Tim Roth: Hollywood Arse Inspector
By Pete Stanton
Bled to death in Reservoir Dogs, lost an ear in Vincent & Theo, got skewered in Rob Roy. Tim Roth looked alright when we met him.
You know Tim Roth. Hard man, looks mean with a gun, dies a lot in his films: He's as cool as you can get without actually climbing in the fridge. You probably want to be him. Or at least be in a film with him. Even today he looks dressed for a robbery. Slicked back hair, black T-shirt, dark jeans. There's a beer and some fags on the table in front of him. When he puts his hands behind his head the arm of his T-shirt reveals a garter tattoo on his right arm. Fucking cool. But there's something else. He's nervous. He's fiddling with the Rolex on his wrist. His eyes dart from me to the door to the window. Caution is not what we've come to expect from him. Suddenly the man in front of me has transformed from hero to just bloke. And now I notice things. His nose is big. Big enough to say, "Oi conk face" and not be far wrong. His tattoo looks just like that Scouse bird's one in the Spice Girls. He's only 5 foot 7. That's short arse country. And his accent has a sort of mid-Atlantic posh Englishness to it. Suddenly before me is a bloke from Dulwich with a ponce's voice who I could probably beat in a fight. But then I dismiss this and let his characters in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs come shooting back into my mind. Roth is again reinstated as being cool. For now.
Over a couple of beers in a room in the Savoy in London I just can't make my mind up about Roth. No actor can pull off the attitude on and off the screen. Mickey Rourke couldn't do it. Jack Nicholson has a go but usually looks foolish. Christopher Walken probably sits on Fridays watching telly like the rest of us. And you can bet your arse that Tim Roth certainly isn't involved in failed diamond heists on his weekends off.
Do you own a gun?
Do you think you need one?
Why don't you want one?
"Guns scare me. I don't like working with them, I don't like using them in films, I hate them. I think they bring bad luck."
Could you shoot someone?
"I don't know. I'd find it hard enough to hit somebody let alone fire a gun at them. I can play violent but I wouldn't want to be that."
See what I mean?
Tim Roth is here to promote his new film, Gridlock'd. It's your basic Roth cocktail -- shoot-outs, drugs, violence, banal conversations. He plays it, as ever, competently and believably. He's schizo, freaky, funny, but surprisingly it's his co-star that steals the show, Tupac Shakur. He plays Roth's mate, a very believable junkie whose life is ultimately out of his control, a situation that caught up with Tupac in real life when he was shot dead last year in Las Vegas. Roth agrees that we've been deprived of a good bloke.
"I was in LA when I heard he'd been shot. I was due to meet him the next day to do some re-voicing for the film. I thought he was gonna pull through. He was doing OK for a while even after he had a lung removed, but then he had to have more major surgery and his body just couldn't take it. It was awful. When I planned to meet him before the film he told me not to listen to any of his records or see any of his films so I could judge him as he is. He's a sweet guy. We got on. He told me that what he does is all a performance and that's how he makes his business. Pretty tough business, huh?"
Roth laughs under his breath as he says, "pretty tough business, huh?" The world of Tupac Shakur is a long way from his. For him a night out is playing pool with his mates or having dinner with his wife. The pair of them share a flat in LA with their two kids (he has another son by a former girlfriend in south London). What he says he misses about England is, "Branston Pickle, rich tea biscuits, and that's about it". In my 40 minutes with him surrounded by the poshest splendour a London hotel could offer, Roth wanders perilously close to luvvy country as he talks of his profession. He names actors he's worked with, some of whom I've never heard of, and tells of each being "great" or "lovely". He tells a story of a dinner party arranged by Roddy McDowall (Cornelius in Planet Of The Apes) after they met at the Oscars last year. "Anthony Hopkins was there with his mum and wife and I was sat next to Lily Tomlin." It's a story best saved for his memoirs when he's 60. This isn't what I want to hear. This is the man who spent most of Reservoir Dogs dying with buckets of blood pouring out of his stomach. And we want blood now.
How rowdy does your life get nowadays?
"It's always been quite subdued. I go to the pub, I like to shoot pool and I love having friends over. I have had a rowdy life. Before I met my wife I did. I still do sometimes if I'm on my own in New York and I don't have my family with me. But I get bored with all that clubs and bars stuff."
Have you ever had to defend yourself because someone thinks you're hard?
"I tell you what happens. I'll be in a bar with some mates having a drink and some guy will come up and start talking and be my best mate, and then 15 beers later he wants to beat me up because he wants to be the guy who kicked Tim Roth's arse. Or their girlfriend is looking at you too much and then you can get into trouble. I just try to diffuse the situation. I had a couple of guys in Charleston, Carolina who wanted to start trouble with me and they ended up buying me drinks. I'm a good diffuser, I learnt that at school."
