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Tim Roth -- An Oddly Happy Bloke

By Edward Guthmann

British actor starring in independent Little Odessa

Last month, when British actor Tim Roth won the Piper Heidsieck Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival -- given to actors who take risks and avoid the ordinary -- he showed up at the Kabuki Theater looking like a character in one of his films: shirttail out, black leather jacket and boots, ever-present cigarette.

Like a bloke from the streets who hasn't lost the common touch, Roth strutted, preened, goofed on his celebrity, plugged his new film, Little Odessa (opening Friday at the Kabuki), and turned the ceremony into a light, self-mocking charade. "If I can get away with this," he seemed to imply, "anybody can."

The crowd savored every word, wink and gesture, making it clear that Roth -- in half a decade, with only one mainstream hit to his credit -- has generated a huge share of audience goodwill. A bit of a hellion, with touches of James Woods, Johnny Rotten and the young Richard Widmark, Roth doesn't act desperately cool to win friends and fans. He came that way.

STRANGE AND AMAZING TREK

Three months earlier, Roth, 34, was sitting in a beer-and-burgers joint in Park City, Utah, the site of the Sundance Film Festival, smoking and telling The Chronicle about his strange and amazing trek: from late '70s punk in the gritty south of London ("It was joyful and rebellious and quite mad") to prominent film actor with a home base in Los Angeles.

Best known as Pumpkin, the coffee shop stick-up man in Pulp Fiction, Roth has carved out a smart, meaty career for himself in the last decade -- displaying his virtuosity at both British and American characters, and playing his share of villains, thugs and psychos.

He was a Cockney skinhead in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, a platinum-blond killer in Stephen Frears' The Hit, an American undercover cop in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, a murderous fiend in The Thief, the Cook, His Wife and Her Lover, a TV salesman in Bodies, Rest and Motion and a rapacious faux-fop in Michael Caton-Jones' Scottish epic, Rob Roy.

Sundance is important to Roth. It was here that he launched several films, and it was here, three years ago, that he met his American wife, Nikki. Roth was promoting two films that winter, Reservoir Dogs and Jumpin' at the Boneyard, and Nikki, a clothing designer, had come to ski with some pals.

The two met at a screening of In the Soup, married a year later, and had their first child, a son named T. Hunter Roth, earlier this month. Roth's older son, Jack, the product of a previous relationship, is 10. Little Odessa, one of Roth's best films, played at this year's Sundance Festival. A dazzling debut for 26-year-old writer/director James Gray, Odessa was filmed in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, and stars Roth as Josh Shapira, the embittered son of Russian emigres.

Estranged from his father (Maximillian Schell), but devoted to his dying mother (Vanessa Redgrave), Josh scores hits for the organizatsya (Russian Jewish mob) and tries to save his kid brother (Edward Furlong) from a dead-end life of crime. Superbly acted, Odessa has the emotional starkness of opera. It's a huge achievement for Gray, who was 22 when he wrote it, and 23 when he approached Roth to appear in his film.

Roth says he's proud of Little Odessa, especially of Gray for pulling it off at such a young age. "It's like this big piece of music," he says. "When I first saw it, I thought it was an incredibly mature movie. . . . The desperate sadness of it attracted me."

Ask him about his character, however, and Roth shrugs, takes another drag on his cigarette, and declines to speculate on what made Josh so cold. "I'm not sure how well I really know him," he admits. "I only lived with that character for six weeks. So I couldn't possibly know everything about him."

For Roth, the narcissism of Method acting, and the compulsion of some actors to analyze their own work, is more than a tad ridiculous. "I think it's absolute rubbish, this stuff of 'I went and lived in a box in the tundra for two years to get into character,'" he says. "I think actors generally try and make their job seem more difficult to outsiders because they need to feel important. Obviously, it can't be very difficult, because there's so many fucking people doing it."

An excess of modesty? According to Gray, Roth has "integrity, ambiguity and guts. He's willing to do anything. You say to him, 'Let's try this, it's not going to be flashy or attention-grabbing, but it could be interesting.' And he'll do it. He doesn't care about hogging the screen."

SYMPATHETIC EVERY TIME

Because he's not traditionally handsome, Gray adds, "Tim has a really odd way of being resonantly sympathetic no matter what he does. I can't tell how many women have come up to me and said, 'You've worked with Tim Roth! He's the sexiest man in movies,' which is incredibly amusing because I know him as this sort of cigarette-smoking, beer-guzzling great guy."

Roth recently finished Four Rooms, a comedy by four director/writers, set on New Year's Eve. Tarantino, Alexandre Rockwell, Richard Rodriguez and Alison Anders each created a segment, and Roth plays a hotel bellboy who crisscrosses the four stories.

He's about to film I Run and Feel Rain, in which he and Sissy Spacek play a mentally retarded couple, and will play a Detroit junkie in Gridlock, written and directed by African American actor Vondie Curtis-Hall (Passion Fish). He's also committed to Gray's next feature, about New York subway workers.

Roth plans to do another studio picture like Rob Roy -- he has to pay the bills -- but says his heart is in the independent, coming-from-left-field movies.

"I love it 'cause it's where you can act," he explains, "I'm doing exactly what I want to do (with independents). I'm so happy."

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