Tim Roth Interview, Youth Without Youth
By Sheila Roberts
MoviesOnline recently sat down to talk with Tim Roth at the Los Angeles press day for his new film, Youth Without Youth, directed by Francis Ford Coppola from his adaptation of the novella by Mircea Eliade.
Roth plays Dominic Matei, an aging professor of linguistics who finds his youth miraculously restored after surviving a cataclysmic event. Dominic's physical rejuvenation and apparent immortality is matched by a highly evolved intellect, which attracts the attention of Nazi scientists, forcing him into exile. While on the run, he reunites with his lost love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), and works to complete his research into the origins of human language. When his research threatens Laura's health, Dominic is forced to choose between his life's work and the great love of his life. Youth Without Youth also stars Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Pirici, Marcel lures, and Andre M. Hennicke.
Tim Roth first caught audiences' attention in 1984 in one of his earliest screen roles as an unsavory hitman named Myron in Stephen Frears' The Hit with Terence Stamp and John Hurt and garnered an Evening Standard British Film Award for Most Promising Newcomer. In 1989 he appeared in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover playing an unforgettable supporting role as Mitchel, the goofy yes-man to a menacing, low level gangster. In 1990, he gained international visibility in starring roles as Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo and as Guildenstern opposite Gary Oldman's Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
Quentin Tarantino cast Roth as Mr. Orange in his 1992 ensemble masterpiece Reservoir Dogs, as a memorable diner bandit in his 1994 critically acclaimed Pulp Fiction, and as Ted the Bellhop in his 1995 segment of Four Rooms. That same year, Roth also starred opposite Liam Neeson in Rob Roy in which he played the villainous English nobleman Archibald Cunningham and earned an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe nomination, and a BAFTA Film Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
Roth's career went in a new direction when he was cast opposite Ed Norton and Drew Barrymore in Woody Allen's 1996 musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You and then in 1998 starred in Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900. In 1999 he made his directorial debut with The War Zone based on Alexander Stuart's disturbing novel about adolescent anger and sexual abuse. In 2001, he turned down the role of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series to play the part of General Thade in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.
Tim Roth recently completed The Incredible Hulk in which he plays the role of Emil Blonsky. He has two other films currently in production: Stephen Kay's Six Bullets from Now and Daniel Hainey's The Death of Harry Tobin. He has also been cast in Quentin Tarantino's upcoming film Inglorious Bastards and in Malcolm Venville's 44 Inch Chest. Both films are currently in pre-production with an anticipated release date of 2009.
Tim Roth is a terrific actor and we really appreciated his time. Here's what he had to tell us about his new film:
Q: Can you talk about how you got cast and when you first met Francis Ford Coppola?
TIM ROTH: He left me a message on my cell phone. The usual process is to go through an agent, and he bypassed that. I didn't realize, I thought it was someone playing a joke, and I didn't know. Finally we connected. Actually he came out to meet with me in Siena. We talked for a few hours. I finished up what I was doing there and came back here to California. We just stayed in touch really. I know that he was talking to other actors and there was a whole process. I think we just stayed in touch, discussed rewrites, and played around with ideas.
Q: Were you familiar with the story?
TIM ROTH: No, only in that he sent me the script when I was in Italy. It was his first draft, the very first one.
Q: What was it about the script that attracted you?
TIM ROTH: I thought it was impossible. It would be very, very difficult to act, and the challenge also in that it's a very understated character. He's not a dynamic man in any way. Things happen to him, but he's a gentle soul, and I like that.
Q: Is Francis the kind of director who once you take a scene he finds very small nuances and does it again?
TIM ROTH: So that you get it in the editing room? Sometimes. Actually, he's pretty straight about it. He's pretty honest about his needs from you. If he wants you to do it flatfooted, then you do it, if you can. He is usually moving on when he's gotten it once. But most actors hear 'That's great, we've got that. If you could just give me one like that, just to see what it's like?' And then you know that is the one that is going to go in the film.
Q: How difficult or easy was it to know what level of reality you were playing in?
TIM ROTH: Just ask. Ask Francis and he tells you. Literally, to map out this film was virtually impossible for me. I think he had it all in his head, so I would say 'Where am I? Am I here? How old am I actually?'
Q: Did you ever understand the film?
TIM ROTH: Me? For me, it was not understanding the film. For me, it was understanding the book or the script. A lot of the philosophy is really, to be honest, it is beyond me. I haven't read as many books as Francis has. He would sit and discuss, very articulately, what the method was behind the madness of it.
Q: I don't think I've ever seen a film quite like this one.
TIM ROTH: No, it's a study of age, but it's a study of life, and your expectations of life too. It's on film, what happens inside your mind, and you are trying to film inside someone's mind.
Q: I think the role is very challenging in many ways, especially with all of the different languages.
TIM ROTH: I did Mandarin, Sanskrit, Latin, French, at least there was some but I don't know if it's in the film or not. I did German, but I didn't study the languages at all for it. I studied what I needed to know for each scene because it would have been impossible to do it any other way. Almost like you do a dance or something. It was really hectic sometimes when I read it.
