The Gripes of Roth
Interview by Janie Lawrence
Marriage may have mellowed him but Tim Roth can still be roused to anger by guns and politics
For an actor whose portfolio is bulging with the edgy and the memorably deranged — from the psychopathic Oscar-nominated Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy to Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs — in person, Tim Roth is disconcerting only for his surprisingly amiable normality.
Despite decamping to LA 12 years ago his English accent remains fully intact, and whatever the intensity of his on-screen performances he is as down to earth discussing his role as Oliver Cromwell in To Kill a King as a London plumber discussing a blocked drain.
Cromwell is, however, yet another unhinged Roth role. He’s portrayed as highly ruthless, highly strung and highly unstable — few of us will have imagined such extreme dimensions to the Lord Protector.
While the historical context is accurate, Roth concedes that much of his particular character interpretation is fictional. “Fire and brimstone seemed like a more exciting option,” he chuckles. “Cromwell was ruthless and a very tough general so I wanted him to be carried away by his power. He became as much of a despot as the King and the people he was trying to remove. He was a hard character to play and I was glad to put him down.”
The time leading up to King Charles I’s execution in 1649 was a turbulent period that hitherto Roth knew nothing about. “I had schoolboy history — and very little of that because I gave it up as quickly as I could. And I’d certainly never heard of Fairfax) — all I knew was that it was a street in LA.”
Once he’d secured the part the actor arrived home to discover parcels of background research material on his doormat. “It starts to become ridiculous because there are so many different opinions on Cromwell and you quickly realise that every historian is going to have their own one. I read Antonia Fraser’s biography but after that I stopped because then you just get bogged down in detail. In the end you have to remind yourself that you’ve been employed to do the script and do whatever the director wants.”
So no retreating to a muddy hillside and preparing for the Roundhead role with a spot of Method? “What, go live in the tundra?” he scoffs. “I used to do a lot more of that when I was younger, but I stopped it ten years ago. I found it to be a distraction.
“I think quite often some people do that sort of thing for their own vanity, so they can talk about it to journalists. I think of acting as a more instinctive thing. When I read a script I think, ‘It sounds as if it should be like this’ and I try not to analyse it particularly.”
It’s something of a miracle that the film got completed at all. Shooting had only just begun when the producers ran into funding problems, and three weeks later Roth was back home in LA. “We’d just filmed on these incredible sets at Hampton Court. But I kept my bags by the door and eventually it all got settled. We’ve all deferred our money and there’s still money owed to everybody. Hopefully now the film’s come out we’ll get paid.”
In contemporary political terms Roth supposes that he remains something of a Roundhead. A political creature, he’s pleased that Clare Short has resigned from the Cabinet — “Good: I was wondering when she would” — although, for the first time in his life, he is beginning to query his own party allegiances.
“It looks as if the White House has an extraordinary power over Britain, a power that it shouldn’t have. I’ve been a Labour supporter the whole of my life but I don’t know if I could in all conscience vote Labour again.
“The fact that a Labour leader has got into bed with a radical fundamentalist Christian who is anti-abortion and anti-labour rights means that I don’t think anyone knows where they are with Blair.”
It wasn’t easy expressing anti-Gulf War sentiments in the States: “If you spoke out against the war in Iraq it was as if you should be put away for treason.” Nevertheless he likes living in America. Originally he intended to stay only a couple of months but, now married to an American, he tries to ensure that any film he accepts means he can take along his wife and their two young sons. His main priority is to balance projects that boost his bank balance against those that bring personal fulfillment. “I have to do stuff for money, but hopefully you can do things that are just for yourself too.”
Fatherhood has made him increasingly conscious of the violent content of any potential project. “I have more worry about picking up a gun in a film. You don’t want to encourage the gun culture by making them look cool — which, in a sense, Reservoir Dogs did, and I take responsibility for that.”
Whatever the film, though, he claims he no longer reads the reviews — or, for that matter, his newspaper interviews. “Doesn’t that give you a great sense of freedom?” he teases. “If people are critical it’s not important for me to read that, and the same if people are saying how wonderful I am.”
Altogether he seems a much more mellow character than interviews written several years ago would have suggested. “Well, I think marriage is good for you . . .”
Then, perhaps fearful of sounding too staid, he adds: “But I like to go out and get mad occasionally.” Oh yes — drugs, clubbing, a few beers? “Just the last. I’ve relaxed.”