Revenge of the Working Class
By Tom Allen and Tim Rice
Fiercely independent actor Tim Roth cuts through the bullshit, yawns at Hollywood, and remains on an incredible roll in spite of himself . . .
The weekend before Thanksgiving our sister organization, The MovieMaker Institute, traveled to New York City to put on what we billed as "The Ultimate Screenwriter's Workshop." The event was an unqualified success, thanks in large part to the world-class speakers who participated. We asked one of our favorite actors, Tim Roth, to give the actor's perspective on the screenplay. Not only was he good enough to oblige, but afterward, over beers at a comfortably seedy little neighborhood cafe called Donahue's, he granted us this interview.
Tim Rice and Tom Allen (MM): (Referring to film clip of Little Odessa) So Tim, what was it like to beat the shyte out of Max Schell? (Laughter)
Tim Roth (TR): Actually, he beat the shit out of me. That's the reality.
MM: What in particular is it that you look for in a script?
TR: With Little Odessa, for example, I thought it was one of the most dark and strange stories. It's a world I knew nothing about, which interested me. It had that sense of filmmaking from the early '70s in America -- which is why I came here -- and it seemed like more of a painting than a film, which by the time we put it on the screen, that's how I still feel about it. And also [director James Gray] was 22 when he wrote it and 24 when he directed it and I thought that was kind of amazing. But I don't think that answers your question really, does it. I mean, I read it and I had a gut reaction to it, and then I didn't read it again until I was preparing for it. It just gave me a good feeling.
MM: When did you become acclimated with the screenplay format?
TR: I've been acting for about 16 years, but the first screenplay I became involved with wasn't for the cinema, it was for television in England, and was called Made in Britain. It was written by David Leland, and was one of four hour-long segments which studied the education system in Britain. Alan Clarke, who's dead now, directed it, but he was one of our great filmmakers.
MM: Through what channels do screenplays get into your hands?
TR: Generally they go to my agent and then get sent to me, and there's stacks of them, not because I have any great prowess, but people generally know that I'll read their story, eventually. A lot of independent filmmakers or first-timers send me scripts. I know for a fact that agents block scripts, and sometimes get themselves fired in the process. For example, James Woods came up to Quentin [Tarantino] and said, "You know, I really loved Reservoir Dogs. I wish I could have been in that." And he said, "We sent it to you." So his agent went bye-bye. An early warning sign for me [with new directors] is when they want to be in it, too. That's always an early warning, red lights flashing. I also get scripts from the studios, but I find it really hard to plow through them. It's depressing.
MM: Are many of the scripts you get from independents also boring and bad?
TR: Yes, most of them.
MM: So do you stay with one that just doesn't have legs?
TR: I try to, because scripts always tend to be works in progress, you know? So you try to see if it's going to surprise you. But there are some that you just have to put down. Generally when they come with a cover note saying it was inspired by Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs they go in the trash. There's a glut of material out there right now. There are a lot of good ones, too, and I can't do them all, and I really want to do them all, and that's when you have to start making choices.
MM: Could you comment on the qualities of the successful reading draft?
TR: Sometimes they're just bloody awful, but you feel there's something in there worth pursuing. When we did Vincent and Theo, which I did with [Robert] Altman a few years ago, he wouldn't show me the script until I said yes -- and with good reason, because it was atrocious. (Laughter) It was really appalling. But he said it was a blueprint, and we improvised and rewrote nearly every scene. We'd write it the night before and then present it to him the next day. So every process is different. When you first read a script sometimes it'll be perfect. I felt that Reservoir Dogs didn't need anything, it just needed to be filmed. With Woody Allen, you've done all your preparation and you're terrified and you show up and he says, "Well, just say that line because that'll get you a laugh, and then say whatever you want, just make it messy and interesting, and then say that line as well." And that's it. A wing and a prayer. You don't know if you're doing good work. And then he says, "Okay, moving on." You've shot two takes and there's no coverage and you're just out on a limb, really, but you have to trust him. He's earned that position. Altman's earned that position. If a first-timer came to me and said that's how he wanted to work, I'd be very dubious.
MM: So you're not always excited about the prospect of improvising out a character or a storyline?
TR: With most young directors when they say they want it to have a very improvisational feel, generally it goes, "Fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you." And then someone pulls out a gun.
