Tim Roth has never balked from making disturbing, violent films, and his new role -- as the victim in a controversial horror -- is no exception. He talks to Craig McLean about his maverick career and his own childhood terrors.
On an icy winter's morning in New York, I meet Tim Roth for breakfast in a cafe beneath the Rockefeller Centre. He has travelled here from his home near Los Angeles, to participate in a rare interview and discuss his role in the year's most controversial film.
A horror movie with a lighthearted name, Funny Games is the Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke’s English-language remake of a film he made in German a decade ago. In between these two versions Haneke has established himself as one of world’s most daringly innovative and well-regarded directors – both La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) and Caché (Hidden) won numerous awards, with the latter (starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil) being one of the most talked-about films of 2005.
But Funny Games is perhaps Haneke’s defining film. He wanted to make a movie that challenged our cultural attitudes to screen violence – why we are drawn to it and how, by paying for our cinema tickets and DVD rentals, we are all complicit in the popularity of brutality.
Thus, Funny Games toys with the conventions of the genre – most of the violence occurs offscreen, one of the killers addresses the audience (he alone seems aware that he is participating in what is notionally an entertainment), and the narrative (without wishing to give away too much) unspools in defiance of normal Hollywood rules.
The purposefully provocative Funny Games was divisive from its first screening, at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. But it went on to become a cult arthouse hit, a landmark in modern European cinema. Now, Haneke is again playing funny games. The change in language apart, the two films are identical – shot for shot, using the same script.
Roth stars alongside Naomi Watts (King Kong, The Painted Veil). They play a well-to-do American couple, Anna and George, who drive with their son, Georgie, to their weekend home, towing a fabulous boat, indulging on the way in a little family quiz based on the opera selections they play on the car stereo. They arrive at their lakeside retreat and unpack boat, golf clubs and groceries.
Everything is affluently, domestically blissful. Then two seemingly polite young men knock at the door. They are so nice that they are creepy. The mounting sense of dread explodes on screen when one of them breaks George's knee with a golf club. The family are taken hostage in their own home.
The man of the house now incapacitated, the young men toy with their captives. They indulge in games, playing good psychopath/bad psychopath. They want to bet the family that they will still be alive in the morning. Can little Georgie alert the neighbours to their predicament? Will the soaked mobile phone have enough battery power to call the police? Can a distraught, semi-dressed Anna flag down a car on a darkened country road – and will the occupants be friend or foe? And so – agonisingly, sickeningly – on.
In 1996, the year after his Oscar-nominated performance as the fop Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy and the year before he and the rapper Tupac Shakur played messed-up junkies in Gridlock'd, Tim Roth said, 'I believe in movie violence that shows the consequences of the violence.'
'That's true,' the 46-year-old Roth says now. 'That still holds true.' Does Funny Games square with his viewpoint of 12 years ago? 'I don’t know. I hope so. I turned it down first off.'
But Roth's agent thought it could be an interesting, meaningful project. At his urging, Roth sat in his home office in his garage in Pasadena and considered the idea some more. 'And I couldn’t deny that he had a point,' Roth says. 'There is something to this film. And it’s a tough journey, by the way, to play that man. Especially as the boy Devon [Gearheart, who plays Georgie] – sweet, sweet, sweet boy – looks very much like one of my children. Very, very hard.
'The idea is, George has been emasculated. You're taking away all the cinematic notions you have, and also the notions you have about yourself in that situation – “Hey, if somebody came into my house I’d do a, b, and c." Well, you can't.'
Funny Games was shot in sequence, the family’s long night(mare) becoming progressively more horrific. Each day on set was harder, more emotionally draining, more devastating, Roth says. 'It was just one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My thing was, we have to get this right,' he adds with some force. 'And I still don’t know what kind of film I'm in.'
