, mean, and stealing the scene, Roth was Mr. Orange, a smooth-suited, crinkly-eyed gunman with a 24-carat heart, pumping its red stuff all over the shop. "aw, I dunno," demurs the reluctant Roth. "I think it's peculiar, the sexy thing. In the cinema people go, 'Phoaar, he's a bit tasty' and then they go home, that's it. The sex symbol bit's just designed by newspapers. I don't mind, though. It's a laugh, innit?"
"I laugh all the time", says Roth and, looking at him, you can believe it. He's relaxed, lazily hood-eyed, jovial, healthy. Much less ratty than on screen, dressed in the easy style of an LA resident: T-shirt, jeans, biker boots, tattoos, streaky blond hair, golden skin. He's small (5ft 7in) and wiry and he looks pretty handy, but ask him the last time he hit someone and he really can't recall. "Apart form sex? I think it was in a punk club . . . I was never much of a fighter."
Softy Tim was "the pursued" at school. "Little, and I didn't like football." From a middle-class background in Dulwich, south London -- mum, Ann, was a teacher and painter; dad, Ernie, now dead, a journalist -- young Timothy Simon Roth was forced to change when he moved from a cozy Dulwich primary school to The Strand comprehensive in Brixton.
"It was all 'poofs' and 'niggers' and no one ever read a book. Bastards. When I went I had a standard English kind of voice. I had me cockney accent down in two days."
Roth hated it, apart from art, so he spent his halcyon, sunlit school days "doing lots of drugs, speed mostly, bunking off and going up Soho, to a flea market that was where Chinatown is now. Punk was just starting."
A few character-forming years spent jumping up and down at contemporary clubs like the Music Machine and Vortex, shouting "Kill the hippies" and trying to get off with punkette girls ("I never got any"), then off went Roth to sixth-form college. "I lost my virginity there," he remembers with satisfaction. "To a girl. In sculpture class." Camberwell Art College came next -- more cheap drugs, more girls in plaster-splashed overalls -- but by then he had discovered the stage: "So I jumped. I wanted to be able to call myself an actor." His first performance, at school at 16, had sold him on the life of a luvvie, so he spent his days selling advertising space and his nights on the fringe. "All these profit-share theaters in the middle of nowhere. I did a Strindberg play in a pub in Paddington with a set that wasn't finished, and one night we played to an audience of one drunk. And he fell asleep."
Then, suddenly, in 1983, Tim Roth's life changed. "I was living in a Rotherhithe council flat," he recalls, flipping his lighter to spark another Camel, "and I was cycling back home and I got a flat tyre. So I went into the Oval House, where I'd done community theatre, to get a bicycle pump and they didn't have one, but they said: 'There's these auditions going on, why don't you have a go?'"
The auditions were for Alan Clarke and Made In Britain. "They knew I wouldn't mind shaving my head because I'd done it for Othello." Roth was cast as Trevor.
Terrible Trev was a genuine overnight sensation, sneering and strutting and knee-jerking his way into the nation's horrified psyche. David Leland's script was a pearl ("Shit on it, Errol!"), but it was Roth's blazing portrayal of rabid, skinhead, couldn't-give-a-flying-one-so-screw-you logic that truly scared and scarred. He was terrifying.
Next was Mike Leigh's Meantime, and some of Roth's (and Leigh's) best-ever work. Tim plays Colin ("Muppet") Pollock, slow, asthmatic, gonky, crap. He breaks your heart with his dribbly mouth and his specs all askew, chewing up the DHSS pen as he struggles to write his name. The film also showcased the considerable youthful talents of Phil Daniels and Gary Oldman. Did Roth like working with Mike Leigh?
"Yeah, I loved it. Some people really hate the way he works. A lot of that is because you don't know how big your part is going to end up, so you get a lot of pissed-off actors, cut down to one scene when they've spent weeks living their part."
Roth himself didn't wash for 14 weeks in order to get Colin right. Such dedication paid off: not only was he devastatingly convincing, but Blur's Graham Coxon reputedly based his entire wardrobe on Colin's distinctive style. "Hmmm. Nice parka," says Roth, not without irony. "Lovely glasses. Great pair of cords. I can see it."