What's the tip then?
"Well you get straight in their face and then the first thing I'd say is, 'I wouldn't fight you. I can't do that. It's not what I do.' You just completely disarm it and turn it around. I know actors who get in fights because they're actors. It's an unpleasant byproduct of celebrity."
Roth's father Ernie was a journalist and his mother Anne was a teacher. Tim went to a comprehensive school in Brixton and was confronted with the daily diet of football and bullies, neither of which interested him. A few years after school, it was a chance stop-off at a rehearsal hall in Brixton to borrow a bicycle pump that kick-started his career. Persuaded to join an audition, he landed the role of Trevor the psychotic skinhead in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain. He was away. Stephen Frears' The Hit provided his first gangster role but he had to wait a good five years for Robert Altman's Vincent And Theo to get things going again. It was after this he decided to go to America.
"I was in New York and for the first time I was properly on my own. I really enjoyed it, it's an extraordinary place. It reminded me of the movies, because we've seen so much of it in films, it just seemed familiar. I went to LA after that and was just going to meet casting directors for a couple of weeks then go home to Britain. But I thought, what am going home for? I didn't have a job to go to. It was a big decision and I knew I had to give this a try and give myself six months to see if anything happens. It's an unforgiving place, America because if you fuck up you're done. Anyway, the first thing that happened was Reservoir Dogs.
Reservoir Dogs was Roth's winning lottery ticket and he had the bonus ball as well. Fifty million dollars later and the film is still talked about with awe.
"When I met Quentin [Tarantino] he asked me about playing Mr. Pink or Mr. Blonde. But I said no, I wanted to play Mr. Orange. The liar. That interested me first of all because I'm not American and I'm playing an American. I'm also in a film that's not real and within the film I'm pretending to be someone else. It was almost like an essay on acting, that character. And that intrigued me."
Were you one of the first in?
"Oh no, Harvey was already in. I think I joined in the middle of it all."
Do you think you all look as fucking cool on that Reservoir Dogs poster as we think you do?
"Oh yeah, it's all about that. It was how Quentin designed it. He wanted it that way. It's very generic and uniform. The campaign that the British did for Reservoir Dogs was brilliant. All the guys in the suits, with a white background and the blood splattered. Brilliant. The American one was pretty boring. We all collected the English posters for it anyway. I've got a storage place somewhere full of this sort of stuff."
Will you be working with him again?
"He's getting ready to film already so this will be the first one he's done that I won't be in. He's doing an Elmore Leonard adaptation. It's annoying, but we'll work again. The leads are going to be Pam Greer [the '70s Blaxploitation icon] and Sam Jackson. And I think Bridget Fonda's in it as well."
I once read something about Roth explaining how he never trains or exercises because he believes actors should look like real people. It sounds a foolproof excuse.
"Brilliant, isn't it? But so simple," he laughs. "But I do believe actors are beginning to look like the same person."
I pose the example of John Travolta in Staying Alive, the follow-up to Saturday Night Fever, where he was pumped up to the eyeballs with muscles.
"Yeah, there was no need," agrees Roth. "Would his character be that big? I remember Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. In the first 20 minutes he's just got a towel wrapped around him and looks like a human being. Brilliant."
Was that your favourite time for movies?
"Yeah, but the '70s were great for movies as well. The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, all these great movies. It was only in the mid-'70s when Star Wars hit that everything changed."
"The formula was messed with. And I don't think it changed for the better, definitely for the worse."
So you're not a fan of Star Wars?
"Not for what it did. The '80s was terrible for movies after that. The changes only came about when Sex Lies And Videotape and Reservoir Dogs happened and it became possible to make a film for a small amount of money that actually meant something."
But what if you were offered a big money role in a blockbuster?
"I've already been offered those roles on pretty major films but have turned them down. I just recently made a decision on that whole money thing and decided not to take the money. I only really want to do films I absolutely believe in."
"Of course if there was a big studio film with a great script I'd jump at it, but they just tend not to be too adventurous. I've talked to my agent about this and said no more, even if I'm struggling, I'd rather get a loan."
Before our conversation is cut short by his press officer whisking him away, he offers me a close to my story.
"I've had the most extraordinary experiences as an actor. The characters I've played, the people I've met, the places I've been. I've even done films that turned out crap but the experience of making them was wonderful.
"But my aim is to be an actor for as long as I'm alive. It doesn't matter if I'm famous or not, that's nothing to do with me. I just want work. I'll do it as much as possible in as many various forms as I can and hopefully I'll come to the end of my life and think, that was a good run."