By John Mosby
Gritsome Brit directors like Mike Leigh discovered him. He hit the big time when Tarantino unleashed him for Reservoir Dogs. But calling Gridlock'd star Tim Roth -- lowlife petty crim impersonator extraordinaire -- a young British take on Harvey Keitel tells only half the story...
Before the current Brit pack of Ewan, Kate and co. had even been picked as third spear carrier from the left by their school's am-dram production, an equally talented gang of thesps hung around the block.
Some of the all-male bunch, like Gary Oldman and Daniel Day Lewis, were soon to be standing before the Hollywood sign, muttering: "Soon all this will be ours." Others, like Bruce Payne, fared not so well. And then there's Tim Roth. The intense, slightly weaselly, thirtysomething Sarf Lunduner, who excels at short-fused crims, has made his name with ensemble casts, never taking centre stage for a biggie -- until now. Gridlock'd has just presented him with one of his largest American roles to date, and confirms his best is to come.
Roth's career has been a game of two halves: pre-Reservoir Dogs and post-Reservoir Dogs; Europe and America. It kicked off with street thugs, killers and no-hopers on British TV (in telly movies like Meantime and Made In Britain), before moving towards the arthouse. But he's most at home with contemporary petty crims. It's them he's concentrated on since locating to the US. While other UK actors might sell their accents like Harrods tea towels for English corset affairs, Roth has played down his Britishness.
"My intention when I went to America was only to play Americans," he explains. "I thought it would help everyone get over the fact that I'm English -- if I did enough of them, sooner or later it wouldn't be an issue anymore. It's worked pretty well so far -- in fact, a lot of people think that I am American. And it's true -- I really am! I'm just putting on an English accent for you right now!"
Though the Trainspotting generation of movie makers has redressed the balance somewhat, most UK-made and financed films are all still lumped together as Merchant Ivory productions -- middle class dramas where they use cups instead of mugs and only venture abroad if it's to Tuscany or Victorian India. Though Roth has pulled on the breeches for period pieces - like Rob Roy, for which he was Oscar-nominated - he's not that comfortable with it.
"I think the Merchant Ivory films that Britain produces...well, there's a place for them. It's just not a place I really want to be. I've remained in America in recent years because it still seems like there's more chance of me getting the jobs I want over there. But now with films like Trainspotting coming along, things might be starting to change. It was very hard for me to leave England -- I didn't want to -- but I've always found that movies about working class people are the most interesting, and I can do more of those in America."
But when you say "working class", isn't what you really mean "iffy gangster types"?
"That's never really bothered me, as long as I don't end up doing, I dunno, 25 prison movies or something. I do a film because I like my character -- if a script appeals to me for some reason, whatever it is, then I'll do it if they want to."
Nor does Roth fear being typecast.
"I think you typecast yourself -- after all, you make the choices. So if I am pigeon-holed, I'm pigeon-holed because I choose to be. That said, I still get loads of scripts sent to me that have a little letter on the front, saying, 'It's a kind of Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction thing', and they go straight in the bin - that's how I try to avoid doing the same thing again and again. Sure, people know that I will make films that are low budget, that's where I thrive, and sure, most low budget films are shit. But you get the occasional one that's great."
And so it was with Gridlock'd, a gritty lump of street life, which has Roth sharing honours with rapper Tupac Shakur.
"I thought Gridlock'd was something anyone could identify with. I don't mean the heroin part -- unless you've been an addict -- but the fact that Stretch and Spoon keep running into all this red tape. Also, the script was very funny. Normally you'd work through a screenplay and say, 'We'll have to change that and that and somehow try to make it work', but here the dialogue was always dead-on."
Bit of unfortunate phrasing that, for Roth's co-star was fatally shot shortly after the movie wrapped -- a death made more tragic by the signs Shakur's easy performance gave that here was a music star who could actually act.
"It's something you just have to deal with," Roth muses. "I mean, an actor got killed, so of course the question keeps cropping up -- if it had been me or [director] Vondie Curtis Hall it would keep coming up too. Tupac always seemed to me to be smart, funny and quick -- though he could be lazy sometimes too. We never socialised much, because he'd go straight off to the studio to do some recording or direct a video or whatever -- he seemed to have 24-hour days. But I enjoyed acting with him. And if I'd seen this film and not been in it, I would have thought, 'There's a guy that I'd like to work with sometime.'"
Certainly Roth's recent cv has seen him widening his repertoire, and he hopes to direct his own project as well as appear in a children's film. Recent roles included his first singing part in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.
"I like Woody, he's great at card tricks. But he doesn't stroke you. He never says, 'You have just done the greatest scene in your career.' Instead he looks at his watch and says, 'Hmm, the Knicks are playing at five. Let's shoot this tomorrow!'"