English If Pressed
By Tom Loxley
The words rattle out like a prolonged shoe-scuffing protest from a sulky teenager as discarded garments swish down the clothes rail. Tim Roth does not submit willingly to photoshoots. "Can't stand them. Some photographer asks you to dress up in an abomination with Blake Carrington collars and you say, 'No, it's just not me.' And the guy is crushed but he won't relent and nor will I and we both get nowhere." But then, a change of heart. As the temperature outside breasts 100 degrees, things suddenly heat up in this studio deep in Soho in lower Manhattan. "Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!" he cries. "Oh, I like that!" Sighs of relief all around. "This is going to be easy. A piece of piss." Mr. Roth has chosen.
His give-me-your-money eyes have fallen on some familiar wear. Think classic British working class style. Think late '70s Quadrophenia, think '80s football casual. It will be the parka, a T-shirt, another parka, Fred Perry and that Ghost shirt, if you must. But soak it in water and twist it to fuck. Red label Levis: model's own. Work-wear boots: ditto.
Roth's mood swing is impressive since he stepped off the sweltering sidewalk and into the warehouse studio only minutes before. After 100 interviews in a week in Japan and three days of balls-to-the-wall promoting of Planet of the Apes in New York, we have just put the first of several chilled Coronas in his hand and the effect has been miraculous. "To be honest I think it's a little bit young for me," he says with no great conviction as his wife Nikki, a fashion designer, inspects his pick of the crop. She begs to disagree. "OK, OK. But I don't feel hip and trendy," he continues. "I don't feel groovy, but the parka helps. And I like the blue Fred Perry."
He's keeping it simple -- simple and straight. "Dressing up worries me, I feel like I'm wearing my dad's clothes, hand-me downs. When I have to wear a suit I feel deeply, deeply uncomfortable. When I went to the Oscars I had to wear a suit -- and this was no ordinary suit, it was the bollocks -- but I still felt ridiculous. I probably looked like the best-dressed man in Hollywood but I turned to my wife and said, 'I am not wearing this.' We had a fight. And of course she won and I went as she wanted, but I still had to rush back to the hotel afterwards, before we went out, to get my jeans on. I can't get comfortable in that sort of thing."
Odd for a man best remembered for turning out suited and booted, soot-black smart as if for an East End villain's funeral, in the film that introduced him to the world beyond Britain. "I actually bought a couple of black suits after Reservoir Dogs. Quentin and me heard about those midnight screenings where everyone turns up dressed as characters. We were desperate to just turn up and see what was going on, but we never managed to find the time. And I have hardly worn the suit since. But it's not that I think that the smart clothes are not good. It's just that I've found a uniform and I stick to it. If you wear navy blue or white, you're pretty much set. Or black, if it's a fancy evening. That way, come what may, you're covered."
Covered. Not swamped. Roth looks big in a parka, for a small man. Most men of a similar, shall we say, limited stature would be lost in an over-sized adult's anorak, but not this five foot seven amalgam of distinguishing features. Look at those sealed lips, the mean eyes, the bog-washed hair, the two-day beard the color of Frank Coopers' thick-cut marmalade and that impressive, and we really do mean unavoidably impressive, tapir-like nose. What does he think he looks like?
Perhaps a disgruntled creative from an advertising agency who has just been short-changed in his Soho cappuccino bar after ordering a cinnamon-dusted mocha? Or possibly a refugee from the mod revival, fresh from a tear-up down in Brighton? Squint and maybe he is merely south London's roughhouse answer to an Arctic musher on his way to see a man about a dog. More Narked of the South than Nanook of the North. Tim Roth in character can be all things to all men. Pasty-faced sarrf London hooligan or psychotic Regency fop, big banana Hollywood star or art-house auteur.
But then playing a part has long been all of a piece for Tim Roth. The man who made his name in the role of a psychotic Nazi skinhead in Made in Britain, a BBC film made almost 20 years ago by the director of Scum, Alan Clarke, has never been all that he seemed. Despite the dropped consonants and glottal stops, he is not a genuine 24-carat diamond cockney geezer. He emerged from a somewhat different pod. He is a Tim. Not a Gary, a Ray or a Phil.
