In Reservoir Dogs Tim Roth made being shot in the stomach look sexy. But will anybody fancy Mr. Orange in a skirt and major hair for his new film Rob Roy? Sylvia Patterson talks to the coolest British actor in Hollywood.
Tim Roth used to be an arse. By his own admission he was a liar, a cheat, an arrogant scrooge who never got his round in, a womanizer who screwed around to the extent of shagging his mate's girlfriend: in short he thought he was It.
"I was a terrible human being," he says, "fucked anything that moved. I behaved abominably."
The Tim Roth seated before us today seems anything but an arse: an amiable man in his 30s sporting a navy-blue white-piped V-neck bobbly jersey: the kind your big brother used to wear in 1974 and has denied all knowledge of since. Beige slacks. Short, spiky, "filthy" hair. He's tiny, is Tim. Looks around 5ft 5in, although he's doubtless officially 5ft 7in. Sitting in a sofa-bestrewn cul-de-sac of the plush Grosvenor Club in Park Lane he looks like a wiry, crumpled up Uncle Bert blathering down the boozer at lunch-time -- more Holloway Road than Hollywood.
So, You were an abomination. Why?
"I didn't analyze it then and I don't analyze it now," he insists, sipping beer and puffing endless Marlboro Lights. "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."
Result: one estrangement from the mother of his child Jack -- now 10 -- and a long stream of acquaintances who remember him getting his round in so rarely they'd set a pint of water in front of him in the pub. He had the skin of a buffalo and didn't give a fuck about that, either. When did he see The Light?
"When I moved to America."
Good God, that was only in 1991!
"I know," nods Tim. "Yeah. Took me a while. Took me until I met my wife, actually , when I realized there was a lot more going on than what I was doing which was self-destructive and . . . temporary. I grew up. I . . . this isn't an excuse or anything but a lot of people whose work I admire aren't [laughs] very pleasant."
The bigger the talent, the bigger the tosser?
"Yeah, but that can also work the other way round -- the smaller the talent the more fucking massive the tosser."
The vastly talented, toss-free Tim Roth is now 33 and very successful. Success suits him; he has nothing to prove anymore and today gets the beers in -- not that he pays these days but it's the thought that counts.
He's Britain's most revered Bad Lad of the big screen since Gary Oldman's elevation to Hollywood immortality via JFK, Dracula and marriages to goddesses called Uma, etc. Tim Roth, however, has gone the Everyman route: shirking big buck to do independent low-budget scenarios for the simple reason that he believes in scripts and characters.
"And that's the difference," he explains, "between being an actor and being a movie star."
His two highest-profile cinema roles thus far in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction left him, as they did the rest of the cast, "skint, but you do get to be in the films you want to be in. If I really wanted to be rich and famous I could make a TV series tomorrow. Crap."
This spring he stars in three movies. One: Little Odessa, a preposterously bleak Russian tragedy set in modern-day New York. Tim's a monosyllabic Brooklyn hit-man whose mother is a dying Vanessa Redgrave and whose brother is played by a battered (and excellent) Edward Furlong. Typically of Tim's alternate mentality it's a debut, penned and directed by a 24-year-old New York Russian Jew named James Gray, who Tim describes as "Woody Allen on speed, one of the funniest fuckers I've ever met." It's the most brutal thing he's ever done: wielding his own gun with such complete nonchalance he appears to not even be acting.
Grim stuff, Tim. Why this one?
"I loved it!" he retorts. "I think it's an incredibly adult piece of work, one of a handful of films I'm really proud of. It's not big shiny Reservoir Dogs guns, it's reality, and I didn't want any hipness. It's about a fucked-up immigrant family and what it is that we do to our children, how every single child in the world is abused because of what our countries do to us and the way we're brought up."
Two: Rob Roy, a historical romp starring Liam Neeson, John Hurt, Jessica Lange, and Tim "in a major wig. All very camp. We behaved like hooligans. John Hurt I've worked with before and Liam's a drinking buddy, so we had a riot."
Jessica Lange's one of his all-time heroines. Be off with the heaving bosoms of your Winona Ryders and your Sharon Stones -- his vision of sexy is Anjelica Huston, Miranda Richardson, Amanda Plummer and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
"There are plenty of gorgeous women in films, yeah," says Tim, "but it's not just about what you see, it's what you get from someone. With Jessica Lange . . . I can honestly say that I've never seen anyone quite as beautiful and sexy and gorgeous as her. The way she carries herself, what she's about: risks, devotion to her family, ballsy decisions. I was watching her just standing around on set and was [eyes agog]. My wife was sitting there going 'Look at that!'"
