The Men's Room
Amy Taubin talks to Tim Roth about class, acting - and why Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs upsets people.
No actor, not even Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, has ever bled as long, agonisingly, and profusely as Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs. It's a performance of amazingly technical skill, emotional intensity, and, odd as it may sound comic nuance. Part of what drives Roth as an actor is a fierce working-class loyalty that encompasses punks and bohemians, cops and criminals, the mad and the lumpen-all of them aligned against 'yuppies,' 'suits' and 'tea-cup holders.'
Roth was brought up politically active. His father was a left-wing journalist; his mother is still an activist. "When I was a kid, we'd go boycott the National Front. Then I got political myself." His father had been a tail gunner in the Second World War. After the war he changed his name from Smith to Roth. "As a journalist he was travelling to places where the English weren't welcome, which meant just about anywhere. I like to think he took a German-Jewish name as a political statement."
In his last year of secondary school, Roth auditioned for a play "as a joke" and got the part. "I was very embarrassed. The first night, I got on stage and I pissed in my pants. It sounds like one of those actor tales, but it's true. I got through the first five minutes, and then I thought, this is it, this what I want to do now, this is the most fun I can possibly have."
He went to art school, but dropped out when acting in pub theatres began to take up all his time. His first screen role was in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain and he hasn't stopped working since. "Alan was the best. I saw Scum ten times. After he died, there were all these Alan Clarke actors walking around London moaning 'what are we going to do now'."
About a year and a half ago Roth came to the US to do Jumpin' at the Boneyard, an $850,000 indie by first-time director/writer Jeff Stanzler, shot on location in the Bronx. Roth plays an unemployed, massively depressed Irish-American who's desperately trying to save his crack-addicted younger brother. Boneyard has some predictable first-film problems, but it deals with class and race in a way that's rare in American movies.
Roth went straight from Boneyard to Reservoir Dogs and then to Bodies in [sic] Rest and Motion (described in the advance publicity as "a blue collar sex, lies and videotape"). "Jumpin' at the Boneyard could have been set in England. We have that kind of poverty and those kinds of problems. Those are universal problems. So to come to America to play that kind of American was important to me - not to play the English bad guy in a Die Hard movie. In the States, you can make a feature film like Nick Gomez's Laws of Gravity for $38,000. We could do that in Britain, but no, it's Jeremy Irons and Kenneth Branagh."
In Roth's terms, the issue isn't nationality, it's class. What Tarantino, Gomez and Abel Ferrara are doing in the US in the 90s is what Clarke and Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh were doing in Britain in the 80s. But by upping the ante on violence, haven't Ferrara and Gomez pushed the working-class art movie into the kind of exploitation Hollywood finds highly commercial? Roth doesn't see it that way.
"I like violent movies if they're true to the experience of violence. Alan Clarke was the king of that because he made films about real people who were in sad situations. Did you ever see Elephant? The violence is real, it's political. I love violence in movies because it affects me, it hurts me. I love sex in movies, romance. Violence is just part of that. Ferrara's King of New York is part of that. Christopher Walken -- the most unpredictable performance. You never knew if he was happy or sad. You can meet these people on the street; it directly relates to the experience of your life. You got inside those people and an accurate script. They probably wouldn't have given him the money to make if there hadn't been a lot of guns in it, but they also didn't know what they were getting into when they put their money down.
"Why are they getting concerned all of a sudden about violence. The people in Washington, they're the real gang bangers. People get upset about Reservoir Dogs because Quentin shows you that violence has consequences. People have been lulled into advertising violence instead - nicely shot, beautifully lit, thank you very much, this guy dies, and Mel Gibson. People see Reservoir Dogs thinking they've seen a really violent movie, but they haven't. You see maybe only three specific acts of violence, but it's always impending. It's in the air, in the way they speak and communicate. It's what makes Quentin a great director as opposed to someone who does a violent movie.
"But I'm glad people get upset; it's an upsetting subject. Get used to it. It's going to be around for a long time."