"My mum was a teacher and my dad was a journalist. She came from a middle-class family and he came from a working-class background. They were people you would put in the professional bracket, but we weren't well off. Not as badly off as some people in that part of south London but we weren't particularly well off." Maybe not so well off, but certainly too middle class for a school catchment area that bordered the urban blight of late '60s Brixton. Of course, it didn't help matters that he was called Tim. "It was tough enough being a little kid, but I was at a working-class school with a middle-class name. I'd have liked something a bit harder, like Jack. That's what I called my eldest boy. I didn't have the accent that was required and I got beaten up a lot. So I changed my accent pretty sharpish, got very sarrf London very quickly. My mum was like, 'Why are you talking like that?' And I thought, 'If only you knew, mum. If only you knew.' It was a pretty good acting lesson."
So how did this art school dropout, this man who once studied pottery, become confused with the band of "pasty-faced hooligans" he evokes so fondly when he remembers the Brit pack of '82? Messrs Oldman, Winstone and Daniels -- Gary, Ray and Phil -- were, quite literally, Roth's role models. Genuine cockney "lemon squeezers" who burnt up the filaments of TV sets the length and breadth of Britain in the late '70s and '80s, before, with the exception of Daniels, heading for Hollywood to make their names on the big screen. It was a time when the people at the BBC, the newly-launched channel 4, Granada and even Central TV were taking risks, commissioning not "Stupid Vision" rubbish like Big Brother, but internationally acclaimed directors such as Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. And then leaving them alone to do their stuff. Mainly coruscating critiques of Ms. Thatcher's Britain, as it happened, but together these men inspired Roth to take up acting and provided him with the stage on which to strut.
"Ray Winstone is a hero to me. He's a heroic character, but he's also the reason I am in the business. After I saw him in Scum [where Winstone specialized in stuffing billiard balls into a sock and swinging it repeatedly against people's heads] I wanted to be an actor. I remember seeing Phil Daniels in Quadrophenia and thinking he was a god. When I ended up working with him on my second film [Mike Leigh's Meantime], playing his brother, he asked me one day, 'Do you want to go down the pub?' The next thing I know I'm sitting on the back of his scooter and we're weaving down the road just like on Jimmy's scooter in Quadrophenia and I'm screaming, 'I can't believe I'm on Phil Daniels' scooter. This is the best day of my fucking life!' I became an actor because of Phil, I became an actor because of Ray. I thought they were beautiful. The beautiful people. But they gave me a sense of the possible. 'If they can do it, I can do it too.'"
And he did. In 1981, although completely untrained and a complete unknown, Roth was cast as the psychotic skinhead Trevor in Made In Britain. Fortuitously he'd shaved his head to play Cassio in an amateur production of Othello just weeks before a flat bicycle tire saw him gatecrash Clarke's auditions. "I was selling advertising space in a really dodgy little firm in the West End at the time. I was crap at it too. One day I was cycling to work when I got a flat tire and so I went into the Oval House Theater in Kennington, where I had been doing some community theater, to get a pump and they told me about the auditions. Next thing I know, I've got the job. I know it sounds like a load of old hokey but that is how it happened."
After Made in Britain cam Meantime, where he played the anorak-clad sidekick to another psychotic skinhead (Gary Oldman this time) in yet another grim depiction of life on the dole for Thatcher's children ("They had wanted Joe Strummer but he fell out of the film because he was having trouble with The Clash, so Alan Clarke called Mike Leigh and told him to 'Get the skinhead in'."). Roth then moved the '80s playing punks and lowlifes, suicidal artists and Shakespearean extras, mainly for British directors marginalized in the backwaters of TV and art-house auteurs whose work was seen by a few thousand keen consumers of carrot cake.
"I wanted to be in major films, that's what I wanted to do, but British TV was incredible at that time. Being part of that was probably the best time for me as an actor. I think beginnings are always the best time. Later, I went through a whole period of trying to be a serious actor, you know, immersing myself in character and all that nonsense. And to be honest with you, I'm sure that works for some actors. For me, I think I was aware that it was a con back then and really all the stuff I was doing and seemed to be working was just instinctive. You know, winging it. It finally dawned on me that if that's what you do and if that's what works for the audience, then just keep doing it."