Three: Captives. A British drama, BBC co-produced, concerning a female prison dentist with regulation "But Miss Jones, you're beautiful!" bun, who falls for Tim's (once more) monosyllabic character. It was shot in Wandsworth Prison, in the sex-offenders wing -- the Rachel killing bloke's in there -- and it freaked Tim out completely.
"There were guys in there who'd raped their children," he says. "I hated going to work every day. I've never been in the nick -- touch wood. Old Keithy has though [As in co-star inmate Keith Allen, whose character thinks he's Elvis Presley.] For breaking the mirror in the Zanzibar Club, I believe."
The film's fine, if destined for a speedy transfer to video, and it's the most accessible of the three. The "relationship" between the two main characters, however, has a bizarre subtext -- that the dentist, a nice middle-class professional bit o'posh, quite literally gives up everything for what amount to one thing: a decent shag.
"Haaahaharrgh!!" howls Roth, slumping to his knees, "well, I hadn't thought of it that way!"
Surely that's obvious?
"Maybe she does!" he hoots. "I dunno I've only seen it once."
Ditto. You made the bloody thing!
"Hmm, so you're saying sex is all they have? Well, yes, definitely, the relationship's based on that . . . animal attraction thing."
Do you think sexual attraction can be that strong?
"I've really no idea," says Tim, looking perplexed. "Well, actually, yeah. Yes I think it can. Hmm."
You know what that feels like?
"Well, I've been in a relationship which was just . . . you couldn't keep your hand off each other and it was just the most . . . you know . . . situation you could possibly imagine."
Er, a what situation?
[Begins hawking hand through hair] "Well just because of the . . . y'know, it was . . . impractical. Really. Y'know, keeping going back for more and more and more and more. Y'know?"
How did it end?
[Perking up] "You have to shut down. You have to walk away. And that's really painful. It takes a long time to get over it. If I think back to this particular woman that feeling isn't there anymore, but at the time it was all I could think about. All-consuming. The . . . impossibility of the situation made it even . . . better. I don't know if that's childish or grown-up, it's just human, irrational. Compulsion. And, um, yeah. So. Anyway. Ouch."
Funny little fellow -- forgets about his cupboards, never mind his skeletons.
Timothy Roth was born in West Dulwich, south London to his journalist dad and artist mum. He entertained his sister Gill with his considerable gift for bodily tomfoolery. As a youngster he told Gill she was ugle and received, rightly, a mug of coffee in his face. By 1976 he was "an obnoxious teenager with spots and a problem with everything." Naturally, he became a punk with spiky hair of "fluctuating color," saw the Clash, The Vibrators, Adam and the Ants . . .
"Great fun," he says, "took a load of drugs, got pissed, jumped up and down, got thrown out of clubs, got arrested for threatening behavior which I didn't do, had a laugh. Then the violence took over so I said 'I'm out of this,' grew my hair and went to art school."
His chosen career? Sculpture: "Basically because I didn't do my homework and it was the one thing that no one else wanted to do, so I knew I'd get in easy." He lasted seven months of the foundation course before the great Moment of Clarity -- he would become an actor.
The first dramatic role Tim Roth ever played was in his school version of Dracula Spectacular: The Musical. He was 16 at the time.
"Phenomenal!" he puffs, "and I was Dracula. Me and Gary [Oldman], our finest hours. Except not as many people saw mine, of course . . ."
At art school he was always bunking off to do pub theatre and realized he could make a living: "I was happy if I was doing a play for 15 quid for four weeks. It didn't matter to me, I loved it. Once I'd discovered it, that was absolutely it."
The work came in -- a demented skinhead in Made in Britain, a retarded teenager in Mike Leigh's Meantime, a hoodlum gangster in The Hit (he was so shuffed with this one he took a photo of his name in lights). He became a cult hero but, this being Britain, he had to seek rent money through commercials, films in Czechoslovakia and Australia, and finally with British events such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and his "breakthrough" in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo, playing Van Gogh in all his problematic-eared insanity. A "breakthrough" in that a) he wasn't playing a hooligan and b) the Americans discovered him.
