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A Small Body of Work, But a Good One

By Cynthia Robins

Tim Roth honored by Film Fest for his young career

British actor Tim Roth is 33 years old. Sorta young to have the "body" of his work honored at the S.F. International Film Festival. But with Roth, that scant film library makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity.

Sunday night, Roth received the Piper-Heidsieck Award. The festival ran a selection of clips from some of his TV and film work and screened Little Odessa, a new film by first-time writer-director James Gray.

Quietude and violence seem to be the hallmarks of Roth's roster of quirky characters -- from the skinhead punk in his first long work, Made in Britain, to Archie, the campy, amoral, sword-toting fop in Rob Roy, and now to Joshua Shapira, the taciturn Russian Jewish hit man in Little Odessa.

Joshua's face betrays no emotion. No wheels grinding behind dead eyes. No remorse. He is economical in his movements. His shoulders are permanently hunched. And his stride is jangly and loose (the result, laughs Roth, "of how bitterly cold it was last winter in Brooklyn where we made the film" ).

But Joshua can whip out a huge revolver and get off a couple of lethal rounds with the artistry and grace of a ballet dancer and just walk away. "That was James Gray's direction to me. Say very little, kill the guy. Walk away."

Luckily, Tim Roth likes to talk. There is a sweet earnestness to him that only hints at the rushing river of talent that lies within him. In his films, you can't tell the real color of his hair -- it has been shaved, tinted black, cropped short, greased down and covered with a long curly wig. His real hair is strawberry blond, which goes nicely with deep-set greenish-hazel eyes that look like transparent jade in the sunlight. He says he doesn't know how tall he is or how much he weighs -- "the costumers do, though" -- and it seems those kinds of details don't concern him.

Like his fellow "wonky" Brit actors -- Gary Oldman, Terence Stamp (the older Stamp, not Billy Budd), David Warner and Tom Courtenay -- Roth is not classically handsome. His face was born for character acting. He will talk, albeit reluctantly, about how he does it. He will not, however, discuss what he found in a totally unredeemable character like Joshua, to make him attractive and playable.

"I can find things (about a character) that you, as the audience, are not going to see," he says, asking me, "Why do you need to know this? When you talk about how you do things, then all the mystery is taken away.

"Besides, who cares what actors have to say? Why don't they just make it all up like they used to? How I get it doesn't really matter. I guess it matters to the public relations machine, which I've only run into recently because Rob Roy is such a big studio movie."

The point is: Tim Roth has made a career out of small, independently made films that probably don't have a prayer of opening in Peoria. And every single one of those characters is offbeat, unexpected and so individualistic that you can't type Tim Roth. Which suits him just fine.

Studio movies? "It makes funding independents easier when they've found out you've been in a big studio film," he says.

The independent films have an immediacy to them that he appreciates. He loved working with Robert Altman, for instance, in Vincent and Theo, a film that was probably 50 percent improvised. Mike Leigh's Meantime, his second film, was "totally improvised." Independent film directors, it seems, tend to leave him alone and trust that he will come up with something . . . wonderful.

Like Quentin Tarantino, with whom he did Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The scene in the latter film, in a coffee shop with co-star Amanda Plummer, came out of Roth's wish to work with Plummer. "And have her carry a really big gun," he said to Tarantino, who obliged. Why a big gun? "Because she's the last person on earth you'd ever expect to see with one."

Roth grew up in London, he says, "lower middle class." His father was a Fleet Street journalist; his mother, an artist. He was all set to go to art school as a sculptor, but was bitten severely by the acting bug. His first role was the title part in a musical based on Dracula ("Me and Gary Oldman, both Draculas," he laughs). He performed classic roles in pub theater, playing rooms located above working-class bars. "Every time I'd have an audition for drama school, I'd be acting in a play," says Roth, who, unlike many of Britain's hottest actors, has not a whit of classical background.

What he does have is fabulous instinct and no fear. His characters, while they are all different, have one thing in common: They are troubled souls whose violence exhibits itself unexpectedly. In Sunday night's presentation of his work, for instance, one of the most riveting scenes was from Vincent and Theo where Roth, as Vincent Van Gogh, attacks painter Paul Gauguin with a knife. He straddles him, rubs his face with the paint from his hands and then puts the knife blade in his own mouth. It happens in the course of 20 seconds. Not a word is spoken.

"I was the one who got bullied all the time at school," Roth says. "You get to where you know it's coming. If you do play a character prone to this kind of behavior, you can smell it. And this violence -- it comes from nowhere."

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