All the Right Moves
By Ethan Silverman
It's hard to stand out at the Sundance Film Festival, where thousands of young filmmakers, agents, producers and executives from L.A., New York and Europe converge on the small town of Park City, Utah. It's like Morton's meets Angelika's at Cannes in a snowsuit. But one actor did stand out, both on screen and off. Looking like the attractive son that Woody Allen and Johnny Rotten never had, the wildly articulate Tim Roth slipped into the festival from Texas where he is playing mass murderer Charles Starkweather in a TV movie.
Even when he is, by his own admission, working solely for the money, Roth manages to keep both his artistic integrity and his bad-boy image intact. From his early stage work in Glasgow and in London, to his roles in films like Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo (in which he plays Vincent van Gogh) and Quentin Tarantino's highly successful independent feature, Reservoir Dogs, his choices have been fearless.
The British-born actor recently turned down the big bucks of a horror film to go to Tucson, Arizona, to work on a quiet, quirky, low-budget movie about relationships, Bodies, Rest & Motion, which is set to open in New York. (The film, written by New York playwright Roger Hedden and directed by Michael Steinberg, co-stars Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda and Eric Stoltz, who is also one of the producers.)
Even in this beautifully moody film, set in a small desert town, Roth literally bounces off the walls -- and is very, very funny. As Nick, a lower-middle-class TV salesman who is completely restless but unable to move, Roth couldn't be more American. Slouched in a booth of the restaurant in Park City where we met, Roth seemed cranky and restless, which wasn't helped by the Mormon waitress who couldn't serve beer without food.
The current flourishing of American independent filmmaking is why Tim Roth lives here and not in his native England. "It's wonderful here," says Roth. "They let me make the kind of films that we should be making in Britain. What they want to do is make films that look very pretty and are set in the 1800's. That kind of idea of England that they are trying to sell abroad has been what's killed the industry in Britain. Certainly what's happened in England during the last 10 to 15 years of Thatcherism is disgusting, and that's the backdrop that we should be making films against."
We talked about British actors who put down American culture as base and vulgar but sometimes end up on sitcoms here. Roth responds agrily: "I hate that anal-retentive shit. What they perceive as vulgarity I now admire, I enjoy, and I want to be a part of. That complete freedom to say what you think. Now that I'm working under censorship on television, I find it so sad. What's happening in America is terrifying. That the argument about gays in the military even comes up is sad. The fact that people wear plaid trousers and speak in loud voices when they go to England, that's charming to me. You should see the British abroad. I don't get the snobbery. I come here and play Americans, I never get a bad word about that. If I were an American and I went to England and played British, I would get shit. That fucking costume drama culture is the reason why the industry is on its knees."
When I bring up The Crying Game as an alternative example in the British film industry Roth agrees that director Neil Jordan is "brilliant." And "fucking brilliant" is how he describes the drag scene in general. "I've always loved the gay scene. I think it's much more open and aggressive and forward thinking than the straight scene."
During a recent press conference, I watched Roth get equally more butch and more camp at the same time, a feat that made all the women in the room love him even more. His fiancee says women love him because he's the bad boy. He even wants to go further, regardless of political correctness. "I want to play a screamin' queen. I'm not one, but I want to play one." It definitely gives him an edge over his American competitors, many of whom have well-muscled bodies when their characters would be nowhere near a gym. "Look at Jimmy Stewart, who is half-naked for the first 20 minutes of Rear Window. That's what a real man looks like. Now you have to look like a model to succeed in Hollywood. They all look the same."
When discussing American actors, Harvey Keitel, Roth's co-star in Reservoir Dogs, comes up. "I love him. Harvey is the best thing that ever happened to me because he was someone that I really admired. And he ain't starry, he's the opposite of that."
The community and the loyalty that develops around independent filmmaking is quite strong. I noticed it when I visited the set of Bodies, Rest & Motion last August. A sense of camaraderie emerged and a good deal of it came from Roth, his fiancee Nikki and his eight-year-old son, Jack. "It doesn't always happen, but when it does it's cool." I think in this case it carried over for the good of the project. "When Bridget and I were shooting, it was as if we were having a personal conversation and the camera just happened to be turned on."
In the film, Nick impulsively leaves for Butte, Montana, turning everyone's lives upside down. Unlike Nick in the film, who is unable to commit, Roth feels he has grown up here in America. If he does move on, it will be to New York. "It's an insanity I want to inhabit. I also find it very, very romantic." Like Nick, Roth is constantly searching for the romance of America and has taken to the road, even going as far as riding the rails with the homeless and migrant workers in the Northwest. I'm amazed at his tale of the grain cars, Rice-a-Roni and candy bars. That has to be the bravest thing an actor could do. Not the risk of falling on the tracks, getting arrested, or shot -- but not being able to get a script Fed-Exed to you. "When you travel, your intention is to get lost," says Roth.
And the fashionable "left" of Hollywood is especially distasteful to someone who grew up in the hotbed of leftist politics in London. Belonging to causes in Hollywood becomes a way of life as does self-help and the now famous AA meetings. "The AA down on Fountain is like a casting fucking couch. The only problem is you can't drink."