In 1991 he moved to LA, appeared in Reservoir Dogs as Mr. Orange, creating surely the lengthiest death scene in the history of intestinal coagulation and -- hey! -- yet another 10-years-in-the-making overnight sensation. In life, of course, the timing's as crucial as the talent, and Tim Roth's rise will forever be twined within the 90s phenomenon of Quentin Tarantino.
"I adore him," swoons Roth. "He's this big massive fun ego, an incredible writer, an entertainment visionary. His genius is he creates hipness where there wouldn't have been before. Separate the elements out and they aren't hip: he puts them together and they are. And I don't know how he does that because he's a geek."
Must've been a hoot shooting that Pulp Fiction "Honey Bunny/Pumpkin" business.
"Loved it!" he howls. "I laughed loads before I could do it straight. Those are the pet names he and his girlfriend had for each other. It all means something with him."
Tarantino's next work, The Four Rooms, has just been completed. It's a four-directors sensation, each creating a separate story in a room in a hotel. Tim plays the bell-boy in Quentin's quarter: "The first full-on comedy role I've ever done."
Even with work now relentless, Roth still suffers from Actor's Paranoia.
"Fear of unemployment . . . " he sighs, "it never leaves you. I've been on the dole for two years at a time. And when there's no work I go seriously fucking nuts. All I can do is get drunk, shoot pool, read books, smoke 20 packs of cigarettes, scream at my agent, drive everyone nuts. That sets in after two weeks. You think, 'Nobody cares, nobody's interested, they'll take this away from me' -- so you self-destruct and end up saying 'See? I am worthless! Told you so!'"
Surely not anymore, though? "Well . . . "
Tim struggles out of his crumpled Uncle Bert position to lean five feet over to the table in front of him like his life depended on it.
"Touch . . . uurgh . . . wood."
Tim Roth lives in what he calls "Gunland." He's never owned a gun and hates them "because they kill people: that's what they're for." He thinks America is "probably the most right-wing country in the world." He thinks things can only get worse: "There's always been evil at the heart of humanity -- today's barbarians are more organized, that's all." He despairs about gang warfare and specifically "the biggest gang of them all -- the gang in grey suits." Tim Roth is still something of a punk rocker. He loves tribal artforms, has one upper-arm tattoo and has had his right nipple pierced (now closed up due to on-screen chest exposure). He's hitched across America, collects Polaroids [he gave his wife a naked Polaroid of himself for Valentine's Day 1993] and loves "loud fucking obnoxious thrash music from hell."
This year for the first time in his life he's earning, and poverty, it seems, is the real reason he never got his round in.
"I never spent any money because I never fakkin' 'had any!" he guffaws in broadest Mockney. "Never had any money at all. Right up until Rob Roy. Even after Reservoir Dogs was out, after loads of movies were out I couldn't pay the rent because I'd done them for nothing, I was putting my kid through school, sending an allowance to his mother, paying back taxes in Britain, so I was skint. But I did all that to myself. I've been on minimum wage for years."
He lives with his cat and his eight-months-pregnant wife Nikki, a Californian fashion designer. The conception happened in Scotland during the filming of Rob Roy, as did the conception of Liam Neeson's imminent bairn. Tim and Nikki met in 1992 at the Sundance Film Festival and were wed in 1993, during the making of Nic Roeg's Heart of Darkness [with John Malkovich, as yet unreleased]. They were wed in Belize, on the Guatemalan border, with one pal flown in as best man, married by the local judge in a village courtroom, then invited the cast and crew to the post-nuptial celebrations where everyone went swimming with the snakes and alligators "absolutely drunk off our 'heads."
How did you know Nikki was the one?
"Well!" he states with cast enthusiasm, "for a start I thought I'd never get married in my life. I actively campaigned against it, thought it wasn't necessary. But I met someone and within the first few months I knew I wanted to marry her. I just didn't want to spend the rest of my life without that person. It feels like 'If I'm without this person my life will just be . . . crap.' And then it's easy. And it's absolute relief -- you've found a companion and you feel you're never going to be lonely ever again. It can happen really quickly. Amazing. Absolutely amazing."
His son amazes him, too [Roth is mates with his son's mum these days], and Jack comes to stay after every school term.
