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Four Play

Four rooms. Four set-ups. Four hot movie directors (including Quentin Tarantino, obviously). And Tim Roth -- the bumbling bellhop who links Four Rooms together. Martyn Palmer talks to him.

Tim Roth is by usual Hollywood standards too short, too narrow shouldered, too British borstal-boy by half. His face can look, at times, alarmingly stupid -- jaw hanging, eyes hooded and half open, lift juddering to a halt somewhere short of the top floor.

A second later, however, the same face can convey the malevolent genius and menace of the seriously fucked-up psycho variety. Morons (Meantime), maniacs (Rob Roy) and gunmen (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) have, shall we say, been Roth's specialty.

But it would be wrong to try and categorize him. For a start, he won't let you. Just as everyone thinks that they have Tim Roth pegged conveniently where they want him he pops up and does something completely and utterly unexpected.

Right now, he could be raking in the big bucks, thank you very much. And watching the old bank balance grow by several naughts might be some people's idea of fun. After his film stealing performance as the foppish but deadly swordsman in Rob Roy, a lavish studio movie as opposed to the independents where he made his name, Roth is in demand with the big boys in Hollywood. And that means serious money.

"I guess it has changed since Rob Roy," he says. "The studios have become a lot more interested and I got sent a lot of very strange scripts that I didn't want to do. I may have to do one sooner or later but really I'm just looking for things that keep me interested. All I care about is being happy. There's no big game-plan going on here."

Maybe not, but the lack of planning seems to be working in his favor. This month we get to see another side of Roth -- the comedy side. In Four Rooms, the eagerly-awaited cinema outing from four of the coolest directors around: Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and, of course, one Quentin Tarantino -- Roth is the actor chosen to hold the four separate stories together. And, by all accounts, he was the one that they all -- yes, all -- wanted.

Or at least that's what you're told until you talk to Roth himself. Sitting in a church hall, doubling as a production office, in Staten Island where Roth is filming (another independent production, Roth plays a man recently released from doing time for a crime he didn't do) he's firing up yet another Marlboro Light and sipping water.

"Nah, they wanted to get Steve Buscemi [Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs] and they wanted me to play a cameo," he says with commendable and very un-Hollywood like honesty. "But Buscemi couldn't do it for whatever reason, and they asked me to do it. I was in Scotland at the time making Rob Roy and I finished that and came straight back for Four Rooms. I read it and that was it. I wanted to do it."

The film is essentially four different stories, by four different directors, woven together by Roth's character, Ted the bellboy, who is starting his first night in a new job in an old Hollywood hotel, The Mon Signor, on New Year's Eve.

"It was laugh making it," says Roth. "And it's a weird experience trying to get four directors to make a film that is complete and isn't just four segments. I've seen a rough cut, but they were still working on it so I don't know at this point what finished film is like, but on some levels it works really well and not so well on others.

"It was good mix of people," he continues. "They all knew each other, but they have different styles, so the whole thing was kind of bizarre but a lot of fun to do. We shot it in five weeks on this little sound stage in LA where we built the hotel reception and the different rooms. And the people they had in on it was just amazing. You'd look up and there would be Madonna or Marisa Tomei or God who knows else."

Whatever the final cut, Four Rooms is destined to be one of those must-see films simply because of its rarity value. Films just don't get made like this. Each section has its own title. There's The Missing Ingredient directed by Allison Anders (who directed the acclaimed but little-known Gas Food Lodging) which would be enough to induce most male punters through the turnstiles because, as one of a coven of witches, Madonna gets to wear a skin-tight rubber dress.

"That one is about a coven who check into the honeymoon suite, which they do every year and they're trying to summon up the ghost of this stripper called Diana [Amanda De Cadenet]. But Eva [Ione Skye] has turned up without one vital ingredient for the brew -- some semen. That's when poor old Ted walks into the room."

The Wrong Man, Alex Rockwell's bit, centers on room 404, and when Ted innocently delivers a bucket of ice he finds Siegfried [David Proval] wielding a .357 Magnum in the general direction of his wife [Jennifer Beals], who happens to be gagged and tied to a chair. Get the picture?

Then there's Robert Rodriguez -- he of El Mariachi, and the soon-to-be released follow-up Desperado, fame -- who conjures up the babysitting job from hell. Gangster couple Antonio Banderas and Tamlyn Tomita have to go out for the night leaving their little brats, aged nine and six, in the care of good old Ted. Before Ted can tuck them up for the night the kids have discovered the porno channel, the booze cupboard, a pack of ciggies, and a hypodermic needle which they are playing darts with. And it's not long before they uncover the body of a dead hooker under the bed.