Q: The scene where you and Alexandra Maria Lara are out on the rocks in the water in Malta looks so cold. Can you talk about filming that? Was there any danger?
TIM ROTH: Yeah, it was horrible. It was actually horrible. It was not supposed to be that way. We came in during the morning, I had come down for breakfast, at the hotel we were staying at, and I saw Francis out looking at the water. I thought 'Oh, shit.' Because I know that something weird is going to happen everyday with Francis. The scene is supposed to take place in bed, a quite little scene, two lines, and moving on. He said 'What about this?' I thought, 'Oh, God.' So then I said okay, it was freezing, and then I saw Alexandra come down. I saw him take her out and try to con her into doing it, , and she went 'Alright.' And it was truly, truly cold. It sucked the breath out of you. That was in Bulgaria in fact, that's where we shot that scene.
Q: Can you talk about the challengeswith time? Were they more intellectual than emotional?
TIM ROTH: For me, it was a 5 and 6-month period. 10 months later, there was a little gap in the between. In the end, it's an acting gig, and it's a director's medium. What you are trying to do is get as close to what's inside a director's head, or give them alternatives.
Q: Did you think of the film as a suspense film?
TIM ROTH: Yeah, I think we shot the first assembly really quickly, I think it was 5 hours, it was huge. We shot 85 days a week, we moved, we motored. A lot of it was, I think there's a lot more in the book, and there's less romance in the book. But he chose to twist down the road and that's where we went.
Q: What was the premise of this film? Your character seems to be going right back to the beginning. For Francis is there a relationship to time or . . . ?
TIM ROTH: I think it is, but again you have to ask him, because it's his deal.
Q: Were you sitting there rapping and tapping? Were you thinking 'What the hell am I doing?'
TIM ROTH: Yeah, and I will say that the other one was playing them all at the same time. He would shoot them where I would have to say them almost as a model, to just see what would happen. He could switch from one character to the other. You had two cameras shooting you at the same time. So, you would see a man turning from one thing to another, was it real, was it insanity, or was a dream. Basically, the concept is that when you can't speak, what are you? How do you film that? How do you tell that story?
Q: If you could go back to an age, what age would you choose, and what would you like to do?
TIM ROTH: I would go back to around 17 or 18. I would paint and veer off away from the acting thing. Just do some painting and see what would happen. You don't have a back out clause. You can't just go 'Well, that shit didn't work, so I'll go back to 17 now.' You take a gamble. It would be interesting, I've been thinking about that recently. If I had started painting or sculpture, what would have happened? Maybe nothing.
Q: Was it a privilege to work with Francis?
TIM ROTH: I have never worked with Francis, this is my first time, so yes.
Q: Was it cool for you to work with him? Did you experience that star struck thing?
TIM ROTH: Yeah, it was very much at the beginning. His is a name that everyone associates with certain films. For me, when I was trying to become an actor, his films were very, very influential. Just for me, personally for me, and his actors, his direction, just everything was very, very important. When I came to actually work with him, I was very open. I think I was a little wound up at the beginning, but he ironed it out, straight out. 'You've got to get to work.'
Q: In what way did you experience certain traps?
TIM ROTH: I think that when you come, at least my generation, to it with almost documentary , it's a very different person now. It's a very different world and we are making a very different film. So, really there is a lot of improvisation. A lot of creative improvising, you are allowed to join in, but it is really hard work. It made me interested in acting again, which is pretty wonderful.
Q: When you say that, what does that mean for an actor?
TIM ROTH: It was a tough day, everyday is a Friday, and you feel like you've done a week in a day.
Q: What is it then? He's pushing you saying 'You haven't got it?'
TIM ROTH: No, he's just cramming stuff in, you learn what you are supposed to have learned. That is changed immediately, suddenly you are at a different place than you thought you were, and you have got to let everything go. You can't be too upset when he does this. You'll have a conversation and he'll just shoot it. We'll just come back the next day and we'll shoot it.
Q: Could you talk about your experience working with Edward Norton on Hulk?
TIM ROTH: No. It's fun, it's really just that we're still shooting, and so that's why I can't talk about all of it. Usually when actors say things like 'Oh yeah, it's fun,' I know it is just bullshit for journalists, but it really is. I'm running around there going because of guns, flying through the air, and all the effects. It is really good fun. Hopefully, at least my kids think I'm going to be cool when they see it in the theatre.
Q: What about the difference between that and a film like this? Is it a different discipline after being in something that's sort of driven by spectacle?
TIM ROTH: I think they are all different, but I like that. For example, for me going from Francis, to [Michael] Haneke, to [Louis] Leterrier, it's great. They are all completely different. Different directors, different films, and that is what makes it interesting. It keeps you going.
Q: What do you love about Hulk?
TIM ROTH: That it's done filming in November.