Tim Roth has made his name playing bastards and psychos. Jessica Berens talks to an enigmatic exile about his journey from South-London schoolboy to Hollywood hard man.
It is possible that Tim Roth doesn't smile much because he has very bad teeth. They are all fighting with each other in an unfashionable melee, despite the fact their owner lives in a place where the orthodontists are open on Sundays. But unsmiling he is, here in the Good Luck Bar in Los Angeles. Unsmiling and as cold as a glass of Largactil. His back hurts and he is bent. Crabby. "Am I in it?" he grumbles when a copy of the Sun is presented for his amusement. "I'm not in it, am I?" It would seem that to be interviewed by a person from GQ is the worst thing that could possibly happen to him. As bad as the back ache probably. Best is to "get it over and done with." ASAP. He pulls out a red woolen bobble hat in which he wants to be photographed. It comes from a thrift shop and, erect upon his head, it looks ridiculous--but it turns him into the sort of magnificent loser that he has made his own. Somehow that Made in Britain skinhead will never die. He is still unsmiling, but that awful woolly hat mocks everything. Designer clothes, men's style magazines and himself. The man who always wanted to meet Samuel Beckett has seen the absurdist drama of the photo shoot. And still he does not smile. Froideur can be a fist, and those who have felt its impact might prefer to have spent the day in the boot of Mr. Blond's car.
"I've never seen him so grumpy," a member of the crew says later. "Perhaps the baby is keeping him awake. He'll be more comfortable when you get to the Dresden Room. It's dark."
Tim Roth is at his least charming (i.e. bad-mannered and offhand) when placed in an environment that is either boring or where he will be forced to submit to forces with which his instincts do not agree. "He will project the Tim Roth persona," says Jason Burrows, who ran a production company with the actor in the late Eighties, "and he will hide behind it."
"He has to trust you in order to be open," says Buddy Giovinazzo, who recently directed him in the forthcoming No Way Home. "Everyone's after him. As an actor, he needs to protect himself. He is sensitive, but I wouldn't say he's easy to hurt. He knows reality. He doesn't see the world through pretty eyes."
"Nice guy," says James Gray, who made Little Odessa, "But he's drawn to dark stuff."
The Dresden Room, south of Franklin, is indeed dark. Later it will fill with industry cats who know that moulded plastic and chandeliers are so out they are in, but at 4pm it is empty except for one very old woman wearing a raincoat and one 35-year-old actor wearing a checked shirt.
Tim Roth. Edgy, perverse, provocative--he would rather play Genet than any romantic lead; he would rather see Natural Born Killers than Forrest Gump, which he thinks is "politically insidious." He represents the spirit of the new Hollywood, the Hollywood of Kids and Film Threat magazine and Robert Rodriguez and geeky geeks who argue about the cultural validity of Mandingo.
His lips, around a Camel, are usually seen with blood frothing out between them. His nose says he could do comedy. His manner is as uncuddly as you can get without a firearms license. Asked what art he would buy, if allowed to buy anything, he relaxes: "I'd have Van Gogh's sunflowers picture that was blown up in Hiroshima, an Egon Schiele self-portrait of him masturbating and--oh yeah--about twenty Bacons."
The voice is slightly nasal. The conversation is not enervated by amusing accents but his thoughts are disciplined and his ideas have been carefully considered and processed.
"Tim is razor sharp," says Angela Pope, who directed him in Captives. "And he doesn't suffer fools gladly".
He is the father of two, Jack and Hunter. Jack, his son by former girlfriend Lori Baker, lives in London but visited the set of Reservoir Dogs when it was being filmed in Los Angeles six years ago. "He loved all the guys," says Roth. "His favourite was Michael Madsen. He would do that dance that Mike did before the ear came off."
This was a scene, lest we forget, so repulsive that it prompted Wes Craven, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, to walk out when the film was screened in Barcelona. Jack was seven. "I was worried about him watching it. I took him through a video, talking through the scenes. He gets it. Kids get it. Actually, he gets bored with most of my films. If I had done Mortal Kombat he would have been much more impressed."
Jack will go to public school in England. "I don't think you should pay for education, but they've got us over a barrel," he says. "Do I worry that he will turn into a Tory? No. If he does, we will have some really good arguments. I am not going to hold my kid prisoner to my views."
