On the Edge
Best known for playing a rogue's gallery of lowlifes and thugs, Tim Roth will soon be seen in . . . Nora Ephron's big-budget Lucky Numbers. Tim Roth in a Nora Ephron comedy? Richard Natale investigates and finds there's no fear the star of Reservoir Dogs has lost his bite.
Meeting up with Tim Roth is like hanging out in a British pub. A perfect stranger enters, sits on a stool and nods at you in that reserved but unfailingly polite English manner and then orders a pint of lager. A few beers, a little time and the barriers start to come down, and you find yourself in a wide-ranging discussion, moving easily from acting to politics and a lot in between. Unprompted, and with a certain pained dispassion, he even discusses the abuse he suffered as a child and yet, somehow, it all makes sense.
In this case, the pub is the alfresco balcony of Pasadena's Ritz Carlton Hotel on a mellow summer afternoon. Ambling down an uncommonly long and ornate hallway toward the bar area, the 39-year old actor is casually dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. His greeting is professional, perfunctory. He orders a beer, lights up a cigarette and remains hidden behind his dark sunglasses. His responses are at first simple and just barely audible. But a couple of beers later, the glasses come off and Roth is Ping-Ponging from subject to subject. Which is not to say that, even at his most relaxed, Roth will ever be accused of being the extrovert he is on celluloid. Despite the florid tattoos on his right arm, his energetic tough-guy persona is, he maintains, strictly an act.
But what an act. With a spirit that recalls James Cagney ("I nicked a lot from Cagney -- and Bugs Bunny," he says), Roth revels in playing flashy lowlifes as he did so effectively in Stephen Frears' The Hit and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. "I'm not aware I'm doing it," he says when told of his menacing screen presence. "I just pull it out of myself when the cameras start turning."
He takes great pleasure in playing heavies on-screen because "I was heavily bullied as a kid. It destroyed my education, made me run away from school. I've been making up for it ever since. Playing a bully is a kind of revenge without the pain and the consequences. I can be as scary as they were to me. From an actor's perspective, I know what it looks like."
So vivid are his portraits of thugs that he has rarely been called upon to show his other acting colors. After portraying a subdued and tragically introspective Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, he turned in a calculatedly old-fashioned, over-the-top performance as a malevolent fop in the Scottish period drama Rob Roy, which earned him an Oscar nomination. He brought romance and charm to the lovable lowlife he played in Woody Allen's musical, Everyone Says I Love You. Again like Cagney, he compensated for his passable singing and dancing abilities with all-out conviction and stole all his scenes.
Despite Roth's formidable range and the high regard in which he is held by idiosyncratic directors like Tarantino, Altman and Allen, Hollywood has paid him little notice until lately. But that's slowly changing. He co-stars -- as another hard-to-dislike scam artist -- in the upcoming Nora Ephron comedy Lucky Numbers, which reunites him with John Travolta. (The two had previously appeared together in Pulp Fiction.) Despite the pressures of his resurgent stardom, Roth found Travolta to be "as charming and engaging as ever. He hasn't lost the joy [of performing], and that's a hard thing to hold on to."
At press time, Roth is in negotiations to play Snape in the big-budget Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular children's novels to be transferred to the big screen by Warner Bros.
But for the most part, Roth is committed to working in independent films, both American and British, of varying quality and degrees of success (for every Pulp Fiction, there has been a dog like Hoodlum). But even in the clunkers, he's out there on the front lines, adrenaline pumping. That's why they pay him the small bucks, he argues. "You just have to try and make it work. Sometimes you have a speech that's nonsense, and you have to get it by the audience quickly, before they start to think, What the hell is he saying?"
His philosophy on choosing roles is simple: "One for the kids and one for love." Roth has three sons to support and studio-financed films pay the bills, even if the strategy doesn't always work as planned. Rob Roy started out as a practical way to settle some debt (it helped that the director, Michael Caton-Jones, and the lead actor, Liam Neeson, were friends) and ended up as one of his best and most successful projects. Though Roth resisted all the way, Caton-Jones coaxed a memorably villainous performance out of him.
