Americans, eh? You fake their accents, bleed over their warehouses, hold up their diners, and they love you. But Hollywood-adopted Tim Roth does have his limits. "I'm not one of those actors who would go and live in the tundra for a job," he warns Robert Yates.
When Tim Roth first appeared on screen he came with a swastika imprinted on his forehead--as a skinhead in Alan Clarke's razor-sharp 1983 TV film Made In Britain. The role, nihilistic, set the tone. Ever since, 36-year-old Roth has had a way with characters from the margins, if not the gutter.
If you want a knife-wielding sociopath (Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief etc); a one-eared genius (Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo); a diner hold-up man (Pumpkin in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction) or just somebody to bleed to death (his undercover agent in Reservoir Dogs), Roth's your man. However, the rule you shouldn't confuse the man and his work has never made more sense. Showing off his suite in the Savoy Hotel--"You have to see this view", he insists, looking down on the Thames--Roth is relaxed and friendly.
His only apparent anxiety centres on how best to promote Gridlock'd, his latest film. He knows what to avoid--death becoming the chief sales pitch, as he thinks it did in the US. Soon after filming was complete, in September last year, Roth's co-star, Tupac Shakur, was shot dead, the murder thought to be part of the ongoing East/West Coast rap feud.
"It was embarrassing", sighs Roth, "how much they played on Tupac's death in America." The favourite promotional clip from the film included the line, "Ever feel that your luck is running out?" Poor taste aside, the film itself got swallowed by the event, he reckons. "For one thing, it's a comedy, which the hype forgot."
The humour is carried by the evident on-screen rapport between Roth and Shakur, a rapport that continued off-screen: "We just took the piss out of each other," Roth remembers. "I called him New Money. He would arrive in a Bentley with a different woman on his arm every day. He called me Free Shit, because I like the odd freebie." Though they were playing struggling musicians, Tupac's experience couldn't really help them with the "struggling" bit.
"Hardly. He was in the middle of this great success, and had plenty of ambitions. The last thing he was planning was touring with a rock band."
Roth's research did not involve picking up any tunes. "It was all fake--a musician showed me where to put my hands." So much for Roth the Method Man. "Faking it" is his preferred approach: "I'm not one of those actors who would go and live in the tundra for a job. I think that's bullshit."
He did not always feel this way. When he played a misfit in Mike Leigh's Meantime in the mid-80's, he didn't wash for 14 weeks ("Authentic smell!") Even now, he's not dogmatic and will do "Whatever it takes, but now I know that the difference between real learning and film learning is that in film I just need enough to get by, to wing it. So for a rocket scientist, a few logarithms would do."
Back when he shot Made in Britain, he attended several National Front meetings, to see things from the other side. His late father--Ernie, a journalist--had taken the teenage Roth to demonstrations against the Far Right, part of a "liberal middle class" upbringing in Dulwich, South London. Later--after comprehensive school in Brixton--he became, along with friend Gary Oldman, the very image of the edgy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks British actor.
Yet he feels more comfortable living in Los Angeles, "where people don't really care where I am from", with his fashion designer wife, Nikki. From his first American film--Jumpin' At The Boneyard, about crackheads: little seen, not much missed--he tried to escape the Brit tag. "Many Americans think I'm American," he says in his hybrid accent. His US break, Reservoir Dogs, made it clear to him the sort of job he enjoys. "It's great working with people who are mad about making films...or just mad," he quips.
He gives some idea of his favourite approach when he raves about Animals, a film he's just shot: "There was Mickey Rooney, John Turturro, Rod Steiger--who are all mad--ten pigs, sheep and three French actors who don't speak English." He punches the air: "Great!" Or working with Woody Allen on the recently released musical, Everyone Says I Love You: "You're never quite sure what he's going to do next. But, who wants predictability?"
He's in no way hostile to the studios' hegemony, however, and happy to do the odd bit of "whoring" for film's ruling caste if the right offer comes his way: "I don't have to watch the film when it's done, do I?"
If he likes to maintain quality control, it makes sense for Roth to move into direction himself. He's in London keen to secure financing for The War Game, a projected adaptation of the acclaimed Alexander Stuart novel: "I used to get into big arguments with directors. Now I've learned to give it up. It's their film. It would be good to have a go at mine."
Not much chance of him coming back to Britain full-time, though. He tries to keep in touch, reads the Guardian and is agog for information about Labour's recent landslide. Even so, he's happy "hanging in LA--no origins, less baggage, I like it like that".