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Roth Man

With king-size talent, Tim Roth is lighting up Hollywood, writes John Milward.

When actor Tim Roth set out to discover America, he didn't bother with cars or planes. Instead, he and a friend hitched rides and hopped freight trains from Los Angeles to the Canadian border, then took a hard right to Minnesota. They got busted for trespassing in a railroad yard, and found themselves thumbing a ride from a couple of drunks who couldn't pass a roadside tavern without stopping for a few more shots.

"He had this dream of seeing America from the back of a freight train," says Nikki Butler, Roth's American girlfriend. "I told him, rent a car."

Roth, 31, has had little time to explore America in the two years since he left London. After quickly moving from fringe theater to television films like Made in Britain, in which he raised a storm playing a vicious skinhead with a nimble brain, he's been sucking on his paintbrush as Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo. He opens this month in Reservoir Dogs, a vivid character study of low-life crooks involved in a jewelry heist that goes violently awry.

Cineastes will note that both Vincent and Theo and Reservoir Dogs feature a character losing an ear. Roth isn't the one disfigured in the new film, but he does spend most of the movie bleeding to death from a bullet in the belly. He spent two-and-a-half weeks lying on the floor of a former Los Angeles mortuary made to look like barren warehouse. Knowing that you can lose three pints of blood before falling into a coma, Roth made sure in the interest of accuracy that he was doused with a bit more sticky red stuff each day.

"It was really quite disgusting," says Roth, politely lowering his voice so as not to spoil the appetite of his neighbours at a restaurant in New York's Greenwich Village. "It's early in the morning, you've just had your coffee, and you lay down on the floor as they pour out bottles of this syrupy phony blood that kind of cooks under the hot lights. By the end of the day, I had to peel myself off the floor."

Reservoir Dogs, the debut film of writer-director Quentin Tarantino, has generated a strong critical buzz due to its curious blend of brooding ultra-violence and pop-culture humour. Suffice it to say you'll never again hear Stealer's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" in quite the same way. The film, which got made largely thanks to the enthusiastic support of its top-lined star, Harvey Keitel, placed Roth within a distinguished troupe that included Lawrence Tierney, Chris Penn and Steve Buscemi.

The actors worked for a relative pittance. "The likelihood of something like Reservoir Dogs coming along with big money attached is minimal," says Roth, "because they'd use stars, and their wages would destroy the quality of the movie. When somebody gets $4 million to do a movie, that $4 million that's not up on the screen."

Reservoir Dogs was produced for around $1.2 million. "I'd love to get paid $4 million," continues Roth, "but I also want to be in good films, and feel good about what I do. Harvey calls it 'whoring' when he goes off and makes a money film." Roth refuses to talk about another new film, Backslider. "That's one that I whored for," he says, "and what's worse, I didn't even get paid that much. So I was a low-class whore."

Roth is happy to hype Bodies, Rest and Motion a dramatic romance due later this year in which he stars with Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates and Eric Stoltz. Though shot on a modest budget, its hot cast of sexy young actors is likely to give Roth his biggest shot of mainstream exposure.

Roth grew up in south London, the son of a journalist father and a painter mum. He went to art school to study sculpture, but then, as a lark, he tried out for a musical production of Dracula and won the lead. He promptly sent out applications for drama school, but by the time he was scheduled to audition he was already getting parts in pub theaters. "One night," he recalls, "I played to one person, and he was drunk." But his penchant today for pursuing offbeat roles instead of more commercial parts reflects a sensibility that owes more to experimental theater than to the West End.

"The problem," as Roth sees it, "is that British films aren't aimed at our market as much as at America. It's rare to see films that are just set in Britain -- not in mansions, but in the homes of real people. The Americans are brilliant at that -- they use their country as a backdrop for all kinds of stories. In England, we use the myth as a backdrop, to make another E.M. Forster film."

Not that Roth is smitten with the States. He was appalled at the racism he found during his road trip, and followed the recent presidential campaign with a mixture of fear and loathing. The night before our conversation, he skipped a soiree hosted by Madonna to watch one of the debates in his hotel room.

That's the kind of detail that a hipster actor might be expected to drop, of course, and Roth is not entirely without guile. Later, after Nikki Butler arrived, the photographer attempted to coax her into posing with Roth. "Stay in the real world," advised Roth, "I'll be out in a minute."

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