The Hitman and Blur!
From catching a bullet for Tarantino to shooting up with Tupac, Tim Roth has become Hollywood's favorite lowlife scumbag. But does he remember his fiercely political roots as the prototype Graham Blur? Stephen Dalton looks for the madness in his method.
The edgy, slicked-back geezer with the Celtic tattoos and the whippet-thin body glares across the Thames towards Westminster, burbling away about rain-sodden bus stops and shitty memories of being broke in London. The last time he scraped a living here, Margaret Thatcher's shadow hung over the city and Tony Blair was an obscure London backbencher. "I wish it was Tony Benn," he sighs wistfully.
Wise words, mate. But no the sort of observation you might expect from Tim Roth, Hollywood exile, mate of Tarantino, Britain's answer to Steve Buscemi and the Gary Oldman it's OK to like. But you soon realize, despite his swelling star status, Roth hasn't lost the political edge which defined his early career in many of the landmark British films and TV plays of the '80s -- Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, Mike Leigh's Meantime, even Stephen Frears' The Hit -- all viciously scathing comments on their era.
"I think everything's political," insists Roth. "Taking a shit is political, because how do you make the toilet paper, who does the plumbing, how much do they get paid, you know?"
From a middle-class south London background, Roth inherited his die-hard Old Labor politics from his journalist father and has little time for Tony Blair.
"My dad would have hated Blair, and quite rightly," he nods. "But what are you gonna do? You've got to get the Tories out."
But Jack, Roth's son from his first wife Laurie, is currently at private school. How does he feel about that?
"It sucks, but she screwed the education system," he sneers -- "she" being Roth's personal demon, Margaret Thatcher. Even now, his contempt for the woman knows no bounds. "I fucking hate her, I think she's evil. But Major was worse, because he was the bland incarnation of that woman's policies. And watch out for Paddy Ashdown, man, he was SAS."
Roth is is London preparing for his directorial debut, an adaptation of modern-day incest drama The War Zone by British novelist Alexander Stewart. Despite his growing, Tarantino-endorsed star status, this sort of low-budget project is still his natural habitat.
Although he recently relented on his uncompromising indie stance to appear in studio productions such as Rob Roy and Laurence Fishburne's forthcoming gangster epic Hoodlums, his acting instincts continually lead him back to spiky, edgy, left-field gigs like his two new releases, Buddy Giovinazzo's No Way Home and Vondie Curtis Hall's Gridlock'd. In the latter, playing comic sidekick to a remarkably assured Tupac Shakur in a bleak comedy about heroin addicts, Tim is both hilarious and pathetic. What's the appeal of playing such downbeat losers?
"Vondie just sent me the script and I thought the dialogue was so funny. What I liked about it was an aspect of the drug world I knew nothing about, the idea of being poor and trying to kick that habit, of needing help and it not being provided, or being made so difficult for you -- which was Vondie's experience when he was trying to kick heroin."
Tupac really shines in the movie, playing the more adult of the duo despite being ten years Roth's junior. His death was clearly as much a loss to film as to music.
"I never saw his other films but people tell me he was actually pretty good in Above the Rim and Juice," nods Tim. "He really worked hard and if I wasn't in the film, I'd look at it and think, 'That's a guy I'd like to work with'. I think he acquits himself really well."
Filming took place between Tupac's two shootings. Did Tim witness any of the violent hysteria which seemed to shadow his co-star's every move?
"No, he had his own security guys, but we also had the Nation of Islam doing security on the set. They don't need guns, they just have bow ties, ha ha! They were incredible -- really sweet guys and some of them are, like, 60. They just stand there in their jackets and white shirts and red bow ties and people are like 'Whoa'. They can defuse any situation."
Why do some rappers make better actors than rock stars?
"I don't think they necessarily do. A couple of them are good -- Ice Cube's pretty good, 'Pac was very good, but Ice-T isn't. With rock stars, I think they get bored, or they do a couple of videos and think they can make a movie. And they're welcome to it, it doesn't bother me, ha ha! I just think they look a little silly sometimes."
Is it true you told David Bowie to quit acting when he was trying to get you onboard for Absolute Beginners?
"Maybe. I used to be a little less guarded about what I said back then. But he's a nice fella. I've worked with his wife, Iman, on that thing we did with Nic Roeg -- Heart of Darkness. He came down and we just talked about tattoos."
Tim has a reputation for method-style immersion in his roles. As psychotic skinhead Trevor in Alan Clarke's 1983 TV drama Made in Britain, he walked the streets in character and even attended National Front meetings. So did he become a drug addict for Gridlock'd?
"No, I didn't go off and say, 'Let's get really high and then try to get into rehab', ha ha! I've never taken heroin, actually. It always scared me, and rightly so. And then I discovered acting and realized you don't really need drugs -- although a lot of actors think you do."