Two year old Hunter, named after Hunter S. Thompson, is his son by wife Nikki, a fashion designer whom he met at Sundance Film Festival. They married in Belize in 1993 and live in Silverlake, home of Latinos and bohos, where the atmosphere is reminiscent of East Village when Keith Haring was king. He adores his family. His wife is "phenomenal" and there is much soppy talk about the babywear department at Fred Segal.
His own father, Ernie, was an eccentric left-wing journalist who "always wanted to invent a machine that dropped Margaret Thatcher's knickers in public". His mother Anne was a teacher. He was born in Dulwich, south London. Ernie left when Roth was young but lived nearby. Anne, says Roth, was "supportive." On the one hand, he insists they were "unextraordinary", on the other, he says: "I have blanked a lot of it out."
There was no religion and Roth has no god. "I had a lot of guilt laid on me when I was growing up. The one thing I don't want to do is to inflict that on others." He distrusts the human inclination to defer to superior entities, sacral or divine. The monarchy, for instance, should be abolished: "It's ridiculous." His moral code, he feels, has evolved from the lessons learned in relationships--from betrayal, adultery, and so on.
The Roth family had no money, so Tim went to a comprehensive in Brixton. He developed an acceptable cockney accent, but the options were football or fascism, neither of which interested him. Small, bright and bullied, he was forced into social exile, and these experiences, in some respects, have affected everything he has done since.
"He has a feeling for the lower classes," says Buddy Giovinazzo. "He understands what it is to struggle."
"When I showed Little Odessa at the London Film Festival," says James Gray, "a woman came up and said she was Tim Roth's sister. I mentioned it to him. He said he had not seen her for a long time. He moved on to another topic and would not talk about her. Some people are like onions--there are layers and layers and you never find the core. He is very much that way."
"He is good as the outsider," says Angela Pope. "He understands that stream of thought like the air that you breathe."
When Roth arrived in Hollywood in 1990, he had no friends and no car. Having fallen into acting via fringe theatre, he had made his name as Trevor in the late Alan Clarke's Made In Britain and as Colin Pollock in Mike Leigh's Meantime. There had been acclaim for Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead and for Vincent And Theo, but the work had died away, he had been pressed into appearing in Backsliding, an Australian film memorable only for the sound of seats slapping as people walked out of the screening in Cannes.
"Tim always related to American actors like De Niro. He never identified with the English luvvie brigade," says Jason Burrow, who remembers the actor's frustration just before he left to go to Hollywood. "He felt there were always going to be class barriers. Plus he would never audition. He would say: 'Either you want me or you don't.' He is very ambitious and, to a certain degree, quite ruthless. He saw people like Gary Oldman taking off, so he just thought 'Sod this' and went."
He became friends with Sean Penn, learned to drive, played pool with everybody in the Hollywood Athletics Club and gradually made connections. One, taller and louder than the rest, was brandishing a script about a jewelry heist.
Quentin Tarantino and Tim Roth have much in common. Neither are commercially beautiful and both are entirely self-taught. Tarantino had worked as a runner on a Dolph Lundgren exercise video, he had worked in a video shop and he had spent eight days in L.A. county jail for unpaid parking tickets. At this point, though, he was pitching.
"He had seen Vincent And Theo and thought of me for Mr. Blond or Mr. Pink. I was the one who wanted to do Orange," says Roth. "That character is like an essay on acting. He starts off as a day player. Then he gets his big chance. Then he has to present this entire script. He is living a lie within a lie. It fascinated me."
Now that Reservoir Dogs passed the $50 million mark and the "Mr. Blond Deluxe Edition Video" offers shades, switchable comb and "dress groovier" hair gel, all the Dogs are receiving rewards for their tricks. These days, if Roth is quoted as saying he drinks Amstel Light, 12 crates are sent to him; Calvin Klein would have liked him to wear his suits but Prada bagged him for their campaign.