"He's the best thing in my life," beams Tim. "I love him. He's already picked out the Harley Davidson he wants -- dark blue. At 10 I keep waiting for him to get into Kylie Minogue, but he's into Rage Against the Machine and Offspring and Hendrix and Ice Cube and Led Zeppelin."
He'll become an accountant, that boy.
"Yeah, that'll be his rebellion -- my son, the bank-clerk. I'm dead."
He wants his next child to grow up in New York: "People there are so much more ballsy and fun. So we're getting the fuck out of LA."
When he first made the move, it took two years to stop hating it: "Up until then I thought LA was the most obnoxious place I'd ever been. But eventually you find mates and it's the same as anywhere -- find your mates, find the pubs and you're all right. Then you shoot pool."
Ah, the beloved pool. Are you a bad loser?
"Only when I'm playing my wife," he gurgles, "because she's so good and really fucking slow, which fucks with your mind. Actually I'm not a bad loser with her -- I'm just a loser!"
Contrary to the Hollywood vision of licking the back of Jack Nicholson's head with tabs of acid glued to it in a swimming pool in the back of a convertible stretch Daimler, the ever-on-location Tim Roth barely hangs out in LA at all. When he does it's with unemployed actors and writers and colleagues such as Liam Neeson and Bridget Fonda, as opposed to Big Arnie and Julia Roberts. Gary Oldman? Rarely sees him, though Tim's due to appear in Gaz's directorial gang-movie debut, Lords of the Urban Jungle. He also finds it "impossible" to analyze his talent and cannot blow so much as his own comb 'n' paper, never mind trumpet.
You're an impostor, Tim Roth, you're not a Hollywood superstar at all.
"Well, it's you guys who create all that star bullshit," he states breezily, "you invent entire personas based on lies. I mean, who gives a shit what I have to say? Nobody should give a shit about what I have to say. But it helps the movies, and I quite enjoy it because I get to travel, but that's it. All my life is about keeping going, being an actor and having a family -- all part of the same travelling show."
Trumpet still stoutly unblown, Roth shifts in his seat and proclaims "starvation." Before you go, though, seeing as you're incapable of doing it yourself, a 10-point analysis of your genius as considered by your fans (ie my mates). Your thought please on a survey entitled "Just what is it about Tim Roth that makes him so special, so appealing?"
"Go on, then," he says, marginally intrigued, "two minutes."
1. He's the archtypal rebel you want to tame.
"Oh God. [Horrified already] I don't know what that means. Next."
2. He's the polar opposite of Daniel Day-Lewis.
"But I thought he was the Godhead? Well, I think that's just a question of 'I wasn't born looking like that.' Nothing I can do about that, I'm afraid. It was supposed to be a compliment? Oh."
3. He's just a really good actor.
[Relieved] "Well, that's nice. I know what I'm good at and I know when I'm fucking up. What am I good at? Um, I don't know what I'm good at, actually, and I don't wanna know. Why? I might lose it."
4. He has the eyes of a serial killer.
"Fuckin'ell, I'm in trouble! My eyes change, but that's just the nature of the game. Er, I don't know how I am whatever. [Now approaching mortal affrontment] Oh God, I don't wanna analyze what I do! I can't do this!"
5. He has the eyes of a puppy-dog.
"Fucking hell! I'm a psychopathic puppy-dog! Well, they used to call me frog's-eyes at school if that's any good to you."
6. He's "real" (whatever that means).
"They're all performances so . . . they're not real. They're mostly modern, so they're accessible. Maybe that's it."
7. He's the kind of bloke you'd want to take down the pub for a pint.
"People want to take me out for a pint? Fine! I like a pint."
8. It's the nose.
"My nose? [Begins pulling furiously on rather substantial hooter] As in people like it? You're kidding me? That's hysterical. I broke it on my knee on a trampoline when I was 16."
9. He's got the X-factor.
"What's that? Personal charisma? Possibly of a sexual nature? Er, um . . . well . . . good."
10. He looks like he's into really filthy sex.
"Nah, I'm a virgin. [Grins] They were immaculate conceptions."
Tim Roth finally alights from the "Have you noticed I'm leaving now?" starting-gun position he's adopted for the last few minutes, half appalled, half amused.
"Tell your friends I hate them," he laughs, gathering up his gaspers, "but they might be right on the last one. Heh heh."