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The Heart of the Hitman

He plays the tough-talking punk on screen but, away from the camera, Tim Roth's a bad driver who hates guns and suffers from stage fright. Tom Doyle talks to Hollywood's most unlikely teddy bear.

By the rapid rate at which Tim Roth makes it up the five tortuous flights to his small film production office in Soho, he's clearly taken the stairs upwards of two at a time. Still, he arrives on the top landing, perspiring lightly and attempting not to appear out of breath, with the pointless bravado of those mid-thirtysomething who like to pretend they're still at least reasonably fit and healthy, in spite of their twin partialities to cigarettes and alcohol.

It's early. Far too early. But to fit around Roth's break-neck schedule, our meeting has been arranged for an unsociable 9am. He is, it turns out, not much of a morning person. "But I have to be right now 'cause I'm working," he huskily offers, as he sparks up a Camel Light and eyes his first coffee of the day. "So I don't have any choice. But I hate the fucking mornings."

He got to bed at two and was up again at eight. Spent the early hours at a film premiere party, held at the Cobden Club, that was apparently "dull...but next door was good where the real people were. That was kind of happening. We hunted that down."

Like most mesmerisingly intimidating screen actors, he's narrow-shouldered and surprisingly pint-sized in the flesh -- 5ft 5in, if that. But in a wiry-armed and tattooed way, even if his skin is inked not with any hugely spiritual, romantic or violent statements, but with ornate designs that incorporate the names of his two sons, Jack and Hunter, 11 and one, the former from a previous relationship in London, the latter with his LA fashion designer wife, Nikki Butler.

His eyes are heavy lidded, his nose famously bulbous. His mood this morning, despite a reputation for being a guarded interviewee, is open and unflinchingly honest. He is fine company and laughs chestily at times, even if for the most part he assumes the patented demeanour of the serious, centred actor. Moreover, he displays no tangible traits of misfits, morons and maniacs that he has made a living from portraying.

At the start of what will be his longest stay in Britain (around a year to direct his first film, an adaptation of a novel called The War Zone) since he left for Los Angeles at the turn of the decade, Roth plays down his previously well-documented hatred of his capital home town.

"I'm much happier coming back now," he offers, turning his head to scan the misty Soho rooftops through his office window. "I hated it before. Well, it wasn't a matter of hating it, I was just sick of it. Last time I came here was during the election, which was fucking brilliant. I think the Tories are deeply unpleasant people and obviously those bastards were everywhere when I was growing up..."

When his beloved Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, Tim Roth was an 18-year-old punk rocker. Although he would go on to use his more delinquent teenage experiences as the basis for his debut screen role as a skinhead in Alan Clarke's 1983 film Made in Britain, Roth had in fact become disillusioned with punk when the thrill of its cheap drugs and adrenalised soundtrack began to take on a more sinister and violent edge.

"The contingent that I was moving in was violent," he says. "It wasn't the fashion mob...who I would've much preferred to have been out with. For a very brief time, punk was great. Basically, what most people did was just take their jeans in and cut their hair silly. But then there were more and more incidents that started to put me off. There was one party I remember with shotguns being waved around and people getting thrown out of windows, and it was like...oops, time to grow my hair and go to art school."

But it was only when Tim Roth quit the Camberwell School of Art after 18 months and began performing in small theatres and pubs that he found his true calling and became the firm believer in fate that he is today. And justly so, since his career manoeuvres have more often than not been the result of a chain of chance encounters and seized opportunities.

He landed the role in Made in Britain when his bicycle suffered a flat tyre and he stopped off at the hall where the auditions for the drama were being held. The role as a psychopathic hit man in Stephen Frears' The Hit was offered to him when Joe Strummer dropped out and Frears apparently said, "Get that skinhead in." His part in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was given to him when Daniel Day Lewis caved in due to nervous exhaustion caused by an endless stage run of Hamlet ("So I owe him a job," Roth laughs mock-maliciously). Then, in a remarkable twist of fate, impressed by his performance in Stoppard's art-house film, Quentin Tarantino offered him the part of Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs and the bookending role of a diner stick-up merchant in Pulp Fiction.

"So it was all luck," he states, a touch disbelievingly. "It was a good streak, a good fucking run."

Nevertheless, it was not a period without its lows. For much of the late 80s, Tim Roth had a rough time of it, accepting parts in low-budget and long forgotten film projects in far-flung locations like Czechoslovakia and Australia that the actor -- as with most of his films -- still hasn't actually seen. During this time, he stubbornly refused to sign on, while being forced to watch contemporaries such as Gary Oldman and Daniel Day Lewis making significant in-roads into Hollywood ("Yeah, it pissed me off, but you can't hold it against them personally").

On top of all this, Roth's chronic stage fright -- which early on resulted in him pissing himself on stage in a school performance of Dracula -- had resulted in him ending a triumphant run in Steven Berkoff's production of Metamorphosis with an effective retirement from theatre.

"I was just fucking terrified constantly," the actor softly admits. "I'm not sure if I wanna put myself through waiting in the wings on the first night again."

There must be something you can do about it though. Get on the Prozac, maybe? "Yeah, right," he snorts with a dismissive grin. "Go on stage on fucking Prozac! That'd be the last time you would ever go on stage."

