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The Hot Seat

Going soft in Coppola’s latest flick is hard for the famed bad guy.

By Mike Olson

Tim Roth doesn’t mind playing an a-hole. He’s portrayed an array of characters who most certainly aren’t out to make friends, among them the evil English nobleman in Rob Roy, the diner-robbing Pumpkin in Pulp Fiction and the vicious general in Planet of the Apes. Even Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, perhaps his best-known role, was working undercover to bring down his crew. But now the devoted family man (he’s married with three sons) is about to show his softer side in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth.

Set in Europe before WWII, Youth is the story of an old man who is struck by lightning, begins to grow younger and goes on a quest to understand the origins of thought (all while being chased by Nazis!). It marks the start of a prolific stretch for Roth that sees the 46-year-old starring in next year’s Funny Games and an Ang Lee-free version of The Incredible Hulk. A chipper Roth took a break from -- what else? -- reading another script to call us from the Hulk set in Brazil.

I read that you peed yourself the first time you were ever onstage. Please tell me this is true!

It is! I was doing a musical called The Dracula Spectacular, and I had to go out in front of my classmates and sing and dance. It was terrifying and I peed my pants. But I was hooked.

Did you have a similar reaction the first time Coppola yelled, “Action!”?

Actually, when we shot some of the earlier stuff I was in a hospital bed covered in bandages and I fell asleep. [Laughs] So I was very relaxed.

It sounds like the shoot was a breeze.

It was a long shoot. Usually you’re in and out in five weeks, but ours was 85 days. And Francis likes to work on travel days, so we worked very hard. I had one day off.

You must have packed a lot of debauchery into that one day.

You know what I did? I turned my phone off because I thought they were going to call me in! I went to a little restaurant in Bucharest -- I had some stew and a glass of beer and read some poems and went to bed. [Laughs] Really glamorous.

Coppola supposedly approached this movie as if he were a first-time filmmaker. Did his enthusiasm rub off on you?

It did. I don’t mean to be blasé about it, but I was getting to where I was so bored with being an actor -- and that’s a very middle-class preoccupation, boredom. I had carpal tunnel syndrome. Or maybe I was just bored with the characters I was being offered.

Bad guys?

Yeah. I was never offered romantic things. The smoochy stuff. [Laughs] I went back and looked at Jimmy Stewart, who, by the way, is the best screen kisser ever. Check out his kisses in It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re very sexual. Cary Grant? The worst. But anyway, playing bad guys, which I’m known for, is an easier job. It’s flat-out an easier gig. Playing gentle, playing the quiet man -- that’s hard.

Your character in The Incredible Hulk is the very loud villain the Abomination. How has the experience compared with traipsing through Europe with Coppola?

I have to say, this just feels like a highly financed independent movie. It’s not that dissimilar. It’s white people in the favelas wandering around going, “Grrr!” I’ve had such a fun time playing this guy who turns into a monster. I check in with my kids all the time on the cool factor. The only reason to do a film like this is for your children.

So they gave the thumbs-up?

[Costar] Ed Norton came up to me the other day and said, “Your kids are going to think this is so cool!” That’s my meter now on the set. If you drop the kids off and all the other kids in their class look at you like, “Oh, he’s in that uncool movie,” it’s an issue. If you’re going to be on a lunch box, you might as well be something interesting.

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