MM: Yeah, usually you. (Laughter)
TR: That's the truth, though. I mean, you see a lot of those films on the festival circuit. Most of the films I've done have been directed by the writer, so the script is usually like a blueprint, and as you're filming you make changes accordingly. There's generally room for improvisation. I try to respect the writer's work, especially if it's a first-timer. I like to let them make their film. Good or bad, it's their shot.
MM: So does good dialogue equal a good script?
TR: For me, I would say, yeah, I like the dialogue. I love to receive scripts that are pure dialogue, without any description at all. Just scene numbers, the room that they're in or the street that they're on, and then the dialogue. Seeing how the person writes is generally a good indication of how he's going to direct. I think direction is about manipulation of actors a lot of the time, and I think the skillful director will make you feel like you've arrived at the right decision yourself, whereas in fact that's what they planned all along. It's like therapy, I suppose.
MM: How do you get into a character's head?
TR: (Pausing) It doesn't matter, really, what gets me there. The thing is, I don't want to isolate it or analyze it in any way, because then it'll lose any kind of mystery to me. And I don't like the whole method thing, really. I think that that's over. I think a lot of young actors think they have to go live in a tin hut in the tundra to get in their character, and I think it's bullshit. And I also don't believe that they do it. I think it's something they tell the press that they do, but I don't buy it for a second. I can see why it still exists, though. A lot of actors want to do it because they see that DeNiro and Brando and Pacino and those guys still work like that, or I believe that they do. But I'm a a big fan of just inventing your own method. I tried not to read any books about acting, because I don't really want to know how it works. I don't really want to get involved in that.
MM: It's like Olivier said--
TR: Oh, to Hoffman? Yeah.
MM: Just act!
TR: He was in a pretty powerful position to be saying stuff like that, though. And also, the other side of that, is do whatever it takes. For some people that works. So you can't deny them that.
MM: Whose work do you admire?
TR: Actors: Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, what DeNiro used to do, Harvey Keitel, Chris Walken, Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. Directors: Kubrick, Fellini, Passolini, early Scorsese, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, earlier Robert Altman. DeNiro and Scorsese's early '70s stuff was extraordinary. And those were studio films, too. Age of Innocence, though, just doesn't appeal. I have that whole Merchant-Ivory stuff back in England; I don't really need to see it from him. This is terrible because I'd love to work with him, but I don't think that anything of his has equalled Raging Bull. I don't know where he's gone. I thought Goodfellows had real promise, you know? But I thought the central character was really weak, to be honest. It had a little from back then, but it was taking it to a different place, and I didn't really like it very much.
MM: How did you get involved with Jumpin' at the Boneyard?
TR: I'd been here doing press for Vincent & Theo when my agent got me the script. I always said I wouldn't come to America unless I was invited, and this was a good invitation. That was my first film in America.
MM: Tell us about where you grew up, family, school, artistic life, interests.
TR: I grew up in a kind of lower middle class area of London. My mother's a teacher who was also a painter, and my father was a journalist. I did a play in school and became interested in that, then went to art college, dropped out after about a year or so and just signed on the dole and called myself an actor. I just did fringe work after that until I got lucky and got a TV film. That's kind of it.
MM: Do you get back home much?
TR: Yeah. I try and get back a couple of times in a year. I like going back because now I stay in a hotel.
MM: Do your old buddies come up to you and go, "I saw that. That was fucking cool!"
TR: Or, "That was shit!" Yeah, they know me now. They kind of knew me before I came here, but for different stuff, working with Mike Leigh and stuff like that.
MM: Can you trace the arc of your career progress for us?
TR: I mean, I don't know. I got very, very lucky. I did that [TV movie] called Made in Britain, after doing a lot of stage, and it was a leading role, an extraordinary role, and it became very controversial. Basically, that was my training, in a sense. I had Chris Menges on camera -- steadicam -- and he's one of these extraordinary DPs. He's a director too. He did The Mission and The Killing Fields, and he taught me about how to work in front of the camera. I got a crash course. I went straight from that to Mike Leigh and straight from Leigh to Stephen Frears, and then I did a bunch of weird shit and then it kind of picked up again with Peter Greenaway and Altman.
MM: What made you know you wanted to go into acting?
TR: I did a play in school as a joke and loved it, absolutely loved it.
MM: What was the play?
TR: It was a musical of Dracula and the experience was extraordinary. I didn't want to stop.
MM: We read that there was a lot of nervousness going in, that you shit your pants or something.
