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Roth and Ready

By Tony Horkins

Gritsome Ex-pat actor. Passionate director. Chimp dictator. The star of this month's Civil War drama To Kill a King kicks back and reflects on life in Hollywood . . .

Something is wrong. Despite a fearsome reputation as a journalist-loathing grump, Tim Roth appears to be wearing a smile. Total Film can clearly see it poking out either side of the fuzzy beard he's currently sporting, darting around his lips as if to imply its owner is actually . . . Happy?

Maybe we can blame it on the sunshine. When you're sitting poolside in the splendor of Pasadena's luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel, chain-smoking and supping an Amstel Light, being crabby could simply require too much effort. It's very possible the 12 years Roth has spent amidst the California palms have cooked the raging anger once displayed so menacingly as a bovva-boot-wearing teen thug in his debut film, Made In Britain. Certainly, the man who's chosen the gentle Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena as a home ("because it's quiet, the schools are good and it's away from the film business") bears little resemblance to Trevor the Skinhead.

And why should he? He was a 20-year-old wannabe artist then, and now he's 42 and one of the UK's busiest acting exports, with nearly 40 films to his name. Though he hasn't entirely escaped his roots: out this month is English Civil War drama To Kill A King, in which Roth plays another famously angry young Brit, Oliver Cromwell. But that doesn't mean he'll be rushing back to his birthland anytime soon.

"I'd say it's home here now," he admits. "I like working over there but I don't know if I'd live in England. I thought I might when Tony Blair got in, but then Blair turned into Blair so there's no real point in coming back.

"Though it's a very bizarre time," he adds, alluding to the current situation in Iraq. "And living in America is tricky as well. Personally, I think there will be many more wars as a result of this one." And speaking of war . . .

Why Oliver Cromwell then?

I thought it would be interesting to play a historical character. When I was at school, that period was part of the curriculum and I hated school and hated my history teacher. So I thought I'd better get some books on the subject -- and there are tons of 'em. Unfortunately, it got to the point where I said, "Sod that," and just used Michael's [Barker, To Kill A King's director] references for the film.

To Kill A King suffered from big financial problems and needed emergency support -- did you chip in?

The entire crew did. They deferred money to keep the film going -- it wasn't just the actors. Though it was hard to keep your enthusiasm up at times. But if you decided to make a movie, you have to make a huge commitment to it. Plus Michael was the key to it al . . . He was really honest with everybody from day one.

Is it true there wasn't enough cash to hire any extras?

Well, there wasn't enough money for battle scenes, so they did the computer tricks, which I thought was fascinating. They'd design a crowd and put them in and move sections of them around. It was like filmmaking on the run.

What drew you to filmmaking in the first place, then -- fame or acting?

It was acting. I wanted to go to art school but I did a play for a teacher at school and that was it -- I was hooked. Though certainly at the beginning you imagine yourself in Hollywood, at that time a good review in the south London papers was top class. There was a long period when I really enjoyed going to the parties, the premieres, getting my picture taken with famous people . . . All of the crap that goes along with acting. It's pure ego fodder.

Your first big acting job was Made In Britain, which you've described as "the best film I've acted in."

It was the best time of my life, really. I was selling advertising at the time but I was crap at it and I heard about these auditions, went in and got the job. I'd never been in front of a camera before and being directed by Alan Clarke was the best lesson I could learn.

It wasn't long after that you were working with Terence Stamp on The Hit. How was he?

He was lovely -- very, very funny. He was the class act, the naughty boy who'd made good. And a handsome devil, too. And John Hurt was fun, too -- the whole shoot was all a bit of a laugh. I'd never even been on a plane, never been properly abroad in the sunshine and it was great going to Spain. I think marijuana was legal then and we all smoked a bit of weed, got drunk and I was in a movie. With proper actors. They all treated me very nicely and I got a pay packet. I think I got 2000 pounds for that one and that was a hell of a lot of money.

It won you the Evening Standard award for Best Newcomer. Did that seem important at the time?

Yeah . . . it felt good, though I used to keep crayons in it for the kids and I've lost it now. And I got nominated for a BAFTA -- but didn't win, though Alan Parker once let me touch his. I didn't admit it at the time but when I didn't get the BAFTA, I was pretty upset about it.

Are you self-critical, then?

Put it this way -- I don't see my films any more. It's actually really helpful. I don't read any reviews and I don't read interviews, good or bad, and I don't see the films. As a consequence, you just remember the times that you had on them individually and you think of them as good or bad in regards to that. It's been 20 years now and I know how bad I am at certain things. You know when you've done a good scene. I know what I look like and I'm over it.

So what movies are you not happy with?

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. I loved working with Michael Gambon, but I thought I did an atrocious job on it. I liked the film, but I was garbage -- naive and stupid.

So why did you make the move to the States?

I'd been in LA doing press for Robert Altman's Vincent & Theo and I'd got an agent, too. I decided to come to do the rounds for a couple of weeks. Then I thought I should stick at it for a couple of months so I rented a flat and got Reservoir Dogs. I wasn't intending to live here, but it was that thing: if you're invited to the party you might as well go.

Ahhh, Reservoir Dogs. Did you have any idea while you were making it how big it was going to be?

We didn't know what was going to happen with it, but we did think it was very good. It was a wonderful script but I remember Harvey Keitel saying to me, "I think this is pretty good -- keep it quiet." And when I actually saw it, I was blown away.

Can't have been too fun to shoot, though -- you were covered in blood for most of it . . .

It was a tough little film. It was a boiling hot summer and all that fake blood dried and you stuck to everything. But then other people ended up being in the pool of blood, so I had company.

