Tim Roth, once ubiquitous indie film presence, wants to get back to real acting. And then he wants to fight the hulk.
By Eric Alt
In a virtually windowless room on the second floor of a duplex in West Hollywood -- the otherwise homey office of a publicity firm -- Tim Roth is slumped on an L-shaped couch, dressed casually in a white T-shirt and jeans that looks as though they've seen some serious mileage. In fact, if the jeans could talk, they'd probably sound a lot like him. Even at 46, Roth looks exactly as he did lying in a pool of blood on a warehouse floor 15 years ago as Reservoir Dogs' iconic Mr. Orange. And, today, he's clearly feeling a bit reflective. Part of the blame falls on Roth's most recent film, Youth Without Youth, a strange and cerebral story about an aging man who mysteriously gets a second chance at life. When Roth talks about the experience of making the film (alongside director Francis Ford Coppola, back from a ten-year filmmaking hiatus), it's clear he hasn't fully shaken it off. He sighs and runs a hand through a mop of straight hair. "The idea of having a second shot at life is something everyone examines as they get older. I didn't give it much attention at all until recently," he says, before breaking the somber mood with a self-deprecating laugh. "It was this film that did it to me." Roth's character in the film, as a young man, is prone to impetuous exclamations like: "I'm 26 years old. I've discovered nothing. I've accomplished nothing!" But Roth shakes off the notion he was anywhere near that impatient himself. "Shit no! No, never. When I was 26, I had a kid. I had a flourishing, very strange career. I was piss broke, but it didn't really matter. I was much more frivolous and much more superficial than [that character]."
"Frivolous" seems like a euphemistic word when Roth considers what his life would have been if he hadn't chosen a career path that eventually led him to unforgettable roles in the likes of Pulp Fiction, Rob Roy, and Little Odessa. "I think [without acting], I would have been in trouble," he says leaning forward earnestly. "Yep, I think I would have been in trouble with the police. I don't think I would have come to much. Certainly, growing up with very high unemployment rates in England at the time . . . " At this point, he trails off. "I think I was very lucky that [acting] came along. I don't think I would have come to much at all . . . " It was his father who initially exposed Roth to movies. "Me and my dad would watch war movies, and I remember him taking me to see The Sting when I was a kid. I really loved the story."
After earning his reputation by disappearing into characters as diverse as a violent skinhead (in the British TV film Made in Britain) and iconic painter Vincent van Gogh (in the film Vincent & Theo), Roth burst into the American consciousness in a hail of gunfire in Quentin Tarantino's groundbreaking debut film Reservoir Dogs. "I've been lucky. I suppose I arrived at the beginning of the independent thing," he says. "I saw that rise, and I kind of rose with it, and I saw it get destroyed by the studios and taken out by the media companies. It became the whore of big business." He chews on the bittersweet memory a minute before continuing. "So I came up and down with that. Then I went in and out of studio films and struggled with that a bit." During that time, he reportedly got first dibs on a prime role in the Harry Potter franchise, but turned it down. It's not something he regrets ("I had various reasons for doing it. There might have been films that wouldn't have come my way because of that. So it would have had its casualties, too"), but should the opportunity arise again, it's something he would certainly view with different eyes. "I've got three kids, and I've got practical things to take care of," he says, without a hint of resignation. No, this is more like maturity talking. "So you've got to have that balance. When I was younger, I didn't fixate on the practicalities. Now I really do. I'd probably do something like [the Potter franchise] if it were offered to me now."
That "something" may have arrived, in the form of a project Roth downplays with a knowing smirk as "something I'm doing purely for my kids." To others, it's a big budget superhero blockbuster destined to get more than just children's attention: A re-imagining of The Incredible Hulk, the iconic comic book character who was rather unsuccessfully brought to the screen by Ang Lee in 2003. In this new version, Roth plays the equally large and equally CG-heavy villain opposite Edward Norton's tortured green superhero. That's right: Edward Norton. Tim Roth. In a superhero movie. Although it seems like an odd fit, Roth admits he's having a blast doing it -- but he did make sure to take the necessary precautions first. "I had to run it by my kids, really. If you get into one of those movies -- well, if it fails, as a kid, all your mates are gonna take the piss out of you. If it succeeds, you've got to live with that, too. But they were like, 'It's cool, do it.'" When asked if he and good friend (and fellow indie favorite) Gary Oldman -- with whom he co-starred in Tom Stoppard's 1990 Hamlet-themed comedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead -- would ever have imagined themselves in big-budget superhero flicks, Roth laughs. "Which one has he got? Oh, right, Batman. And he's got Harry Potter, as well. It's very odd. Running around with machine guns and doing all this bizarre stuff is something I never thought would happen in my life. That kind of action movie stuff I never thought I'd do. It never came my way. But it is fun."
Roth hits on the word "fun" often during our conversation, and it's clear he's enjoying himself again. Years of being fed up have obviously given him new drive. "Yeah, I get that feeling [of being fed up] every other year," he jokes. "I had been twiddling my thumbs, really and not being particularly excited about the stories I was involved in for quite some time." Although unhappy, Roth asserts that he never pondered turning his back on it all. His mood brightens somewhat when he's asked if all of the practicalities of fatherhood and his apparent inability to leave acting behind would ever inspire him to find steadier work on, say, television. "It's so tempting," he closes his eyes and gently shakes his head. "I look at people like Gary Sinise and Anthony LaPaglia and what they're doing on TV and I think 'Oh, god, just do it. Don't worry about rent anymore. The kids will be put through college wonderfully'." So what's holding him up from signing on the dotted line? He breaks into a wide grin and laughs. "Probably snobbery."
Genuinely excited by the arrival of Coppola and the challenge of Youth Without Youth -- something he describes as "a chance to get back to being an actor again" -- Roth seems content to remain a performer, although he has flirted with a directing career (his only credit is for 1999's dark but critically-lauded drama The War Zone). Of course, stepping behind the camera isn't in the cards right now for other, more practical reasons, too. "I can't afford to direct! You have to take two years off and you don't get paid. But I have two stories that I really would love to do. So as soon as I can, I will." But planning isn't something that comes naturally to Roth. "I never had a plan. I don't know how you can plan for it. God knows what the next thing will be." With this, his voice takes on a note of wistfulness. "I've had a very varied career. I've worked with such extraordinarily different directors, and that's been fun. A lot of fun."
With Roth freely tapping into the joy he thought had burned out of him, is there any chance he'd come full circle and hook up with old pal Tarantino? After all, the director's long-rumored World War II epic Inglorious Bastards has had Roth's name attached to it for quite some time. It turns out that it's still a big "maybe," but Roth's newly rediscovered enthusiasm can't help but shine through. "The whole idea of a second World War mission movie, with Quentin at the helm?" He breaks into a wide-eyed lunatic smile and impish chuckle, leaning forward to rub his hands together like a silent film villain.
"That . . . would be a laugh."