The Japes of Roth
By Patrick Goldstein
A few beers with Tim Roth, the Tarantino tough guy villainous enough to steal Rob Roy
Growing up in London, Tim Roth was a Sex Pistols fan. When he and his young punk pals went to the legitimate theater, they giggled, set off stink bombs, and harassed the actors. It's no wonder that when Robert Altman cast him as Vincent Van Gogh in Vincent and Theo, Roth decided to play the mad painter as a cross between Jesus Christ and Sid Vicious. Michael Caton-Jones, who directed Roth in Rob Roy, calls him a "sweaty little oik" -- cockney slang for hooligan. Dismissive of actorly pretense, Roth likes parts in which he can be a troublemaker: He played a petty robber in Pulp Fiction, serial killer Charlie Starkweather in the miniseries Murder in the Heartland, a dying undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs, a squirrelly boyfriend in Bodies, Rest and Motion, and a hit man for the Russian Mafia in the new film Little Odessa.
Due out this month, Rob Roy is a Scottish Robin Hood-style drama starring Liam Neeson as the fiercely independent leader of a clan, and Jessica Lange as his strong-willed wife. Roth is a cold-blooded, dandyish swordsman who steals from the local marquis, puts the blame on Neeson, then ravages his wife and stalks him through the foggy Scottish countryside. Wearing a powdered wig and knee breeches, Roth gives his character an aura of foppish self-amusement -- he's thrilled by his own careless cruelty.
"Tim reminds me of De Niro," says Caton-Jones, who directed the American actor in This Boy's Life. "He's not going to play it safe. He doesn't suffer from insecurity like a lot of young American actors. And I knew he could bring a great nastiness to the role." Roth made films with both Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears (and played opposite Gary Oldman in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) before coming to America. After driving up in a grungy late-model Mustang that he's nicknamed the hooligan-mobile, the 33-year old Roth, a wiry, good-natured bloke brimming with nervous energy, holds court at a corner table in his neighborhood bar. Wearing a white t-shirt and khakis, he quaffs beer and smokes cigarettes as he talks.
So what's the best thing about playing a villain?
It's just juicy. I've never really played a goody in the traditional sense. Anyway, I don't think that I look the part of a heroic character, especially not in Hollywood, so they never really come up. On a childish level, villains are just more fun.
Do you ever get caught up in having to draw on some dark side of yourself? Is it all just fun, even when you're playing a killer like Charlie Starkweather?
That did require research, which I like to do. It was pretty hard on my wife to come back on Christmas Eve and there's pictures of mutilated bodies all over the place.
Did you do a lot of research to play your villain in Rob Roy?
I didn't do anything, really. The only thing Michael Caton-Jones said was, "There's no such thing as over the top with this character, so the bigger you can go and the more outrageous you can be, the better." That was very hard for me, because I'm used to playing characters where you have more subtlety. This is a very loud performance, and at the beginning, I really hated being in the film.
Because it went against everything that I believed in about acting. I thought I was going to get fired at one point. I thought, They can't possibly be liking this. I was on the phone with my agent, saying, "Oh God, this is terrible what I'm doing." But, by the end, I was loving it. You couldn't get me out of the door for as many bows -- as much flourish -- as I could put in.
Michael Caton-Jones said he wanted you to play it as very broad comedy -- like the actors in the Carry On series, Terry Thomas and Charles Hawtrey.
Very, very broad. Over-the-top, caricatured English. By the end of the film, it was like, "Okay, I'm going to give you a Hawtrey in this scene, a touch of Terry in this one, and a drag queen in this one."
But what about the rape scene in the film? Wasn't that a little bit tense?
I have trouble with actors saying how difficult and how intense acting is. The reality of it is that there's a guy down below the table (on which the rape occurs) trying to brace so it doesn't slide across the floor. As soon as they said "cut", we were laughing our heads off.
Are you and Caton-Jones friends from your days in England?
We actually met in a pub in London when he was doing Scandal. We wanted to do a film together about motorcycle messengers in London. Then I didn't see him for years until I came to L.A. and we became drinking buddies. One day he sent me the script for Rob Roy. It was good guys and bad guys, but it had a character I could really develop, so after he squared it with the studio, it was, "Okay, let's go and have a party in Scotland."
Judging by the movies you've made, I'd guess you grew up watching a lot of Martin Scorsese films.
