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Film Festival Honors an All-Purpose Psycho

By Edward Guthmann

Not so long ago, James Woods was the American movie-goer's villain of choice. Menacing. Unpredictable. The loose-cannon lunatic who made us cheer his every excess.

Today, it's Tim Roth, the British star of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, who gets to have fun being bad. In a few short years, Roth has emerged, partially through his association with Quentin Tarantino, as the independent film world's favorite hooligan, hit man and all-purpose psycho.

The San Francisco International Film Festival apparently agrees, and on Sunday night gave Roth its Piper Heidsieck Award, a prize that goes annually to actors who display "independence, courage, risk-taking and avoidance of the conventional."

Roth, 34, flew up from his Los Angeles home, where his wife is about to give birth to their second child, to accept the award at the AMC Kabuki 8 Theaters. Dressed in jeans, black leather jacket, heavy black boots and a shirt he didn't bother to tuck in, Roth played the grinning trickster -- cheeky, profane, pretend-cocky -- and joshed the pretentiousness of award-giving at the same time he savored the attention.

Beaming at the whoop of applause that greeted his appearance on stage, Roth looked like a party-crasher who couldn't believe his good luck at fooling the palace guards.

"It's cool to get an award for independent work," the slight, wiry actor said, "because that's the most important work you can do." Slipping into an upper-crust British accent, Roth beamed: "Very grand. I'll accept!"

Interviewed by National Public Radio commentator David D'Arcy, Roth, saying "I'm here to entertain," lobbed off a series of jokes and jutted out his chin when the crowd applauded the fact that his wife is pregnant. "I did what came naturally to me," Roth said, acting the gloating stud. "It probably lasted 90 seconds but it was damn good."

Quoting his late father, a left-winger who raised his family in the unposh south of London, Roth said the greatest invention of all time would be "a remote control device that, when you push a button from 40 to 50 feet, Margaret Thatcher's knickers would fall down."

Roth then offered another twist on the same idea: "I'd love to see a similar device where, when you press a button, Newt Gingrich gets an erection in public."

Coming to America, Roth said, was the best thing that could have happened to his career. After getting his start in England with such directors as Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh (Naked) and Stephen Frears, Roth said, "I ran out of juice. Mike Leigh wasn't going to employ me again. And you run out of those guys after a while. I was desperate to work with anybody."

OLDMAN'S ADVICE

It was fellow Englishman Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker's Dracula), Roth said, who gave him the best advice on breaking into American film. "He said, 'You have to convince them you can play an American. If you do it well, they'll be shocked that you're British, and then you'll be able to play anything.'"

When D'Arcy observed that British actors often get typecast -- wearing tuxedos and standing under chandeliers -- the working-class Roth shrugged. "I don't have the nose for it," he said. "You put a tux on me and I look daft."

During the clips, the crowd cheered the coffee-shop stick-up scene from Pulp Fiction -- Roth plays Pumpkin, boyfriend to Amanda Plummer's Honey Bunny -- and watched their man tear it up as an undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs, a suicidal Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, a surly skinhead in Made in Britain and a platinum-haired hit man in Frears' The Hit. There was a gem of a scene, too, from Roth's latest, the Scottish costume epic Rob Roy. Dressed as a dandy in a flowing wig, Roth plays Archibald Cunningham, a merciless fiend who catches his opponents off guard by imitating a mincing fop.

The clips left no doubt: Roth is a vivid, visceral actor who rivets your attention and seems incapable of delivering a dull or indifferent moment on film.

Following the interview, the film festival screened Roth's next picture, Little Odessa. A tough, spare drama by 26-year-old James Gray, it stars Roth as a hit man for Russian Jewish organized crime in Brooklyn. Estranged from parents Vanessa Redgrave and Maximillian Schell, he tries to save his kid brother Edward Furlong, with tragic results. The film opens a commercial run June 2.

When the talented Gray, only 23 at the time, offered him the script, Roth said, "I thought it was extraordinary. So bleak and so sad, like an opera. I immediately said, 'I want to do your movie.'"

Earlier on Sunday, Roth held a press conference at Vertigo, a restaurant in the TransAmerica Pyramid, and said he was thrilled to be in San Francisco: "It's a great place and has the best bars. I'm only here one night and I intend to visit them all."

'DOGS' A HIT IN BRITAIN

It was Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Roth said, that made the biggest impact in Britain. "It was banned from video there, and remained in theaters a long time. So it became a cult thing and after a while people started going to midnight screenings dressed as the characters -- like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Roth reaffirmed his commitment to independent film ("What I like in a director is a grand passion, not a grand bank account") and said he doesn't consider himself a dark soul, even though he's "fascinated by darkness" and loves playing villains.

"The baddies are such fun to play," Roth said, his eyes practically sparkling with the memory of all his hideous on-screen deeds. "You get to do horrendous things and then go home at night and not get arrested."

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