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Tim Roth Prefers Doing It Indie Style

By Angela Matusik

The images that come to mind when you think of Tim Roth are not pretty ones: writhing in pain while spilling gallons of blood on a car's backseat in Reservoir Dogs; maniacally waving a pistol at diners in a greasy spoon in Pulp Fiction; and lopping off an ear and shooting himself in the stomach in Vincent & Theo. Who, then, is this charmingly shy British man playing with his sweater sleeves on the David Letterman show?

Speaking with the 33-year-old actor a few days before his Late Show appearance, Roth reveals an emotion that he often evokes in audiences: fright. "That's really terrifying to me," he says of his impending television appearance. "I'm sure it will be fine, but it's really scary." Unlike the in-your-face, troubled characters he normally plays, Tim Roth comes across as laid-back, modest and sincere -- a rare combination for any actor with an active career in Hollywood. But if his image is perceived as edgy, it's only because of the way he does business. Roth, for all intents and purposes, is no player.

"It's easier not to get swept up in the whole thing when you're doing the independents," he explains. "Hardly anyone sees the bloody films anyway. When you really boil it down, you do films just for yourself. It has to satisfy something in me." At the moment, Roth is testing out a new strategy. Currently doing the publicity circuit for his first big-budget movie, Rob Roy (thus the Letterman gig), he is also touting another project, Little Odessa. Made with minimal money by first-time director James Gray, it is the cinematic opposite of Rob Roy. "The amount of money behind [Rob Roy] is extraordinary," he says of his studio flick. "Their publicity budget is probably bigger than our entire budget for Little Odessa. When I've got a film like that to promote, I try to mention Little Odessa whenever I can -- otherwise no one is going to hear about it."

Rob Roy is, by Roth's own definition, "a big ol' soppy love story." In it, he plays Archibald Cunningham, the film's designated bad guy. Topped with a froufrou wig and frilly cuffs, Roth's Cunningham is almost a femme fatale, a campy drag queen-like swordsman who enjoys making people suffer. "He's disgusting," sums up Roth. But despite the budget -- and the publicity -- Rob Roy received only moderate box-office success, not to mention its fair share of negative criticism. Roth, often the critic's darling, was not exempt. "I read [a bad review] the other day for Rob Roy in the Hollywood Reporter that personally attacked me and John [Hurt, the film's other antagonist]. It just said they cringed whenever we walked on the screen." Roth shrugs it off. "Whatever. That's what it is. My wife's mom and dad loved it. That, to me, is more important."

But don't think that this dispassionate attitude is applicable to all of Roth's projects. When he begins talking about Little Odessa, his tone is quite different. "I thought it was a fucking essay on sadness," he says, recalling the first time he read the script. "It's completely distressing [for me] to watch. I've seen it three times and that's it. You carry it with you when you leave, which I think is a sign of a really good film. But I just read it and I thought it would be amazing to play. I don't know what this character is about, but I'm drawn to him."

The character is Joshua Shapira, a heartless hit man for the Russian mafia -- the organizatsya -- who returns to his Brighton Beach neighborhood after years of chasing trouble. "I never knew it existed, this Russian subculture," he says. "You go on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach and all you hear is Russian. There are these little stands where they sell vodka for a dollar."

Director James Gray credits Roth's enthusiasm for getting the project off the ground. By a sheer stroke of luck, the two shared the same agent, who suggested that Roth read for the role. "We met at a cheesy bar and he said, 'I want to do it. I want to do it,'" recalls Gray. "I am really indebted to him. I had never done anything. I was quite a schmuck, and he really helped to get the film made."

Gray is not the only first-time director Roth has taken a chance with. A few years ago, a similar thing happened with Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs. "Quentin tapped into something. I don't know what it is. It was fortuitous for him -- the timing must have just been perfect," he says of the director's rocket-launched career. "But I thought Reservoir Dogs was a wonderful script. I remember just wanting to be in it -- you're reaching for the phone after the first page . . . There's a couple of actors I know who turned down Pulp Fiction. I know that they're kicking themselves. It's very funny."

Roth teams up with Tarantino again for his next project, Four Rooms. As a bellhop in a hotel on New Year's Eve, Roth's character links the four separate films by four separate directors: Tarantino, Allison Anders, Richard [sic] Rodriguez and Alexandre Rockwell. But this time, there's no blood or pistol involved, as Roth offers only comic relief. "I hope it's funny," he says. After Four Rooms, audiences will get a chance to see Roth in a whole new light -- a sort of soft, candlelit, romantic light. "I did a love story recently for the first time, and it had a sex scene in it," Roth almost reluctantly admits, speaking of his costarring role in Captives, which features the industry's favorite new face, Julia Ormond. "I saw it recently and I thought, 'Oh God, is that what I look like? That's disgusting.'" Despite his immediate repulsion, he relishes the new challenge. "I've never been perceived as someone who would be involved in a romantic story. It's only just started to happen. Maybe it's age, or maybe someone just decided to take a chance on me. It's very strange. It's a whole new ball game. I've never had to play those emotions before. It's good when there's something fresh like that. It keeps you going."

Regardless, Roth is surprised by his success. "I have a complete fear of unemployment," he confesses. "It doesn't ever change. I talked to [British director] Stephen Frears about it, and he's the same way. He works all the time and he's afraid. Maybe it's an English thing. You fear that it's going to get taken away from you if you don't keep doing it."

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