Having honed his acting skills, Tim Roth relocated to West Hollywood. When he had a first-class world round trip ticket built into one of his film contracts, he made Los Angeles his last stop and basically never came home. Although he remembers it as a "lonely and depressing" time, he managed to fortify himself with a sense of community pride in his Sunset Strip locale. Since he couldn't drive -- social death in LA -- he would employ out-of-work actors to ferry him around the city, although he spent most of his time in the restaurants, pubs and clubs nearby, including an S & M establishment that he recalls as being "fucking knockout".

Of course, when he did learn to drive, he unceremoniously pranged his car. Still, I remind him, being involved in crashes can be quite a lucrative business in LA.

"That wasn't my intention though," he smiles. "I just had a very fast car and I crashed it one night. I mean really fucking crashed it. Drove into a parked car. Tore off the front. Totally my fault."

Were you sober?

"Yeah, yeah. I'm just a fucking really bad driver."

More impressive or terrifying still -- depending on how steely your nerves -- Roth and a friend spent a month travelling across America hitchhiking and jumping freight trains. At the time his star was back in the ascendant and he certainly could've afforded to embark upon the journey in a more luxurious fashion, although he clearly viewed it as a character-building experience.

"We hitched and jumped trains and yeah, it could be scary," he offers, fixing me with an actorly stare. "I wouldn't recommend it to anybody, I can tell you that. There are certain rules, like, never get in a boxcar 'cause they lock them and you'll die in them. And always travel in pairs. It was a real eye-opener. I've never met so many racists in my fucking life. The worst was a Canadian truck driver who hated the English, hated the Americans, hated the French, hated poofs, commies -- fucking everyone. But then we met an old, old hippie and he took us to this little bar and introduced us to this Native American guy in a little shack in the middle of nowhere. We had some real incidents with him [raises eyebrows]."

This, you get the impression, is the real Tim Roth. More beer and pool than Moet and Colombian, he insists that apart from Sean Penn giving him a guided tour of LA highlights when he first moved to the West Coast, he maintains very little contact with his actor acquaintances, claiming to be "very intimidated by famous people". Self-effacing in the extreme, when it comes to the matter of his own fame, he admits the key thing that impressed him about his wife when he met her at Sundance Film Festival in 1992 was that she had no idea who he was. Even Tarantino, widely assumed to be one of his best friends, he hasn't seen for 18 months, although they often talk on the phone.

It's this focused, single-minded approach to his work that has refused to read for directors, even if that meant blowing a potential part in Schindler's List ("Spielberg said: 'Can you do a German accent?' I said: 'Which district are you talking about?'"). He has firm opinions on virtually any subject you care to throw at him and becomes voluminously animated when the conversation shifts to his deep-rooted hatred of American gun culture.

"On the one hand, I'm part of it because I've used guns in films," he reasons. "But they terrify me. There are certain actors that I've worked with who've had to point a gun at me and I've said, I'm not having that, so we arrange it so they're such scary people. You go over to some of these young actors' houses and they'll show you their guns. It's like, 'Oh, very nice. Put it away now please.'

"The thing is, I was shot at once. I was driving down the street and something weird was going on and I spotted it. A car was slowing down, pulling over and stopped and I saw some guy running. I heard a big loud clap and I thought, 'That's a fucking gunshot'. So I went around the corner and pulled up outside this bar and I saw I had a big fucking hole in the windscreen. I don't think it was aimed at me, but it nearly got me."

The grim reality of US street violence further struck home when Tupac Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas on a break from the final stages of Gridlock'd, in which the rapper was co-starring alongside Roth.

"He was due to fly out the next morning and we were going to do some re-voicing on the film, so I was looking forward to seeing him. Then he got shot and we thought he was going to make it. But the surgery was actually too much for him. They did one major operation and he was all right and then he started to go again and that's when they lost him. So it was very bad, y'know -- an actor that you've worked with killed, murdered in the street."

So you don't have any truck with the conspiracy theory that it was all a set-up and he might actually still be alive?

"Nah," he shrugs. "If he wasn't dead he'd be shagging someone in a hotel room somewhere. He was never short of a fashion model, that's for sure."

While Tim Roth is clearly a doting father and devoted husband, it's obvious that his entire existence is wrapped up in his work and not in the distracting indulgences of Hollywood life.

"I'm a workaholic and I get very antsy when I'm not working," he states.

This antsiness -- are you a nice person to be around or not?

"Um. It's 50/50. When I know I've got something to go off and do in a little while, I'm good. But if I haven't got a job...."

Richard E. Grant tried to explain the actor's dilemma in the book of his film diaries: no matter how much success you've had, there's a black hole at the end of each project.

"Yeah. Fear of unemployment never goes away. Even if you've got money in the bank, you're an actor for various reasons and if you haven't got a fucking job it's horrible. Doesn't matter how much you get paid."

With his directorial debut in the offing and the release of Liar, in which he co-stars with Renee Zellweger as a murderous eplieptic to the Jerry Maguire star's helpless prostitute, Tim Roth's filmic CV looks set to become ever more impressive. Even if he won't bother seeing half of them.

Similarly, it would seem, he harbours a certain disregard for the reviews and magazine profiles on him.

"So you can write what you like about me," he announces, as he gets up from his chair, "because I won't read it..."

Tim Roth, then. Complex, gifted, fascinating, short arse.

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