"It was very difficult," he confesses. "There was sword fighting and horseback riding, neither of which I do. And Michael wanted me to play it very broad. He was really going for that old-fashioned thirties kind of period acting, which is the opposite of what is expected today -- quiet, personal performances. At first I thought I was going to be fired. But eventually I got into it, and it became very enjoyable."
And then there are the shaggy independent movies he takes on, hoping that the as yet unknown director is another Tarantino or Altman, only to have his hopes dashed. "There have been so many times that I've done a film because I thought it was an extraordinary opportunity and it was just crap. Either the director couldn't direct, or I misread the story and the dialogue was totally unspeakable. Or I simply couldn't act the part. It can be very depressing." Sometimes even having Tarantino around doesn't help, as was the case with the misbegotten Four Rooms, a quartet of short films by four directors (including Tarantino) whose only common thread was Roth, playing a sort of Jerry Lewis-on-acid bellboy.
"The problem with film is that it's forever," he sighs. "There are so many of those films that I haven't seen because they experience was so painful. And then there are the ones where the experience was so good and you don't want to ruin it by finding that it still didn't turn out. But then Spencer Tracy never saw any of his films."
Recently, Roth sat in the director's chair for the first time. His 1999 drama, The War Zone, is an intensely personal and punishing tale about incest. It's almost a companion piece to actor Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, in which he exorcised the demons of his own childhood abuse. Both actors share a similar, lower-middle-class London background and are sometimes mistaken for one another; when they turned to directing, they both chose very angry stories and even used the same actor (Ray Winstone) to play the abusive father.
"Anger is very therapeutic," Roth says. "At least it was for Gary and me, although I'm not sure how therapeutic it was for the public."
If audiences were not quite ready for the take-no-prisoners style of Nil By Mouth and The War Zone, critics were impressed by the raw energy in both films. "It was the most satisfying experience of my career," says Roth. "It was great to be able to put the camera where I wanted it, to create the performances. It was my thing. I was finally in control. And it was certainly a good way to find out it I can direct, and I think I can."
He expected that the humbling experience of directing his own film ("There were so many elements I didn't know existed") would make him more patient when working for other fledgling directors. "But in some ways I'm less patient now because I'm thinking, Why are you putting the camera there? Now it's going to take three hours to shoot that scene. But I can't say anything because I'm just the actor."
And as an actor he has no patience for civil disobedience on the set. "When a director says, 'Walk across the room as you're saying your line,' you just do it. You don't say, 'I don't think my character would do that.' I really want to slap actors who say that. You're supposed to have worked out your motivation by reading the script. And if you haven't, well, you just wing it."
In between acting assignments, Roth is preparing to direct his second film, an ambitious adaptation of King Lear with a script by Harold Pinter. He makes it clear this will be no reverent stage-to-screen rendering of Shakespeare's classic, but a cinematic reworking of the material, and he promises that the casting of the title role will raise an eyebrow or two.
"I suppose I'm making myself a walking bulls-eye, but if it's not a challenge, then why do it? It's only the purists I'm worried about. I may be telling Shakespeare's story, but it's also a story of my own invention."
The waitress brings another round of beers and tells Roth it was send by a group of young women nearby. Roth acknowledges the gesture with a polite smile and a small wave. Though he was recently chased down the street in Paris by a gaggle of photographers, when he's recognized, he says, he's usually mistaken for either Oldman or the American actor Steve Buscemi. As they're both friends whose work he admires, he doesn't mind.
But has he ever been mistaken by some lout for the tough guy he plays on-screen -- as Cagney and Bogart frequently were -- who then decides to take him on? "No, and if I was, my first instinct would be to run," he says. "What I get it people who come up to you and say they want to be your friend, but what you don't know is that they really want to kill you. I was in a bar once, and these two drunken girls spent an hour and a half outlining every reason why I was the worst actor in the world. That's the kind of stuff I get."
Fortunately, he says, he's not a movie star. He doesn't have "the face or the physique. But that works in my favor. With luck, I'll always be an actor. Besides, being a movie star is something that's given to you by the public. And it's backed by a vast machine. But you're always threatened by the arrival of the next star. And when you drop, it's a hell of a drop. I wouldn't handle that stress well."
