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The Gripes of Roth

Tim Roth has made a living from playing tortured roles on screen. Chrissy Iley discovers he is just as pained in real life.

Tim Roth has his back coiled, his bony shoulder blades jutting out and his spindly arms cradling a Rolling Rock beer. He has bug eyes the colour of tinned peas. It is a busy pub but he is in the corner. Nobody comes to sit near him.

He smiles politely, gently, with sixth-form sweetness. His hair is very dirty and dank. His face is pretty, chiselled, bony and brittle, not at all the face of the tortured or violent thug we have seen him portray so often.

Roth is 32 and has been described as the most exciting movie actor this country has produced for a generation. He is three years younger than Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman, has worked with both, and could have taken some of their breaks but did not have it in him to be glitzy. He has never taken a big box-office role.

He is in Scotland now for Rob Roy, a medium-budget movie directed by Michael Caton-Jones (of Scandal fame). Roth has always preferred the culty and the credible: Greenaway, Menges, Roeg. He was van Gogh for Robert Altman and the troubled Frank in Mike Leigh's Meantime. He was the psychotic gangster in Stephen Frears' The Hit, and the tattooed skinhead in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain. That was in the early 1980s, when he was an art-school dropout.

A stealthy run of great cameos with even greater directors followed, but it was after he had befriended Quentin Tarantino and took the role of Mr. Orange, an undercover agent posing as a gangster, in Reservoir Dogs that he reached international cult-star status. The film was spooky in its violence, haunting and cruel. Nothing Disneyesque or Schwarzenegger whambammy -- this was a vicious but provocative movie.

Roth's friendship with Tarantino has since flourished. They lurch around together at The Dresden Room in downtown Los Angeles, where a woman named Irene plays the Hammond organ without irony. Their bonding led to Roth's explosive cameo in the soon-to-be-released and equally violent Pulp Fiction, which Tarantino directs. Roth begins and ends the film as a desperate gangster attempting to hold up a diner. His performance is deemed to be up there with the best. As an actor, he is consummate. In person he is polite.

Almost eagerly he trots off to buy me a drink. These days he lives in sleazy Hollywood but is at ease in any bar anywhere in the world. He likes to shoot pool and hang out. He likes tattoos and nipple piercing, and talks about guitars and Polaroids. He will play the psychotic and likes to tap into tormented lives, a kind of existentialist macho boy. He likes pathos in his violence and angst in his hatred; that, at least, is what he gives us on screen. So what is going on inside his head that makes him so attracted to such roles? "I don't know really," he mumbles earnestly. He says he is attracted to good scripts and good directors. Well, there must be something that makes him want to play these characters? "Not really. I never wanted to play the good guy -- the more outrageous the character the better," he says. "I wasn't like that as a kid, so maybe it's something to do with playing somebody who isn't like you."

In real life, he has perhaps found a new calm: "I'm comfortable. I was never into fighting. I was never a bully. I always ran away from them at school. Maybe it's the chance to play the bully," and he flashes a slight smile. "The need to hit back has diminished now, but I can remember at one time that was very big in my life."

He has a startling presence, so you don't imagine him as only 5ft 7in, but he must have been a small boy at school. He attended a comprehensive in Tulse Hill, south London, before studying sculpture at Camberwell School of Art. His father was a journalist, his mother a teacher and a painter. He speaks of her fondly and proudly. She was "not too judgmental, not too stereotyping."

So is he using acting as a release, putting his buried violence into scripted portrayals? He is unsure. "Possibly. It helped," he admits. "It's an age thing, I've become more comfortable with myself." If Roth spends much time on introspection then he is not going to share his findings with me. I have never known anyone answer "Um, I don't know" so persistently. Perhaps he doesn't know -- doesn't know until he is playing someone else. The back is still coiled, the drink still cradled and the eyes looking anywhere in the room but at me. Like all the best actors, he is a husk. Laurence Olivier never gave a great quote and Paul Newman's most memorable soundbites have been about his children's charity, yet they were both able to portray the great, the good, the bad and the lonely.

Much has been made of Roth's presence but there seems to be a huge chasm between how he is in person and what he portrays on screen that one wonders where he hides it when he is not acting. Where does it all go, the violence and angst? He shrugs. How does he see himself? "I don't," he says bluntly. "I see myself as unemployed or employed, and if I'm unemployed I'm depressed."

Roth never went to drama school. He was "discovered" by the film-maker Alan Clarke, who hired him to play a skinhead in Made In Britain. He compares being in front of a camera for the first time with losing his virginity. "Alan knew how to get the performance out of me. He tapped into my anger, a real bitter hatred." He was a year into art school, and revenge and angst were still fresh in his psyche. "I'd been beaten up all this time at school, so I thought this is my turn, what every kid dreams about, putting them against the wall and blowing their heads off."