Roth – who was a back-to-back sensation in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (his 1982 debut), Mike Leigh’s Meantime (alongside Phil Daniels and Gary Oldman) and Stephen Frears's The Hit before making a career on the fringes of Hollywood in edgy smashes such as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – is a friendly but bolshy sort. He packs a lot of swagger into his wiry, 5ft 7in frame. He attacks conversation with the same gusto with which he dives into his fry-up breakfast.He has lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years. He and his wife, Nikki, have two sons: Cormac, 11, and Hunter, 12. (Roth has an older son, Jack, 23, who lives in London, from an earlier relationship.) He is a master of onscreen American accents, but his speaking voice, certainly this morning, remains staccato south London.
'There are two films happening in that room: there's the real world over here, where the pain has real consequences. And there's the film world over there, where pain has no consequences. And the two meet [in this film]. That I really liked.'
Tim Roth is a principled, robustly opinionated actor. He says – with some relish – that on film sets he doesn’t 'scream and shout so much any more', but merrily admits that if things aren't moving fast enough for his liking, he will yell, 'I'm bored!' That must be good for a young director’s confidence, I suggest. 'Heh heh – the crew love it!'
These could be attitudes he inherited from his late father: Ernie Smith was a communist and an idealist – so much so that after the war he changed his name to Roth to better identify with decimated European Jewry.
Ernie was born in America but emigrated to Liverpool with his family when he was 11. Aged 17 he ran away to join up. 'He was a good guy,' Roth says, 'and he was a messed-up guy. The Second World War was a better place to be than what he had [at home].' He was a tail-gunner in bombers – a particularly perilous wartime role. 'His hair went white when he was 20 or something – he came back in shock at what he'd seen.'
After the war Ernie was a member of the Communist Party. Roth remembers their house being raided by plainclothes officials in the 1960s. 'They confiscated my toy Luger – bastards!' Ernie became a journalist ('I think he was fired from every paper in Fleet Street') and wrote political articles. But he became disillusioned with journalism: 'When you find yourself peering through people's windows trying to get dirt on them, that's when he stopped.' He ended up a sub-editor, working on DIY magazines.
And he became disillusioned with the schisms within the radical Left, and with the Labour Party – 'the arch betrayer of socialism, even at that time,' as Roth puts it.
Roth seems to share this fundamentalism: his views on British politics are vitriolic and sweeping. He still has a vote in the UK but would only use it to vote Green. The Labour Party is 'a joke and a disgrace'. Tony Blair 'was the worse thing that ever happened [to Britain], more so than Thatcher… He's a disgusting human being. He killed babies – Iraq. He should be in prison. He's raped our country, that guy.' Britain under Gordon Brown? 'Even more unappealing.'
Roth’s principles extend to his work: for his sole directorial job to date he opted to make The War Zone (1999), an uncompromising portrayal of incest and sexual abuse, based on the book by Alexander Stuart. Ray Winstone played the brutal father. 'It was quite an education working with Tim,' says Winstone, who was impressed that the whole cast and crew firmly trusted Roth's vision. 'I saw his integrity, and what the film meant to him. We were digging deep.'
Indeed they were: Roth later admitted that he had been abused as a child. He tells me that it happened from a young age 'right through until I was probably 11'. He makes it clear that it wasn't his father. But he purposefully chose to shoot the film in Bideford in Devon, because that is where he was abused. He says that seemed the right thing to do.
'I could hold on to it there. I knew exactly what was going…' He tails off, but Roth is very matter-of-fact as he discusses this detail – seemingly for the first time in an interview – even laughing on a couple of occasions. 'We shot in the actual locations sometimes,' he continues, meaning the specific sites of his own abuse. 'Very bad times for me. And I shot the place not as I remember it. I shot it in winter. But it was always summer holidays when I went down there… But somehow in my memory I remember it as winter because it was a bleak f***ing time, heh heh heh!'
Roth wanted to give up acting after The War Zone – he was fed up with 'all the claptrap'. But Winstone – 'a hero to me' – convinced him of the folly of that. None the less, 'I came away from The War Zone and I realised that it's the first film I'd been in involved in that actually represented anything close to what I like about film,' Roth says. 'As an actor you’re in other people's visions. It's not an actor's medium. It's for the director.'