Stephen Frears' The Hit followed in 1984, taking our peroxided hero on to an aeroplane and out of Britain for the first time in his life. Despite fine performances, the film bombed. And, as suddenly and as ballistically as it had soared, Roth's life followed suit.
He was offered Absolute Beginners ("Absolute Bullshit") and, wisely enough, turned it down. He swore he'd never do commercial rubbish, just to pay the bills. So he did a spot of stage work, some TV, one or two foreign-based films. He split up with Lori, the mother of his little boy, Jack (whose birth he commemorated with a tattoo: "J.E.R.1.9.84" on his left arm). He stopped getting up when he didn't have to. He was four years without proper work.
"I just kept going for auditions. But they can smell your desperation. They know you need the job and you don't get it."
Jobless (in 1988, his work totalled one TV play), friendless ("I only ever really had two mates I could rely on"), penniless (he refused to sign on), he spent most of his time in bed. "I went to Yugoslavia with a girlfriend to make a film that never came off. I lived in Paris for about three months. Did a lot of shagging. But . . . you just don't do anything. Your brain goes funny. It was really horrible."
It took Peter Greenaway and The Cook, The Thief . . . to stir Tim's listless stumpy legs. During filming, in 1989, Roth landed the lead in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo and "I was back on track".
However, the stupid stupor of mid-1980s unemployment has tainted Roth's opinion of Britain. He moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1990s, with the whiff of agit-prop politics still hanging around his UK memories. He calls Margaret Thatcher "her", even now.
"I was much more uptight when I lived here," he explains, looking straight at you with his wonky monkey-face. "You get to America and you realize it's OK to be romantic. It's fine to be laid-back. Over here we were too busy suffering, spending all our time worrying about the rent. No, I never sold the Socialist Worker, but I had all the badges, I went on all the marches. I've done my share of fucking panicking."
At first, though, Los Angeles brought its own difficulties. Roth took his friend Gary Oldman's US approach, swallowing his accent and refusing to play British people: "English people in America are always cast as Alan Rickman baddies." He worked on Jumpin' At the Boneyard, a moody Bronx-based film about crackheads that no one ever saw.
Tim loved New York but was forced to move back to the City of Angels and Actors. He hated it for some time. He didn't drive then ("I still don't like it. I'm constantly getting into fender benders"), which was debilitating, and he found the compulsory tour of movie bashes trivial and irksome. Within weeks he'd met every actor he'd ever wanted to meet and "had really superficial, nothing, party-talk conversation with them".
He still had no friends. It took him another two years to find his feet.
But he sits before you now, after four years in LA, and Tim Roth -- urban, edgy, fight-the-powers Tim Roth -- positively radiates happiness. He really does. Everything is "wonderful", "a blast", "great". It would make you sick if he didn't appreciate it so much. "I lead a very romantic life, yes I do, thanks."
He met his wife, fashion designer Nikki Butler, at a winter Sundance film festival. She was out there skiing with some friends. Though Roth fancied her, he thought she was "out of my league -- too tall and gorgeous", but when mutual friends finally got them on a date, "we were snogging at the bar within 20 minutes". They were married two years ago.
"We're together every day all day," says Roth, proudly. "We go all around the world together, run off to Paris, hang out in bars, sit in the backyard watching the sunset. We're a team."
He throws himself back -- whump -- into the duvet-sized sofa cushions, takes a swig of water and blasts you with that murderously glorious full-beam grin. He's just finished Four Rooms, a four-director project (featuring the ubiquitous Quentin Tarantino), in which he stars. He has three more films lined up -- "all independent, low-budget" -- before the middle of next year. He has a "bunch of hooligans" as pool-shooting mates: "real friends, who I can really talk to". His baby is due next month. He lives in Silverlake, in a house with a garden that looks out towards the mountains, with the woman that he loves. No wonder he's so mercilessly cheerful, the blob-nosed little tyke. Tim Roth's idea of fun is a happy ending.