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Roth: Independent Spirit of Filmmaking

Don't call Tim Roth "the king of the independent film."

"That's a journalist's term," the British actor says. "It's not what I call myself."

Still, Roth's credentials are impressive, including intense performances in offbeat films ranging from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and Vincent and Theo (1990) to Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994).

All were independent, nonstudio productions. In fact, Roth's resume includes only two studio releases, Rob Roy (1995) and the upcoming Hoodlums.

"It's not snobbery," says Roth, 35. "It's that the scripts I liked were coming out of the independent world. It's still that way."

Roth's latest film -- Gridlock'd, a comedy about three performance artists -- opened Wednesday. When Cookie (Thandie Newton) overdoses and nearly dies, Stretch (Roth) and Spoon (the late Tupac Shakur) resolve to kick their heroin habits. It isn't that easy, though. Before they know it, the two are on the run, suspected of murder.

"It's not the usual subject matter for a comedy, which I liked," Roth says. "You have a Laurel-and-Hardy thing going with me and Tupac. Tupac was the straight man to my character, who's a little more nutty than his. I bounced off him. The chance to play that kind of comedy appealed to me.

"It's a film I'd see, so it's the kind of film I like to do."

Shakur was shot to death in September, soon after completing the picture. But the gangsta rapper, whose death drew denunciations of his music and his lifestyle, was not the Shakur that Roth knew. The rapper asked director Vondie Curtis-Hall not to screen his films or music videos for Roth. He wanted Roth to meet him first.

"The idea, I suppose, was that he thought he was a very different animal from how he portrayed himself in the media and his other work," Roth says. "I met him, and he seemed charming and enthusiastic. He really wanted the role."

Shakur won the part and, while on set, he and Roth frequently discussed the likelihood of Shakur dying young. After all, Shakur had survived a previous shooting. "We talked about how you get out of a situation you've put yourself in," Roth says.

"Tupac said that was difficult, because if you walk away too fast, they'll want you. If you try to slide away and move into different areas, they'll still want you. It seemed to him to be a Catch-22."

Roth says he's glad that Gridlock'd is being released. He hopes it will help the moviegoing public judge Shakur for themselves. "Tupac did some nice acting," Roth says. "He was natural and would have gotten even better."

Like Shakur, Roth found his way into acting indirectly. Growing up in London, he hoped to be a sculptor and painter. But a role in a high-school play hooked him, and acting became his passion. Stage roles followed, then parts in British TV programs and films. His big break came when he starred in the British TV movie Meantime (1983) for director Mike Leigh. He has worked with such admired directors as Robert Altman, Stephen Frears and Quentin Tarantino.

Despite his preference for the cutting edge of independent films, Roth clearly enjoyed his role in Rob Roy as the flamboyant English nemesis of Scottish hero Rob Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson).

The film was Roth's first with a hefty budget, and let him get in some agile fencing. It also garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Currently Roth also can be seen in Woody Allen's musical, Everyone Says I Love You, which casts Roth as a newly freed criminal who romances wholesome Drew Barrymore. "It was a strange experience," he says. "Woody I really enjoyed, but I was there an awfully long time for my two big scenes. In all, I shot for seven days, but was there for six weeks, because Woody pretty much makes up the schedule as he goes."

Roth continues to work at a breakneck pace in the quirky world of independents. His upcoming films include Gasoline Alley, a drama about two brothers; Liar, a psychological thriller, and the mainstream Hoodlums, a 1930s gangster saga with Laurence Fishburne and Vanessa Williams in which Roth plays Dutch Schultz.

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