He says he tried to direct a follow-up, a Harold Pinter adaptation of King Lear. 'But you can’t get money for Shakespeare unless you come out of the Royal Family,' he spits. Then he adds that he has finally secured funding for the project ('I’m talking to business people'), although before that he thinks he will direct an adaptation of a book called Turning Stones.
It's a New York-set autobiography by a young American who joined a team established by the authorities to rescue abused children. 'It’s a companion piece to The War Zone,' Roth says. 'But not with any sugar coating, the real deal. I wanted to make a film about the other side. These guys went into hell.'
So Tim Roth won’t go for the easy option. The last major Hollywood studio film he starred in was Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001), but he was dressed as a monkey. Doing that film meant turning down the role of Snape in the Harry Potter franchise (Alan Rickman took the role). 'My kids were pissed with me about that,' he nods.
It would have been a lucrative recurring role – even his old pal Gary Oldman took a Potter gig, as Sirius Black – but it would have hung over his professional life for a decade. 'If you're prepared for that, that's OK. But they were planning to fly me back and forth between Tim Burton's set and the Harry Potter set to film. Just the idea of that was silly. So I thought, "OK, I’ve always wanted to work with Tim." '
Roth picks films because he has a passion for a director's back catalogue, or he fancies the look of a first-time director, or the script is intriguing, or because he thinks he will learn something. Negative experiences, he thinks, can be as instructive as positive ones. He doesn't seem to care about the arc of his profile or of his status within Hollywood.
Occasionally, this bears fruit on the big screen – his ongoing relationship with Tarantino is a good example (they still talk frequently, and he may star in Tarantino's long-mooted Second World War drama Inglorious Bastards). But often it doesn’t. This is why, although he has worked steadily throughout his career, you would be hard-pushed to remember the last critically and commercially successful film Roth was in.
He starred in Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth, released late last year – an obtuse (and very long) film in which Roth played an ageing Romanian linguistics professor who is struck by lightning and wakes up as a young man. 'It's an odd little film. I don’t get it,' Roth offers with a chuckle, 'and I probably never will because I don’t read enough books.'
This summer, cinemagoers have the chance to see evidence of another of Roth's wilful decisions. He plays the Abomination in The Incredible Hulk. That is, an evil villain in a Marvel comic book adaptation, only five years after Ang Lee made his own Hulk movie. At the time of our meeting Roth had just finished the six-month shoot. He had also squeezed in a trip to Spain to film 'a glorified trailer' for a medieval adventure film, King Conqueror – his way of helping the producers raise money for the project (they could use Roth’s well-regarded status to encourage financiers).
'I think it's fantastic,' he says of The Incredible Hulk with unabashed enthusiasm. 'I did it purely for my little boys, and my older son. If you're going to be on a lunchbox, it should be cool. The director [Louis Leterrier] came to me and pitched this story. This is like the graphic novels, it's got some darkness in it. And he got Ed Norton in, which is great.' Roth says they have signed him for three Hulk films, but he is, as usual, blithely dismissive of whether that will actually mean anything: he suspects his baddie will perish.
Still, more than a quarter of a century since starting his never less than interesting career, Roth will find himself in an intriguing new position: with a lead role in a summer blockbuster movie. 'Nah,' Roth snorts. 'I’ll be gone. I’ll be off working with Ray.' He is talking about 44 Inch Chest, a tough-guy film he says is shooting in London this spring. Roth, Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Stephen Rea – 'the cast is ridiculous,' he says eagerly. 'It's like getting the Mob in. It's going to be great.'
He is looking forward to it: a chance to bring his sons over to the UK for the first time since filming The War Zone, and a chance to spend time with Jack. Roth says his eldest is doing well in his acting career. He has appeared in theatrical productions of A Clockwork Orange and Romeo and Juliet, and is the double of dad – although Roth failed to convince Francis Ford Coppola to cast Jack in Youth Without Youth as the 'younger' Tim.
Didn’t he think to warn his son off the acting life? 'I did,' Roth chuckles. 'So he became one.' Contrary, just like his father. 'Nah, it’s good. He's now figuring out that life is not a bowl of cherries.'