TR: No, I didn't shit my pants. I pissed myself when I walked out on stage.
MM: At what point in your career did the nervousness go away? Or has it?
TR: I have terrible stage fright. That's why I haven't done theater for a long time. But after the first performance, you come off and you're just a blur, but then you think, well, I could have done that better. You're already thinking as an actor. And I just took it from there. I went and polished it the next night -- and then it stopped, it went away, and I'm thinking, I want to get this back. So then you start pursuing stuff, and I would screen the trades and go and audition for anything. I had no experience to draw on. Funny enough, when I went to see Coppola about the Kerouac thing he's doing, they pulled out a photograph and hand-written letter that I'd sent to him back in the '70s they still had it on file, saying you're a really interesting director and I'd really like to work with you.
MM: Amazing. So it was a question of facing your fear each time, or did the fear go away?
TR: I don't really get scared when I'm making a film. The process is different. The first day can get a little shaky, but generally you schedule something easy for the first few days and then just get into it. I don't have it with film, but I really do have it on stage. And generally when you're doing a 10-week run of of a play, by the end of the first week you're cool, you're over it. Then you're trying to get it back because it gives you the edge. But it goes away. Whatever it takes to get you through that, if that's what works, that's what works.
MM: So there's no terror in film acting? It's only scary the first day?
TR: It was pretty scary doing the Woody Allen thing, purely because it's Woody Allen. It comes with that baggage.
MM: That's what Mira Sorvino said when we interviewed her. She said, "I was scared before when I worked with Robert Redford, but nothing like this. This is New York, and this is Woody Allen."
TR: He tries to make you very comfortable, but it was hard for me because he wanted me to improvise with an accent that I was trying to do, and also they wouldn't pay for a dialect coach.
MM: C'mon, Woody, pony up.
TR: Well, you know, that's how he makes a film. It's all on the screen.
MM: What's the auditioning process like for you now? You said Woody just sent a letter and that was that. Do you still have to read for other people?
TR: I refuse to read, and the reason is I'm really, really bad at it. I've lost a lot of work that way. But I also would lose a lot of work if I read. So it balances itself out. I'll meet with anybody, and I do, but I won't read because I'm terrible at it. It's embarrassing.
MM: Is there a particular directorial style do you prefer?
TR: I don't have a preference. As long as they're good. One thing I don't like is: stand there, say that line, move over there, say that line -- that kind of directing. Because you might as well have a mannequin in there. And a lot of first timers make that mistake because they're nervous.
MM: A lot of our readers are aspiring directors, and some of them are trying to make movies on less than $100,000. Do you think that whole trend has peaked, trying to make movies for $25,000 or $50,000? You mentioned inside that a lot of studios are finding that they can throw money at a guy like Kevin Smith--
TR: --Yeah, and the first thing that happened with James Gray after Little Odessa was to get offered Casper the Ghost to write.
MM: Why? How would they make that connection?
TR: I know. But he had a meeting with Spielberg and that's why he went to the meeting. He wanted to know what the hell they were thinking.
MM: What did they say?
TR: They said, "Well, you know how to write characters."
MM: If you love a character, if you love the director, but you've seen this all before, would you still do the movie?
TR: Well, Rob Roy was kind of like that. It was good guys, bad guys, the fight to the death at the end and all that stuff, but the character was so much fun. On top of which it was going to be Liam (Neeson) who is a friend of mine, and John Hurt and Brian Cox and Eric Stoltz and Michael the director, they're all friends so you kind of figure well, I gotta do one, I've got to pay the rent, it might as well be under these circumstances. And the character was delicious. I could really go with it. Harvey Keitel's a great example of that. There are times when you have to bite the bullet and do something. He calls it his whoring. He does Sister Act and Bad Lieutenant. It's a good balancing act.
MM: There aren't many actors who have that ability.
TR: No. You want to work towards that.
MM: He's like the Michael Caine of American film.
TR: Michael Caine did as much weird shit as Harvey does. I think a lot of famous actors say that they'll [take roles in independent films], broaden their horizons. Well they're full of shit. They don't take the movies. They just don't do 'em. I find more New York actors, Steve Buscemi, people like that, will want to do varied stuff and explore things. But most people out in Hollywood really just want to make money. But Harvey's very passionate. And he's on a roll, too, an incredible roll.
MM: Well Reservoir Dogs, I think, kind of brought him back. Did you meet him on Reservoir Dogs? Was that the first time you met him?