Isn't there a big smack culture around the younger LA acting scene?
"It's more around musicians. But heroin is back in a big way over there. Actually I don't think it ever went away. And also there's heroin chic, the skinny body thing. But it's a scary drug because, if you like it, you're fucked, ha ha! That and crack."
Ever tried crack?
"No," he shivers.
Is part of the appeal of playing ex-cons, psychos and violent nutters because Tim actually comes from an arty, middle-class background?
"Possibly. I mean, I was bullied at school, so that might have something to do with it. I actually haven't played that many but they do stick in people's minds. I mean, I was the good guy in Reservoir Dogs, you know? I've done a few roles like that, but not many. Little Odessa was one, but what else?"
Erm, The Hit, Pulp Fiction, Captives, No Way Home, Hoodlums . . .
"Well, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Vincent and Theo, you know?" he smiles. "But yeah, sometimes a villain role comes up and they're . . . juicy."
Tim Roth hasn't sold his soul to Hollywood. He might have turned his back on British films since moving to America seven years ago, but in the latter half of the '80s he turned down almost everything except the odd play. And if he sneers at homegrown cinema, he's equally scathing about American product too.
Tim relates his move to Hollywood as a series of accidents. He was making a movie in New York, had nothing to come home for, so just decided on a whim to pop over the the West Coast and "do the meeting thing . . . so I got an apartment. I got a table, a chair, a TV and a bed -- it was horrible, really depressing. And then I got Reservoir Dogs."
Indeed he did. But rather than capitalize on his new profile like his friend and fellow Mike Leigh graduate Gary Oldman, Roth does seem to have kept Hollywood at arm's length.
"I don't like the films," he says bluntly. "I don't like the scripts. The one I just did with Larry Fishburne was a studio film, and I haven't seen it yet, but it was very hard to work in that way. I mean, they were wonderful actors, the director's a great guy, but there were so many memos flying around. What I like about working on low-budget films is it's kind of a conspiracy. You go off in a corner and make your film, it's like, fuck everybody."
Tim insists that he has virtually no contact with Hollywood and has just sold his house in Silverlake, the arty neighborhood which is also home to Beck, the Eels and the Beasties. He is currently looking to leave LA altogether and settle in New York with his American wife, Nikki, and their new baby. Meanwhile, he continues to accept small actorish roles in mostly indie productions. So, his soul's in good shape but he'll never be a millionaire?
"I get paid pretty well," he smirks. "It's not millionaire stuff, but it's a lot compared to what my parents were earning . . ."
Having worked with Tarantino, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Mike Leigh and Peter Greenaway, is anyone left on Tim's wish list?
"Erm, most of those all over again. And I'd like to work with Scorsese -- I think every actor would. I'd like to work with Ken Loach too, but I don't think that's possible -- unfortunately, I'm too well known and that seems to be one of his rules."
You could always let your career slide into the doldrums for a bit.
"Ha ha! I might have to, because I just think he's one of the greatest directors ever. And this guy Michael Winterbottom, I hear great things about him."
Who's more rock'n'roll, Quentin Tarantino or Mike Leigh?
"I suppose Quent would be more rock'n'roll. Mike Leigh would be more jazz."
Is Tarantino the total trainspotting movie geek he appears to be?
"He's definitely a film nerd," nods Tim. "He's just crazy about the subject. He's just got himself a house -- and I think he bought it because it's got its own screening room. He just watches Hong Kong movies, or whatever it may be, in his house, and gets people to come over to watch them with him."
Come on, Tim, admit it -- he's dysfunctional, isn't he?
"He is . . . truly passionate about film-making. When I first met him I thought, 'This man is crazy -- but really wonderful.' And I knew immediately that he was going to make a great film."
Much has been made of Tim's "punk" youth in past interviews. What exactly did he do to earn this label?
"Just went to see bands play, ha ha! And, you know, tried to spike my hair up a bit. Everyone took their jeans in, borrowed a leather jacket and went to see The Clash. I tried to play guitar in a couple of bands but I was so awful -- even at a time when you could be awful, I was beyond. I still play guitar, but never when anyone's around -- not even my wife."
These days he doesn't follow music that closely, but raves about Nirvana and the Beck concert he attended the weekend before our interview. Does he still buy albums?
"I just go and buy shitloads of records before I do a film -- bands I haven't even heard of."
One band Tim has heard of is Blur, and not just because of their links with his former Meantime buddy, Phil Daniels. Because rumor has it that boy-genius guitarist Graham Coxon based his entire public persona -- catatonic stare, wonky NHS specs, crumpled anorak -- on Roth's most memorably pathetic creation, Colin from Meantime.
"That's great," beams Tim, "that's very flattering. Colin's way in fashion right now, and at the time he wasn't. Zip-up cardies with bad prints on them. Nylon, polyester . . . lovely."