Roth has a son, Jack, who is nearly 10. He lives in London with his mother Lori Baker, about whom Roth will venture nothing. But he will talk about London, which he thinks is no longer a fertile ground for scripts and movies. He despises the fake romance and the made-for-America nostalgia of Merchant-Ivory. He misses what he calls, "the irony" and "the humour" of England and blames Margaret Thatcher for taking away a lot of his love for his home.

He keeps a Polaroid diary, snaps of cafes he goes to, pool players he shoots with, film sets he's been on, and takes a load of pictures of his son. Whenever Jack comes for a visit, Roth buys him new basketball boots and he gets the old ones nailed to the wall: "It's like the old ruler, notches on the side of the door, a way to see how he's grown."

He says he is very close to his son, and, as if to make the bond permanent, he has the child's initials tattooed on his forearm. He is fashionably pierced in the nipple department. He has had it done three times because he has had to take the rings out for parts. He has an intricate Brussels lace tattoo -- a deep border on his upper arm -- and various other scrawls. "If I wasn't an actor I would be covered in them. I love body decoration."

He is hostile when asked about his father, now dead, although he says they were close. He checks himself and changes the subject back to his son, describing how Jack came onto the set during the filming of Reservoir Dogs. "He used to hang out with Harvey [Keitel]'s daughter when we were filming. He knows the blood wasn't real. I sat with him telling him stage by stage what we were doing. It worried me, but I thought he should watch it. He understands the difference between fiction and reality." He has tried to stay close to him despite moving to Australia, New York and now, though he claims he dislikes its pretentiousness, L.A.

"When I first moved to L.A. I hated it. Initially I did all that party stuff. I went out with a couple of actresses, but that's not really my thing. When I met my wife, Nikki, she hadn't a clue who I was, which was a bonus. She is completely unimpressed by the film industry." They met two years ago and he called her every day from a hitch-hiking trip he took across America. Nikki used to be a fashion designer but "she quit the place where she was working so she could just travel with me. At the moment she is my companion, just the way we like it."

A backpacker comes into the pub and Roth is off again, going on about the joys of rubber groundsheets. He will talk about Nikki with the same brutal romantic nostalgia as he does about roadside camping. "We do everything together. I don't like being away from her."

He once claimed that his ambition was to own a bar by the dock in Malta because sailors would make port of call after six months at sea and they would have great stories to tell. He likes stories. He likes getting out on the road. He likes neatly packaged dangerous episodes.

He is at his most animated when he tells me about hitching and jumping freight trains from Canada to California, on holiday just a year and a half ago, after he made Reservoir Dogs. "It's not romantic if you do it in a car," he says. "I went with someone who'd done the trip before, so he knew the ropes. I had my sleeping bag on my back, and we slept on the side of the road and on freight trains. It is illegal, but nobody ever caught us. If you hitch you can see how bigoted and weird some people are. They've got incredible stories. There was one couple who were alcoholics; they drank as they drove. It was very dangerous. One guy had bullet holes in him. Another, Frank, lived in his car. His back seat was full of Coke cans. They have change machines in America and he made his money by having a plastic sheet that he wrapped around his dollar bill. He put it into the machine and could pull it straight out again after it had registered.

Frank sounds like a character Roth would play in a movie and he is the only person he has been comfortable talking about. One wonders what a Hollywood actor is doing jumping freight trains for a thrill. It's all part of the carefully contrived illusion that Tim Roth is a real person who does real things.

Tim's sister Jill, a journalist, said that when she went to see one of his first films, The Hit, she was surprised at his ability to transform himself. She saw a "tough street-cred persona that I could never reconcile with his middle-class West Dulwich roots. The Tim I knew would rather have his head in a book than in someone's face. He is indeed a master chameleon, switching class and accent at whim." She remembers how his speech could range from Californian to South London in three sentences, depending who it was when he answered the telephone.

Does he believe in monogamy? "I do absolutely believe in monogamy. She (Nikki) comes from a good L.A. family. Her parents have been together for 27 years." And his parents? Brilliant actor though he is, he could not take the bitterness out of his tone when he said: "They split up when I was very young."

"I never thought that I'd get married but it was the right time for me, the right thing to do and the right person." So he never wanted to be married to the mother of his son? There is a mumbled silence and staring. He was there when his son was born. He says what an incredible bonding process it was. Bonding with Jack or bonding with his mother? "Both. It's great to feel part of something." What happened to her, what went wrong? "That's my business." Bitter but firm.

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