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Master of Art

By Paolo Hewitt

If British film has anyone approaching a method actor, then it's Tim Roth, the highly acclaimed star of Vincent and Theo. He talks about a career that's taken him from NF skinhead to demented painter . . .

Those languid eyes turn cold and the small smile on his lips disappears. "Sorry, but I never talk about my personal life."

Tim Roth is tight-lipped when asked about how much his immersion in the characters he plays affects his personal relationships.

"The most I'll say is this," he adds, "for that period of time when I'm working on something, that's all I am thinking about. Everything else just slides and I can't do anything about it. But it's when I'm not working, when I'm sitting around doing nothing, that's far worse for me."

It's a grey Tuesday morning in London's Old Compton Street and for Tim Roth work has been coming in steadily. The day before he spent 12 hours dubbing dialogue onto Tom Stoppard's forthcoming film of his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which united Roth and Gary Oldman in the title roles.

Today he's talking about Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, in which Roth plays the angst-ridden Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, who died penniless aged 37 having sold just one painting in his lifetime.

Tim Roth may never suffer such tragedy in his lifetime. Time and again he has landed ecstatic praise for his characters. Most of them, whether they be the malevolent skinhead in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain or the painfully shy Colin in Mike Leigh's Meantime (an improvised TV play set around a South London estate) are true outsiders, be they criminals or, as with Van Gogh, totally at odds with the society they are born into.

Much has been made of Roth's commitment to his work. For the skinhead role in Made In Britain, he attended a few NF meetings (pretty galling given his left wing beliefs) and reported that it wasn't the skinheads that scared him, but the judges, lawyers and doctors sitting at the head table.

He is also insistent that the work he accepts has to say something to people. This approach has effectively marginalised him from translating his glowing notices into box office power.

He spent three months in Africa filming a small part for Chris Menges' moving anti-apartheid film, A World Apart ("I suppose that could be construed as a bad career move") before moving onto a similarly small part in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

"The Cook, I saw as a great comment on Thatcher's Britain and what she's done to us. The greed, the racism, the sexism, it was all in there, plus I got the chance to work with Michael Gambon which was great."

The part of Van Gogh was tailor-made for Roth, something of an open goal for a man who specialises in volatile characters. If the inherent romanticism of the struggling artist remains a potent myth today, Roth's performance destroys that notion.

Vincent is a human time bomb waiting to explode as his personal demons grow larger by the day. He maims his body (the famous slicing of the ear) and stalks the streets of Amsterdam, Paris and Provence with an air of menace. He frequents brothels, quarrels savagely with those near to him and mutilates his own paintings when he senses failure.

Roth's Van Gogh is a brooding, unpredictable man which gives Altman's film its main source of energy. Alongside him is Theo, his equally angst-ridden brother who's trapped between the Paris art world's commercial aspects and his own beliefs as an art dealer. The brothers enjoy a tense, often angry relationship although the bond between them is strong, even when they are in different countries. When Vincent stumbles, Theo rushes over to pick up the brushes.

"We didn't want the film to be two hours of someone painting," Roth explains, "and that's why the brothers' relationship and the way we focus on it is good."

Before he landed the part, Roth knew little about Van Gogh. To prepare for the role he read Vincent's letters to Theo and called upon his own artistic skills (he attended art college for a year before moving into acting) to start drawing again. He would draw pictures of Paul Rhys, who plays Theo, as they chatted in bars.

"But I didn't do too much research because I didn't want it to interfere," he says. "I didn't see Lust For Life, for example, (Hollywood's version of Van Gogh's life, starring Kirk Douglas) or read that many books."

Given Roth's predilection for playing the outsider, he was naturally drawn to Vincent's outlook on life. But he admits his admiration is from afar.

"I don't think I'd like to sit down and have a drink with him," he says. "But I did like him. He was a preacher, but he was a lousy one. He didn't see the point of preaching to the rich. In many ways he was ahead of his time."

Roth refused to be intimidated by portraying a world famous figure, and he applied the same principle to working with Robert Altman, one of the few genuinely creative directors to have come out of America in recent years.

"He puts you at ease straight away," says Roth. "He opened up his house for anyone throughout the filming and he encouraged us to improvise or rewrite the script if we wanted to. You never felt a distance between you and him."

As for the finished work . . . Roth's comment that "this film won't be a box office smasheroo but it will have a life of its own" is an apt enough summary of this talented man's own career.

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