Roth prefers to keep his distance from Hollywood and all that it entails. He lives in Pasadena because the commute is just long enough to give the illusion of being away from it all. "It's outside the hub of the industry. I like to go to work and come away again. Hollywood's a tough place for people. You can have your heart broken."
Also, in Pasadena he's been able to find a suitable multi-ethnic school for his kids rather than one of those star-kids' private schools in Brentwood or Pacific Palisades. Raised in a socialist household, he is very much the unregenerate leftie: One of his main complaints about American movies is that "they tend to have a built-in right-wing message. Besides the blanket of conformity, anything that's darker tends to be bad and children get the message that dark means evil. I try to counter that with their education, to show them there are options. I took my kids to Disneyland, and it was terrifying. Did you know that there is a whole network of passageways underneath that connect the whole park? It's like something out of Ira Levin.
"But," he adds with a sigh of exasperation, "the kids adored it."
Once he starts talking about politics, Roth's opinions become sharper and more pronounced. With the Tories out of power in England, he's considering moving back home. A decade ago, unable to stomach Margaret Thatcher (whom he once referred to at an awards ceremony with a derogatory epithet that rhymes with runt), Roth went into voluntary exile. To this day, the mention of her name makes him bristle. "She's gone but not totally gone," he sneers. "Her attitude about the whole Pinochet affair was a disgrace."
Not that he's a rabid Tony Blair fan. "It's nice to see the Labour Party in again, even if it's the new-and-improved adman's version of Labour. But I think Blair's heart is in the right place. Tim will tell."
Roth has harsh words about the American political scene as well. Mention of presidential candidate George W. Bush prompts a stream-of-consciousness tirade: "Bush? A huge mistake. A horrendous record. His stand on abortion is abhorrent. On gun control, a disgrace. And his father's record -- atrocious." The alternative, he concedes, is not too much better. "Don't care much for Gore -- a new-wave guy, but equally dangerous. He's for the environment, but tell me how the logging industry is these days. He's for gun control, but an outright ban is what's needed."
It seems an odd trajectory from politics back to his movie The War Zone, but for Roth the film was very much a political -- as well as deeply personal -- statement. "It was my subject because I was sexually abused as a child as well," he explains. "And it's something you don't ever get over. You survive it, but even if the abuser is dead he has a long reach. My abuser is long gone, but he is still with me. I didn't start to deal with it until I was in my late twenties. I would like to have punished him."
Roth discusses the subject with dispassion and clarity, but his underlying pain and anger are almost palpable. As with most tales of survival, it includes a mixture of admiration, empathy and discomfort.
His abuse, he says, impacted every aspect of his life. And until he decided to confront it, he spent most of his time alone with his secret. Relationships were difficult "because your sexual vocabulary has been given to you by someone who's abusive." Eben friendships were rare and hard to sustain. "In England I had maybe two friends my whole life. And I spent the first couple of years here mostly on my own. Even when I was out in public, I'd sit quietly in a corner. Fortunately, I met people who would tolerate that, and they've since become my dear friends. In that way, America has been good for me. There's a quality about life here where people talk more, even about issues that in Britain are considered very private. It's absolutely wonderful for someone who's been living down a dark hole."
Bringing all those feeling to the surface "made things better and worse," he says. But eventually it liberated him. "One of the best ways to recuperate is to make the decision not to keep it a secret anymore. Because, you see, abusers train you to keep it a secret. They say, 'If you open your mouth, you'll destroy your family.' They put it on you. But what I'm saying is that you have to expose it immediately, without guilt. It's your rebirth."
If it sounds as if he's proselytizing about the problem (which, he claims, affects three in every ten children), make no mistake about it: He is.
"We have to teach our children what to do," he explains emphatically. "Make available a card with basic information and the phone numbers of organizations in the area, and making it readily accessible -- in bookshops, in cinemas. It's going to happen. I've been talking to organizations about what can be done."
Roth takes another sip of beer and lights a cigarette. The conversation eventually wanders on to less serious subjects, the usual celebrity-interview stuff like a discussion of some of his favorite current actors -- Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton. But it can't help but sound trite after what has preceded it. When you finally part, it takes a while to shake it all off. What remains is the sense that, in spite of his claims to the contrary, Roth is really a pretty tough guy after all.