TR: Yeah. Well actually I'd met him once in a bar uptown a bit.
MM: You guys had such a good relationship on screen. It seemed to really click.
TR: Yeah, it was like a father-son thing.
MM: It's pretty common knowledge that Harvey will sometimes lower his fee for a director just starting out.
TR: Oh yeah, we do, yeah.
MM: Is that something you have to fight your agent about?
TR: No, I don't have to fight my agent about it. They tell you this one's a low budget, so you work out a back-end deal, and of course you never really get any money from back-end deals --
MM: Really? Even Reservoir Dogs?
TR: We got a bit from that but by the time they'd done their magical accountancy, you're screwed. Pulp Fiction paid. We all got the same: scale plus 10 at the beginning. Then there were three levels of back-end for the actors, and we got paid.
MM: How about with James Gray [on Little Odessa]?
TR: That was all back-end. We didn't see a penny over here. In Europe it went through the roof. People loved it. Paris went crazy about it. The president invited him over and all this kind of stuff. It was very cool. And he loves French movies so he felt really honored.
MM: In any case, you're finally being paid what you're worth. Let's say it didn't break for you at the point it did. For a lot of people it never does. Would you just slog through it forever on a passionate love for acting?
TR: You just do. That's what I did. I got to the point where I couldn't make next month's rent in L.A., with films that had been out and stuff. People wanted me in their movies and I was still turning them down. And, you know, after you can't make the rent you just have to keep going.
MM: So you would be 45, waiting tables, doing regional theater that nobody wants to see, because you want to act.
TR: You either want to act or you want to become rich, you know--
MM: That's great, that kind of passion. It's probably what attracts you to independent film.
TR: There's that, but it's really the kind of films that they were making here that I was seeing back in the '70s.
MM: How do you exorcise your demons? Do you find acting therapeutic?
TR: Yeah, it's therapeutic, absolutely. That's why a director also has to be a psychiatrist, and if you're no good at that, don't do it.
MM: Are you surprised at the level of success that you've achieved--
MM: --or did you always know?
TR: No, I never considered it. You get a lot of failure and I never worried about it. I just plowed on. And then when you do get some kind of recognition it's extraordinary and it's surprising but it's great. And it helps me work, it means I can work.
MM: Does it give you more confidence?
TR: It doesn't really change your confidence. There are always times when you think, oh shit, I can't do this, before you get into something. And that kind of insecurity is probably a good thing. But I try not to worry about it. In a world that's not really considered art anymore, that's considered more of an industry, there's always somebody else coming up, so you shouldn't worry about it. Just get going and try to stay active.
MM: How much did that instruction by Chris Menges help you?
TR: He always just said [the lens] was like a black eye in a room -- you can ignore it or use it, depending on the message you want to get across. If you really want to hit home, it's your way of traveling into the minds of the audience. Sometimes you want to keep them in back of you somehow and not give them what they really want so they have to work, and sometimes you can turn around and hit them. It's like using it as your spyhole. It's always in your peripheral vision. You should always know where it is and what it does in terms of lens sizes and what it's going to do. Then, once you know what it's going to do, you forget about it.
MM: You're aware of that, what size lens they're using?
TR: Yeah. A lot of actors don't care. I like to know, but that's because I'm interested in that stuff anyway. I always thought that if I wasn't an actor I would be an operator.
MM: Yeah, we just had Janusz Kaminski and Russ Carpenter up to Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. for workshops, doing some camera and lighting stuff. It was great seeing how they work. And they seem so happy. It's like, hey man, I'm fine with this for the next 40 years.
TR: It's interesting work. Actors should know technical stuff. Editing rooms are fascinating places.
MM: We were talking earlier about the arc of your success and your career. Do you think you're doing your best work now? Are these the good old days?
TR: You do good and bad, you know? An arc, I always think, means there's going to be some down time, so I'm always just trying to find things that still excite me and that are a serious challenge. That's why with Four Rooms, it's a slapstick comedy, pretty much. I'd never done that and wanted to try it. It's hit and miss, really. With Rob Roy I wanted to try that kind of broad brushstroke performance and see if I could pull it off.
MM: When you said inside that you wanted to do a romantic role, we thought you were just being facetious at first.