We all did. I think I saw Taxi Driver ten times. I saw William Friedkin's The French Connection ten times. I saw Mean Streets and Raging Bull. I took my mom to see Raging Bull when it came out, and she said it was the best film she'd ever seen about women, which I thought was a great take on it.
You grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in the south of London. What was it like?
Very quiet. Margaret Thatcher has got a house there -- that's the kind of place it was. It was a predominantly white neighborhood, but I went to school in a black neighborhood, so I got both sides.
How did you end up going to school in a black neighborhood?
I failed all my exams to get into the posh schools. I just wasn't bright enough -- or I didn't study. I was terrible. Until I got into acting, I never did any homework. But I don't think I'd be an actor if I'd gone to one of those fancy schools.
You tried out for a play in high school, almost as a lark?
I went along with a mate of mine as a joke, and then the woman who was running the drama department said, "All right, you're on". She gave me the lead in it, which was Dracula. I was so scared that I actually wet myself the first time I went out onstage -- literally pissed myself. But once I got through the first performance, I realized that this was something I really wanted to do. I don't know why -- if it's just applause or the ability to make somebody laugh or whatever. Acting was the first place where I suppose I began to focus.
As a kid growing up in London, you must have been influenced by the punk movement.
It was completely liberating. It was like a big "Fuck you!" to everybody. It was primarily left-wing, which was also liberating, because our country is very right-wing. I remember watching the Sex Pistols on TV when I came home from school -- I think it was Johnny Rotten and Siouxsie Sioux from the Banshees -- and they started swearing and the guy interviewing them got fired for provoking them. It was a wonderful time. It was like saying, "Ugly is beautiful, everything you taught us is wrong." Our hormones were flying.
That's when you'd be taken to the theater and throw stink bombs and misbehave?
I remember once they had to stop the show and say, "Now either be quiet or get out!" Later on, I actually worked with one of the actors we had harassed. Alan Howard--he was in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I never talked to him about it.(Grins) But I kill him in the film.
You come from a background different from that of Kenneth Branagh or Hugh Grant. Are the class distinctions just as strong in the theater as in other parts of British society?
There are certain plays and films on TV that I would never want to watch, and they tend to involve the upper-class actors or upper-class issues. What was exciting to me about American cinema was that filmmakers like Scorsese set their films in working-class New York. Those were the characters he followed. That's sadly missing from British films--the Merchant Ivory or Kenneth Branagh kind of films are about wealthy people and their problems. I don't really give a fuck about their problems. Let them hire a shrink.
But did it narrow your career possibilities?
In my mind, only to the good, because I was never considered for those roles. They thought, Well, he's just an oik. Then again, look at Gary Oldman: He comes from a very working-class background and now he's playing Beethoven. We'll get our turn -- we just have to work a little harder to get it.
Was there a kinship between young actors when you were starting out in London?
No, there wasn't any network of actors or Brat Pack thing like you had here. Every actor who was coming up was incredibly jealous of the next guy because there was so little work around. It was like, "Fuck you! I want it!"
I gather you didn't think much of L.A. when you first moved here.
I hated it. All I knew about it was meetings with studio executives and parties I had to go to. I had no friends. It was a very tough time -- I felt like a fish out of water. I didn't think I could ever succeed out here, and it all seemed incredibly superficial. And, on top of that, I couldn't drive -- I used to have to pay someone to drive me around.
So what changed?
The first person to really look after me -- apart from my agent, who's a wonderful woman -- was Sean Penn. He called me and the very notion of him even being on the phone with me was scary because he was someone I really admired. But finally I called him back because I didn't know anybody else. He showed me around: He took me to a great bar; he introduced me to Harry Dean Stanton. The first time I met Sean, he was talking to me about Rimbaud and poetry and Ethiopia and filmmaking. And once you've got friends, L.A. can be a great place to be.
Have you ever taken a part for the money?
Oh yeah. I'd been here doing films for very little money up front and a back-end deal you'd never see -- you virtually paid to be in them -- and I got to the point where I couldn't pay the next month's rent. So I called up my agent and said, "I've got to do something. I can't make the rent." She got me a job, and I did it for the money.
Are you one of these actors who just has to work?
I get very antsy. I sit in bars and shoot pool and read books and wait for the next job. I can't stop. I love it too much. It's compulsion.