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Peeling Mr. Orange

After a blood-soaked blinder in Reservoir Dogs and a forthcoming outing with Bridget Fonda, south London bad boy Tim Roth may finally be about to hit the big time. Tom Charity finds out why it's taken so long.

Ten years ago, Tim Roth looked like just about the most exciting screen actor this country had produced in a generation. He made his explosive debut as the ferocious, Union-Jacketed skinhead in Alan Clarke's powerful TV play Made In Britain, followed it up with the timorous, pathetic Frank [sic] in Mike Leigh's Meantime and consolidated his reputation as the gangster in Stephen Frears' The Hit. Since then he's continued to work with the best filmmakers in Britain -- Greenaway, Menges, Roeg -- while pursuing a decidedly wayward international career including major work by Robert Altman (Vincent and Theo) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), alongside a title or three you've never heard of and probably never will.

Despite, or perhaps because of, such diversity, there's a nagging sense of underachievement about Roth's career. His friends and contemporaries Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman have bot 'cracked America' in a way Roth hasn't; for all his talent and charisma, he hasn't really connected with movie audiences in the mysterious, magnetic way cinema thrives on. Oldman had his Sid Vicious, his Joe Orton and his Dracula, Day-Lewis had his beautiful laundrette, his Christy Brown and the ultimate mohican, but Roth really hadn't defined himself in the popular imagination since those first, alarming roles. Until, that is, Mr. Orange started screaming at us from the blood-soaked back seat.

Roth was born in south London in 1961, three afters both Day-Lewis and Oldman. Like Oldman, who grew up just down the road in New Cross, he speaks from a fiercely working-class perspective. They worked together early on in Meantime, and later on in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Roth got the role when Day-Lewis had to pass on it). "We were sitting in a bar in London," he tells me, sitting in a bar in London, "and we said 'we've got gotta get Clarkey and do one together -- Gary had done The Firm with him -- we gotta get Clarkey and do something really heavy. Fucking kill everybody!' And then we found out he was dying."

He pauses for another beer. "To me, Clarke was our best director. When I did Made In Britain with him I'd never been in front of a camera before. It was like losing my virginity. Chris Menges was on steadicam. You can't be luckier than that. He said, 'Wherever you want to go, I'm with you.' I thought all film-making was going to be like that. I didn't know there would be a lot of hanging around for lights and angles . . . and Alan was so sharp and funny and on it. He knew how to get that performance out of me, which I didn't know I had. He tapped into my anger, a real bitter hatred, and coupled it with humor. I'd been beaten up all the time at school, so I thought, 'This is me, this is my turn!' It's what every kid dreams about: putting them against the wall and just fucking blowing their heads off. I'll never let that go. You know," he reflects, "Alan would have loved Reservoir Dogs!"

Roth is a prickly, restless talent. If he holds his anger dear, it's because he refuses to succumb to boredom or complacency. He speaks of his admiration for Miranda Richardson, "She's not beautiful, but she's beautiful. She's not ugly, but she's ugly. She doesn't bore me." He's high from working with Nic Roeg, playing Marlow in Heart of Darkness: "I don't know if I understood a word he was saying from beginning to end. He's crackers. I adore him." And on the theater: "Andrew Lloyd Webber can go fuck himself. I'm bored with the theater here -- but I love Berkoff . . . "

It's all or nothing with Roth. You wouldn't cast him as a diplomat. In fact he doesn't fit easily in any of the traditional, establishment roles: he's rarely been the romantic leading man (in his new film, Bodies Rest & Motion, he cuts out on both Bridget Fonda and Phoebe Cates). He can play the cop, but he's more often the psycho, Michael Gambon's monstrous, snarling henchman in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, sneering mass-murderer Charles Starkweather in the US cable TV movie Murder in the Heartland. "The censorship on that was unbelievable," he says. "The memos coming down from the bosses saying 'no, you can't do that . . . ' We couldn't shoot the script. But they didn't mind us showing the execution in detail at the end, because revenge is all right.

"I love violence in films if you don't shirk it," he says. "If you show what it is, the pain of it, why it happens. During Reservoir Dogs I debated with Quentin about whether I should let my son Jack, who's eight, see the film . . . He said if he wants to see it you should let him. So I sat down with him and we watched it on video. He'd been there when we were filming anyway; he used to hang out with Harvey's daughter on location, he knew Mike [Madsen], and he knew it was a false ear . . . he's now read the script by the way, his own signed copy from Quentin . . . so I just sat with him and I took him through it. I'd stop it and explain it to him . . . He loves the film, does impressions of Mike doing the dance. So," he concludes with a wicked grin, "I'm either a really bad father or a really good one."

I ask about his move to the States, whether that doesn't speak of some sort of compromise. "I went where the work was," he says. "I went to the US to do a film called Jumping at the Boneyard. Great fucking film. You can get it on tape here apparently. A guy called Jeff Stanzler wrote and directed it. It's all in Harlem and the Bronx, about two brothers: one's a crack addict, played by Alexis Arquette, and the other's just at the lowest point. He's busted up with his wife, lost his job, and he can't get himself out of bed in the morning . . . and it's a political film. So that was the reason I went there. I had a horrible flat in Sydenham I couldn't afford, and I loved New York, so I thought, 'What am I going to do -- go back and sign on? Wait for a job at the BBC?' Everything I was doing was out of the country. Vincent and Theo, Rosencrantz. I went to Ethiopia and did some piss-awful movie, Australia, the same thing, Paris for To Kill a Priest . . ."

How was it so many of these movies didn't come off? "W-e-l-l," he pauses momentarily. "To Kill a Priest is a good example. It was a really interesting subject -- the Polish priest that was murdered -- and Agnieszka Holland was directing, who I love, Ed Harris was in it, Christopher Lambert (who you can take or leave), Joanne Whalley, Peter Postlethwaite, Joss Ackland, really good people. The script wasn't too bad. On the surface it's quite a good deal, right? I mean Ed Harris was enough of a draw for me. So I went off to do it and it was crap. It just misfired. There was no way of telling. It opens with a Joan Baez song -- that wasn't in the script -- and it just went from there. Farenge [sic] I did because I fancied a trip to Africa. Also I was fascinated by the subject: it was about somebody who becomes obsessed with Rimbaud . . . but that was the worst experience. We were in Massawa, Ethiopia, where even the refugees were leaving. It was not the place to be. The crew mutinied at one point. Half the crew were being held at gunpoint in a hotel . . . but what can you do? You can't leave. Try getting out of Ethiopia when you want to. They didn't finish it, ran out of time. And they still owe me a lot of money too . . . then you go and do Reservoir Dogs, which was such fun. Whatever kind of statement Quentin might be making, fuck all that, I just want to be in there, saying those words.

"It's interesting when you become a part of something like that, when you're in a film like that. You want to have fun when you're an actor, but you also want to do something that's effective, and that film really was." It may be that Dogs will prove to have been a turning point for Roth, the point from which his visibility finally matches the esteem in which he's held among his peers. Bodies, Rest & Motion puts him alongside the likes of Bridget Fonda, Eric Stoltz, and Phoebe Cates and allows him to outshine them all, but next up is Heart of Darkness, with John Malkovich, and then Tarantino's second movie, Pulp Fiction. Be it by accident or design, Tim Roth's fallen into bad company. It could be the making of him.

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