Tim Roth's Exile From Mean Streets
By James Mottram
Tim Roth will talk about his work, his hopes and his new film - but don’t ask him if he’s homesick for Britain.
When Tim Roth was 17 he wrote three letters: to Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Still to make his screen debut as the angry skinhead in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1982), at the time his acting experience extended to one musical, The Yeast Factory, "which always sounded like a very bad infection," Roth chuckles.
Not that this deterred the London-born upstart from soliciting three of the finest directors the world has known. "It was literally: 'I really like your films. If you need an English actor, I’m your man. Yours sincerely, Tim Roth.' The bastards never called me," says Roth, a typically impish grin spreading across his bearded, angular face.
In the end this son of a journalist and a teacher, who never went to drama school, didn’t need them. With films by Mike Leigh (Meantime, 1984) and Stephen Frears (The Hit, from the same year) setting him on his way, Roth became part of a generation – alongside Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone – of actors who reflected the ugly shadow of Thatcher’s Britain.
By 1991, he had a Hollywood career as well. He had moved to LA because of the lack of work in Britain and a chance meeting with Quentin Tarantino led to him being cast as the undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs (1992).
So imagine his surprise when, years later, he met up with Coppola to talk about playing William Burroughs in an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and the director produced "that" letter from his bag. While the film never came to fruition, Roth was first in the queue when it came to Coppola casting the lead for his first movie in a decade, Youth Without Youth. "He left a message and I thought it was Ray Winstone," laughs Roth. "He’ll do all kinds of things, Ray. I called back and his wife answered. She said he was in the shower. And I was like: 'Yeah, right'. But it wasn’t a joke."
Coppola calling couldn’t have come at a better time for the 46-year-old Roth. While his recent choice of directors is beyond question, the films – Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, Werner Herzog’s Invincible and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking among them – left a lot to be desired. "I’d come to the end of being interested in being an actor," he admits.
Part of this came after completing his one and – to date – only directorial effort, the harrowing child abuse drama The War Zone (1999), which starred Winstone. "When I directed I finally got to be in a film, in a sense, for the first time. It was purely for me."
Nevertheless, Roth had sold his soul for the privilege of going behind the camera. With a family to support, he needed to bank money before directing for a pittance, which he did by making below-par efforts such as Hoodlum and Gridlock’d. "I spent two years of doing films that I didn’t want to be in to do The War Zone," he says.
Suddenly, that Oscar nomination for his foppish villain in Rob Roy (1995) felt a long way away. But ten years later Roth got his mojo back – thanks to Youth Without Youth. "It made me care about acting again," he says. "It was a challenge, a hard one to pull off as an actor."
The film is based on a novella by the Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade. Roth plays Dominic Matei, a linguistics professor in his twilight years who is struck by a lightning bolt and regains his youth, the mental energy he needs to complete his magnum opus – and meets a woman (Alexandra Maria Lara) who resembles his lost love.
Coppola felt that Roth struck the right balance of charm and intelligence for the role in his Faustian tale. "Every actor like Tim, who puts in his time, ought to have a couple of roles where he really gets in the limelight," Coppola says. "I felt this part had lots of things Tim had never been given the chance to do before – like the lover."
Roth concedes that playing the Romeo has never been his forte. The last time was in the much-maligned film Captives (1994), when he was a prison inmate to Julia Ormond’s dentist. As one critic wrote of Roth’s courting of on-screen partners, "he treats their breasts like Play-Doh".
"I don’t get to do kissy scenes," he says, shrugging. "I’m not the romantic guy. I mean, I am in life – but I don’t get to do what Colin Firth can do." Instead, after Reservoir Dogs Hollywood went through a spell of having him hold a gun. That’s something he feels a little guilty about now, and shies away from.
Next March, though, he can be seen in Funny Games, a shot-for-shot remake by Michael Haneke of his own German-language film from 1995. Concerning a family terrorised by two assailants, the film deals with screen violence in an excruciating – but ethical – way. "It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as an actor," Roth says. "Emotionally, I was very disturbed by it."
Cast as the father of the family, with Naomi Watts playing the mother, he originally passed on it – and even now remains uncertain. "I hope that this film is not exploitative. I do worry about it. I may have done something very wrong."
Much of his concern comes from the fact that Roth is a family man himself. He married a former fashion designer, Nikki Butler, in 1993. They now have two sons, Timothy, 12, and Cormac, 11, while Roth has a third son, Jack, now 24, from a relationship he had in his mid-twenties.
It was because of his role as a father that he agreed to play the villainous Emil Blonsky, aka the Abomination, in next year’s summer blockbuster The Incredible Hulk. "I hope there’s some cool s*** in there for my boys," he says. "Because they’re going to kill me if not."
Roth, who stars opposite Edward Norton, promises that the film will be more fun than Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), which "just didn’t connect" with audiences.
As it happens, his eldest son Jack is training to be an actor, performing at the Oval House theatre in southeast London, where Roth himself started out. Apart from a good curry, being near to Jack is what Roth misses most about Britain now. A fervent Labour supporter, he was dismayed by the Tony Blair era. "I’m not patriotic," he says. "I think my country is a disgusting wreck of a place . . . I will never move back there."
He says he admires the film-maker Ken Loach for his continuing commitment to the cause. "I’m not as brave as Ken. He stays there and he attacks it every single time. Whether or not you like what he’s saying, he has balls of brass, that man." Meanwhile, Roth wants to direct again. He has two projects on the boil – including a version of King Lear written by Harold Pinter that he wants to shoot in India – but admits he "can’t afford" to take another two years off with no pay. "The whole nature of the film industry has changed now. We get paid much less. It’s harder to put the money away."
In many ways, he’d be right to resist doing a follow-up to The War Zone, if only because, after rediscovering his love of acting, the last thing Roth needs to do is churn out movies just for the cash. He’s too good an actor for that.