And working with Tarantino?

I loved it -- we hit the ground running. He's high energy and he's funny and knowledgeable about the camera. Plus, he's terrific with actors. I laughed my arse off and couldn't believe my luck. And with Pulp Fiction and Four Rooms -- well, I loved making Four Rooms. The film didn't work but I loved working on it.

Were the expectations higher for Pulp Fiction after Dogs' success?

Not for me. I was glad to be in it and Tarantino wrote a part that was specifically for me and Amanda Plummer. That part of the film, the bookends of it, we did as one five-day shoot during the first week of filming. We had a great time doing it. The madness of it . . .

Why aren't you in his new project, Kill Bill?

I was busy, but I'd love to work with him again. I'd come in and just do a walk-through on it if he wanted. I spoke to him before he went out to do it . . . Though you've got to reserve the director's right to go further afield.

You've played a few villains in your time. Why do you think you're attracted to them?

They're the ones I seem to be asked to do more. It's seriously good fun, though. I'd love to have done a Bond film -- or an action-movie type thing. The closest I've come to that is Planet of the Apes.

More on that later. Before Apes, you did Rob Roy, which got you an Oscar nomination . . .

Yeah -- but I though I was going to get fired! I thought I was so over the top that the studio would see the dailies and get someone else to do it. To the point where I was ringing my agent and saying, "You'd better get another job lined up -- I'm about to get the sack!" But Michael Caton-Jones, the director, really pushed me through on it, telling me it was the way to go. And it worked -- so all credit to him.

How was Oscar night?

I got a really bad headache, but what's good about it is you can go to the bar and they put someone in your seat. So my wife and I had a great time and we went to all the parties.

How did you prepare for your 'reaction face'?

Tarantino said, "Say: 'Oh fuck' if you don't get it." What actually went through my mind? "Oh fuck!" You really want to get it. You want that trophy . . .

You worked with Tupac Shakur on Gridlock'd -- many people said if he'd lived and kept acting, he could have won an Oscar . . .

Actually, I didn't even want him to be in the film -- I didn't know who he was. I just wanted an actor, not a musician. But we went to a restaurant and he came in with an enormous entourage and he sat down and auditioned for us. He knew so much about the role and I got on with him like a house on fire. There are tapes of me and him rapping together, recorded at Death Row Records! I'm hoping they've been burned, though. It was one of the nicest relationships I've had with another actor -- I found him to be incredibly talented. I used to call him "New Money" because he had a massive Bentley and a different model sat in the car each day, and he used to call me "Free Shit" because I always used to get loads of free stuff from companies. It's a shame what happened -- I think he could have gone on to be quite something as an actor.

It was just a few years ago that you directed your first film, The War Zone. That deals with some heavy issues -- abuse and incest. What drew you to that project?

I have a personal connection with that subject matter -- I was a victim of abuse. It was a family thing -- not my father, not my immediate family, I hasten to add -- so I felt qualified. That doesn't mean to say someone who hasn't been abused can't make a very good film about the subject, though I just felt I could bring something else to it. But I wasn't actually looking for a film about that subject. It was pure coincidence.

Was directing harder that you thought?

It's the best job in the world -- making The War Zone was the best time I've ever had with work on every level. I'd love to direct another one now . . . But raising the money is very difficult. That;s the hardest thing about being a director.

Talking of raising money, Planet of the Apes was a rather big-budget affair . . .

Oh yes, there was plenty of money for that. Going on the set was like walking into a huge city. I was a big fan of Tim Burton's work, as well. I loved Ed Wood and the Batman films -- he's a fantastic filmmaker.

Did you get a chance to speak to the original chimp Roddy McDowall before he died?

Actually, Roddy was someone I knew. I met him at the Oscars and he asked if he could take my picture -- he was a great photographer -- so he did. And then he used to have these extraordinary dinners that he'd plan for months in advance and invite people that didn't know each other.

Did he pass any monkey mask tips?

No, it was a very different deal then. He had very rigid makeup. Ours was grafted onto our faces. To actually perform with it on is amazing. I loved vanishing like that -- it makes you feel a certain way. It becomes a big part of your physique. And all the girls like the apes . . . They were strangely drawn to the animals!

Were you equally attracted to Helena Bonham Carter's ape?

No. I was never drawn to her as a monkey. Funny that. I think I found Pal Giamatti more attractive as an orangutan . . . Though I never told him that.

You ended up doing a scene with Charlton Heston in Apes and he's someone you've spoken out against for his links with the National Rifle Association. Wasn't that awkward?

It was very weird. When I found out he was going to do it, I was already contracted so I couldn't get out of it. And I would have, as I feel very strongly about that monster. I made my feelings very clear on the set and they were worried about that day, as was I. But I got myself in makeup and I put all my gear on -- including the rubber hands so I wouldn't be infected if I touched him -- and I went in. We sat and did the scene and he couldn't remember any of the lines, which may be down to his Alzheimer's. It ended up with me sitting on the bed with him and feeding him the lines. We did the scene and I promptly left. I had to approach that time in my life with a certain elegance instead of being a total prick about it all.

Do you ever get tired of the whole acting thing?

I go up and down. After doing War Zone, I told Ray Winstone -- who's probably one of my favorite human beings -- I was going to quit acting. He just slapped that out of me completely. If I could direct, I'd direct all the time . . . But acting is an extraordinary opportunity.

You once said you live in total fear of unemployment. After all you've achieved, is this still the case?

Oh yes, I think every actor does. The bottom line is, it can all just go away . . .

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