"You can imagine that poor old Ted by now is having a bit of a bad night," says Roth. "And he's yet to visit Quentin's room."

Tarantino, or the Mad Man, as Roth affectionately calls him, directs and stars in his quarter, The Man From Hollywood. He plays Chester Rush, Hollywood' newest and hottest comedy star, who along with his hangers on, has checked in the Mon Signor's penthouse for the night.

After partying the night away, Chester recalls an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode where Peter Lorre bets that Steve McQueen can't light his Zippo ten times in a row. If McQueen can he wins Lorre's new car. He loses and Lorre gets to chop off his little finger (weird or what?). Chester and his pal Norman decide to recreate the bet, and that's when they call room-service for a hatchet and someone to use it . . .

"I think it's very funny," says Roth. "And although the segments were different it's funny in different ways all the way through. I love working with independent directors -- and this lot are all people that I admire -- so obviously working with four of them in one go is pretty appealing. To be honest, I said yeah even before I read the script."

Roth lights up another smoke. Dressed in character, jeans, working boots and grubby T-shirt, with his head virtually shaved, he's a delightfully straightforward interviewee. Outside, the Staten Island street is the real thing -- one of the crew points out the local crack house to me -- and Roth could disappear down one of the sidewalks and no would bat an eyelid.

On set they genuinely speak of him with affection. And so they should because he's the one who's got this movie -- working title Gasoline Alley -- off the ground. It's yet more evidence of his new-found clout in "the business."

Buddy Giovinazzo, the writer and director of Gasoline Alley, had been touting his script all over the place for years and getting a big fat "no thanks" from everyone. Then Roth read it earlier this year and suddenly, with his name attached, there was the cash to do the film.

"Buddy has only done one small budget film before this and it's hard for newcomers to get the funds especially for a film that doesn't have the regulation happy ending.

"But I read it and I liked the story, I liked it a lot. It's about two brothers in conflict. My character Joey has just been released from prison for a crime that his brother Tommy [played by James Russo] did. He still wants to believe in the guy but he doesn't want to go back inside.

"He can see that Tommy is on a downward spiral, he's dealing drugs, he's into all sorts of stuff and he doesn't want to get involved. But there's still this loyalty. So there's the conflict.

"If I helped raise the money by saying I would do this then that's a good thing. I guess it's changed since Rob Roy. It was semi-successful, and if you can be seen to be doing work in a studio movie, then I suppose it helps with things like this.

"I look at Harvey Keitel, who's a bit of a hero of mine, and he does something like Sister Act and then goes off and does Bad Lieutenant. That would be a great position to be in. You can pay the rent and then raise the money to go off and do the more obscure things that you really want to do. I've learned a lot from Harvey. He'll go off and look after his family and then go off and look after his passions."

Roth has come a long way in the three years since he first washed up stateside and, if he wanted to, he could reap the same sort of big money rewards his South London mate Gary Oldman enjoys.

Of course, most of it is down to that man Tarantino. Video-shop nerd and goffy film-nut, Tarantino is the coolest thing to hit American movies since Bobby and Marty (that's De Niro and Scorsese to you) sat down for a slice of pizza and decided to work together in the 70s.

And if Tarantino has become the Scorsese of the 90s then Roth has become his De Niro. They are both riding the rollercoaster together. Roth knows this, of course: he knows that it was a combination of luck and talent that put him in the right place at the right time.

"I was doing a horrendous movie in Australia, which thankfully I've never seen, and I got a call from my agent in LA who I'd just signed up with, and they wanted me to do this film in the Bronx, a very low-budget thing.

"So I came over and did that and I thought 'I'll go to Los Angeles and do a few meetings and all that crap and then go back to London.' But when I got there I thought, 'What the hell, why do I need to go home?' So I didn't. I found a little apartment and I told myself I would give it a few months to see how it worked out."

Those early days were not a lot of fun. He couldn't drive -- absolutely essential in LA where the local offie is a 10-minute ride away -- didn't know anyone and didn't particularly like a lot of the people he met.

Besides, he'd come over from England with a career that was earning him a great reputation but in the quaint little way of our film industry, not a lot else. He'd done Mike Leigh's brilliant Meantime and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. And, of course, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Oldman. Lots of cred but very little in terms of credit with the bank manager. Roth had also had a personal life which he himself will tell you was self-destructive, bordering on the totally obnoxious.