The same instincts took him to Hollywood in 1991. "I was actually in Australia doing a film called Backsliding that I kind of fucked up, got offered a low budget film in New York so I flew here and though now I'm here, I might as well go to LA. Quentin Tarantino was casting for Reservoir Dogs and he cast me because of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He loved that film. I never moved back to London."
From playing all sorts of low-life British characters, Roth turned to playing, well, low-life American characters, first in Reservoir Dogs and then in films such as Pulp Fiction and Gridlock'd. Undoubtedly, possessing the distinctive looks of a butcher's boy having a bad hair day the morning after a very long night before helped. Like many a character actor before him, Roth has made a career out of his distressed features. Can we take it, then, that he's happy with his looks? "I am now. I feel grateful. Absolutely. I've worked with some of the beautiful types and I have real sympathy for them because even if they are capable of acting there is another one coming up behind them. They're almost disposable. But for the likes of us -- the pasty-faced hooligans from London -- there's always room for the ugly boy in the background. Being ugly doesn't give you any guarantees, but it probably means you could be an actor for the rest of your life. And, of course, you grow into your appearance. I'm 40 years old now and I've recently decided I'm alright. My wife likes me. And a lot of other people do too. Especially the fashion crowd. Don't ask me why, but for some reason they like me. I remember doing a campaign for Prada and thinking, 'This is absolutely hilarious.'"
After he rose to international fame in Tarantino's blood-group (Type B) movies of the early '90s, events in his adopted country seemed to be echoing his work. In the real world a rage for indiscriminate mass shootings was beginning to take hold in the States. "Access to guns here is just mind-boggling. I got very scared with the Columbine High School massacre two years ago. I have thought about moving back to Britain. I took it very seriously because of the gun issue here in the States. So far I have not made the jump, but I came very, very close."
Almost beyond irony then that he plays opposite the President of the National Rifle Association (Charlton Heston) in Planet of the Apes? "When I heard that he was cast I was going to pull out and, you know, the lawsuit would have devastated my family for six generations. I said to Tim [Burton] at the time, 'There is a man who represents a lot of what I detest in humanity.' I don't consider him an actor. I consider him to be the President of the NRA. When he walks into a room he comes with a gun in his hand as far as I am concerned. So when the time came to act opposite him, there I was in full make-up, full costume, and I made sure my monkey hands were on so that no part of me would actually touch the man and I waited until he was in bed for the scene. He was in his make-up so there was no possibility of having to see him or be in his presence without this shield of rubber. And I came in, said hello, we rehearsed the scene, shot the scene and left. And that was my experience of him. I had to treat the man as an actor and not a politician, which was pretty hard anyway."
Yet it is Roth, and not Heston, that Americans see as the gunman. "Managers in diners come up and say, 'You're not gonna rob me, are ya?' It's getting harder and harder to go anywhere. It's shocking." But at least his American public doesn't resent him for it. "One thing British actors always talk about is this hatred of success in Britain. And with good reason. We constantly get shit for doing well and the only people who give us shit for doing well are our own people. Don't you want your children to succeed? Don't you think that is the best thing in the world? If your children do well -- and I'm somebody's child -- isn't that the greatest thing? As soon as there is some kind of success in your life, the instinct in Britain is to bring you down, which I find abhorrent.
"If I do eventually leave here -- and I probably will do one day -- I don't know if I will move to Britain. I might move somewhere else in Europe maybe. I don't tend to see myself as English. I'm a tourist now. OK, I'm an English tourist. Just don't call me British. I don't think that's very fair on the Scots and Irish." Or the Welsh.
Or indeed on the Americans who think of him as anything other than English. "After Reservoir Dogs, the industry decided I was American. Nobody had any perception of who I was before that, except the film buffs. So it would actually surprise directors when I walked in and had an English accent. But that was useful. I made a concerted effort to play Americans for quite some time so that then I would be able to play both. It's a long process to create an accent but it was a smart way to go." Arguably, it's a long process to create an identity, but as this Englishman abroad says, this living, breathing accidental tourist, it's a smart way to go.