TR: A thing that I did in England was a film called Captives, which Miramax has, and it was a romantic story, although it's set in prison. It's about a woman who works in the prison and has a relationship with an inmate, which is illegal to do. So it's a kind of dodgy premise, but it's a romance, and I was interested to do it. They don't come to me often because physically I don't look the part, especially in America. There's a certain way that men are supposed to look. They all go to the gym and all that...so it just doesn't happen.
MM: Maybe not with a studio film. Certainly with an independent film.
TR: Yeah, the independent scene goes against type, so that might work. But again it would have to be something that had a really strong story, that wasn't just the love affair stuff.
MM: It surprised us that you were interested in sci-fi. What about westerns?
TR: I'd love to do a western. I mean, Rob Roy was kind of a western, in a sense, but yeah, I'd like to get a western. It'd be hilarious. I love riding horses, too. I learned that in Rob Roy, so I've been very into it.
MM: How many projects do you have lined up at the moment. Enough for a year, two years?
TR: I have three independent films that I want to make. One is green-lit and the other two are right on the edge. It depends on the seasons, too.
TR: Two are first-timers and one has made films before. The first one one is set in Detroit, about two junkies. The second one is about a retarded couple, which is dodgy ground after Forrest Gump. And the other one is crazy, I don't know if I should tell. (Pause) It's about midget wrestling in Europe.
MM: You're kidding, that's great. Do you ever think about the big picture -- your career as a body of work?
TR: No, I try not to have any plan. And if one of these independent scripts comes to me by way of a studio with a shit-load of money attached, I'd be very happy. I'm not a film snob in that sense. Just because something comes out of the studio doesn't mean it's going to be crap. Occasionally they come up with some amazing stuff. But generally when those scripts are attached to studios, there's a long line of very famous people who I'm way at the back of. So, you know, it's hard. But I don't really have a plan.
MM: You were talking about Mike Leigh earlier. We interviewed him last year and are fans of his. Any plans to work with him again?
TR: Mike? I hope so. I'd love to. He's a hysterical man.
MM: His directing style is amazing. No script at all? What are rehearsals like?
TR: Well rehearsal is very structured. What you do is you build your character from the ground up, and then he puts each of the characters in a room together to see how they'll respond and react to each other.
MM: How does he get you to build your character?
Roth: You start by making a list of people you know that fit within a certain category and you spend a week just discussing them.
MM: Does he know what he wants or is he bringing it all out of you?
TR: Well I think to a certain extent he knows what he wants, i.e., this time he's doing a film about the working class in such-and-such a place.
MM: So really vague, really broad strokes.
TR: Very vague. And then the story emerges as we go along. It's a long rehearsal process, but then the actors he'd want to shoot a scene with the next day would meet the night before, and we'd improvise. We'd finish a day's filming, get together and improvise for the next day's filming. And he'd just be making notes of what you'd say during the improvisation, which would go on for hours. Then he'd distill it down, reconstruct it and feed it back to us. Otherwise the film would be about four years long. And nobody's allowed to discuss anything about the characters within earshot of any of the other actors. He always takes you into another room, and you have these private discussions, and you're not allowed to discuss anything with anyone but him.
MM: Cool. Not even off set?
TR: No. If you get caught doing that, you're fired. He'd just work the character out of the script, probably.
MM: Pretty fascinating. And it works.
TR: It works.
MM: Do you ever want to produce something you fall in love with?
TR: I'm gonna do that. I'm gonna start being a co-producer on a couple of these films, these independents, because if you do that you can really protect the director. There's been times when I've seen producers on the low-budget stuff I've done who are trying to make a different movie from the one the director's making. So if I can get my foot in the door there it can at least help a little. It gives you a little more control.
MM: So are you gonna be co-producing on any of these upcoming projects?
TR: Well, I'm doing it deal by deal. Stoltz does it all the time. We did Bodies, Rest and Motion and he was one of the producers on that.
MM: What would you say are the qualifications for a successful actor?
TR: I don't know. In Hollywood you just have to look good, I guess. I really don't know. It used to be a much more mysterious thing. That's why you don't want to talk about acting specifically. Because it should be mysterious. I mean the bare bones of it are that it is actually hard work and the rejection is awful, but it was always mysterious and that mystery was kind of encouraged. And then when the media got access to everything, then it kind of lost a lot of its mystery.
MM: It's like a magician telling how he does his tricks.
TR: Yeah, there's no point. Then the trick becomes boring.
MM: It's still fascinating. We've been learning the tricks, but still love it.
TR: I do, too. I adore it.