The son of a journalist and an artist, Roth was born in West Dulwich, south London.

"It was a kind of liberal, south London upbringing. But I failed to get into all the posh schools, so I went to school in Brixton, which is not middle-class but was a very vibrant place. But I didn't have a very good education."

He went through his punk phase, predictably, with acres of acne and spiky fluorescent hair, and spent his nights searching out bands like The Clash and trying "loads of drugs and getting pissed."

After school he took the tried and tested route of many a rebel before him. When in doubt about what the fuck you want to do with your life, head to art school.

But he'd tried acting before, at 16 in a school musical version of Dracula. And he wasn't long at art college before he realized that perhaps he wasn't destined to become a sculptor after all and started moonlighting in pub theaters and "earning a few quid."

He finally quit college and the serious roles started. But his personal life, throughout his 20s was far from sorted. He fathered a child, Jack, who is now 11 and is, he happily tells you, the light of his dad's life. But there weren't many other good things to come out of that period.

"It took me a long time to realize that there was a lot more to my life than what I was doing then. It was self-destructive and temporary," he told Sky Magazine in an earlier interview. "I think I was just someone who had an awful lot to do and nothing was allowing me to do it. I don't know if it was a case of 'being a man.' It was a case of just being . . . too young. I didn't give a fuck about anybody."

So when the then 30-year-old Roth rocked up in LA, he was a man still searching for himself. And it seems that once he started to get his career sorted, the rest followed.

In 1991 he landed a part in a film that was destined to become the epitome of cinema cool. A bunch of guys in black suits, skinny ties, and shades -- all calling themselves by different color: Roth was Mr. Orange -- with dialogue sharper than the suits and a mean soundtrack (who can ever listen to Stuck In the Middle With You without apprehensively touching their ear?) it hit the screen like a bullet shattering a windscreen.

"When I first arrived in Los Angeles it was really tough," he says now. "It was meeting after meeting after meeting and really depressing. Then I got Reservoir Dogs and from then I just carried on working.

"We became very close, the guys on the film. We went on to the film-festival circuit with it and it was like being on tour with a band. There was the whole mob of us, some guys would come in for one part and leave and then someone else would turn up for the other. It was such a laugh. It was the Tarantino roadshow.

"Yes, of course, we've become mates," he says of Quentin. "He's a madman, a fucking madman, but I love him to bits. When Pulp Fiction came along he wanted me to do a part but he wasn't sure which one. And then I introduced him to Amanda Plummer [she played Honey Bunny to Roth's Pumpkin] and that was it, he just said 'I know what I want you to do.'

"He's already talked about a couple of other things he wants me to do and obviously that's fine by me. You know, he's rare, is Quentin. Not only is he one fucking writer but he is just an amazing director. There aren't many you can say that about."

In 1992 Roth met his wife, Nikki, a Californian fashion designer, and they married a year later. "I never thought that I would get married in my life. I actively campaigned against it, though it wasn't necessary. But I met Nikki and within a few months I knew I wanted to marry her. I just didn't want to spend the rest of my life without that person."

They live in LA but Roth wants to move to New York and he thinks that now the time is right. He feels more secure about leaving LA and still being able to pull in the work. He should worry.

"I do get terribly insecure about not working," he says. "I think it's a British thing. You know, that fear of unemployment? I get bad-tempered when I'm not working and going from one job straight on to another is fine by me.

"But I think we could do the move to New York now. LA has been good to me but in the beginning it was really fucking depressing. But you have to find a way to get away from the business. I do that. I hang out with Nikki or my mates. I go to a local bar for a beer and play pool. They all know us there and it's cool.

"I don't hang out with the English set, those people that become more English than they are at home. They go and play cricket every Saturday afternoon or something and it's embarrassing. I don't want to live like that.

"I think I could be based in Manhattan now and it would work. I'd probably have to go back and forth to LA quite a bit but that would be OK. I don't think at this point I could go back to England and live. If I was to go back to Europe I wouldn't live in London. It would probably be France or somewhere. But that's not on the cards. I'm happy here. It's going well."

It certainly is. When he's finished filming Gasoline Alley Roth is signed up to work with one Mr. Woody Allen alongside one Miss Julia Roberts. And like we said earlier, it's best not to try and pigeon hole Tim Roth -- this is a musical. Well excuse the fuck out of me, a musical?

"That's right," he grins in that leprechaun way of his. "A musical. Should be good. I don't even know who's in it, though, apart from Julia Roberts. Can I sing? I'm not fucking telling you . . ."

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