His face, thanks to his new film Gridlock'd, is now splayed on billboards across Hollywood. Interest in this film is high; not, the realist is forced to observe, because the film boasts any unique characteristics, but because Roth's (more) charismatic co-star, gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, was gunned down in Las Vegas last year. Roth and Shakur were not close. "We just happened to cross at that point," he has said. "But the idea of a person that I worked with being killed is just . . . I still can't get my head around it."
He and Shakur (who was a very good actor) play two junkies attempting to kick heroin. Roth, as Stretch, is a vision of lurching and chain-smoking--the character does not mark a step forward except, perhaps, towards Central Casting (the entrance marked "Shouty Yobs"). The same can be said of his forthcoming appearance as Dutch Schultz in Hoodlum, a gangster movie in which he stars alongside Andy Garcia and Lawrence Fishburne.
Last year he was nominated for (but did not win) Best Supporting Actor in the Golden Globe and Academy Awards for his portrayal of Archibald Cunningham, the remorseless villain who plagues Rob Roy. "He was disgusting," says Roth. "That's why I liked him." Cunningham's most endearing line was: "I will squeeze the pus out of you with my bare hands." His offenses, numerous and terrible, included the rape of Mrs. Roy (Jessica Lange) on a table.
"Trying to keep a straight face was the most difficult thing," says Roth of that particular day's work. "The reality is that there is a guy in the corner with a cheese sandwich and there is a guy under the table holding it to stop it moving. I think we all had our own goals. I wanted to be as foul as possible.
"I don't always play bastards," he points out. "It's just that people remember them. I'm always amused and I always find it good fun. I think of it as a playtime. I find them all fun, depressing as they can be sometimes. Actually, the more depressing they are, the more fun you have."
Lately he has been taking on comedy. The success of this decision will depend on a script more entertaining than that of Four Rooms, his last attempt--doomed from the opening section in which Amanda de Cadenet floats in a cauldron and no one has had the foresight to place her face down. Roth, as a bellhop named Ted, becomes a compilation of Adrian Edmonson's personae. It is not enough. "I don't think it was anything to do with me," he says of the film's failure. "They threw everything out of the window for pace. Those collaborations rarely work."
In Everyone Says I Love You, directed by Woody Allen, he plays an unpleasant ex-con who suddenly breaks into song for the benefit of Drew Barrymore.
Can you sing?
"I don't think it really mattered."
The subject, at last, turns to sex, about which Roth offers the unfashionable opinion that English men are proficient. "There is a wildness in the English," he says. "But it always happens behind closed doors. I find that mysterious and interesting." He, oddly, has never tried to be sexy. Quite the opposite. His creations are more than ordinarily repellent. Colin Pollock may be the icon of the perverse Nerds R Us speccy chic that is so au courant, but he is not destined to pull. "I don't look the way romantic leads are supposed to look." He shrugs. He seems not to mind.
He tends to steer towards low-budget, independent productions made by young, unknown directors who, unsurprisingly, remain eternally grateful to him. Little Odessa, directed by USC graduate James Gray, lured Vanessa Redgrave and Edward Furlong after Roth committed to it. As hit man Joshua Shapiro, Roth conveyed the cold, complicated criminality that marks his best work.
In the same way, his support allowed Buddy Giovinazzo to make No Way Home. "He put his name to it without asking for money up front," says Giovinazzo. "That is practically unheard of, and I will always love him for it."
Giovinazzo, a 38-year-old first time director from Staten Island, thinks that Roth picked on his script because it was a chance to "play a good-hearted character rather than an evil killer." On the set, when Roth made a point, he was usually right. "He is a great film actor," says Giovinazzo. "He knows when to be photographed. He knows when to be big and when to be small. There were scenes when I thought he wasn't giving me enough, and he would say, 'Trust me.' Then I would see the dailies and he would be right. He is the only actor who actually pares down dialogue, who will take out lines and do things with a look."
Roth, for his part, liked Giovinazzo because he was warm and easily moved. Sometimes, when they were filming, there would be tears in the director's eyes.
Do you get embarrassed when men cry?
"Not at all."
What about when women cry?
"You don't get embarrassed when women cry, you get helpless."
Does an actor need to understand just how people feel?
"Not really. I don't analyze it that deeply, but generally, with things like prisoners, I'm just glad it's not me. I like the stories. When we were doing Captives, there was one guy I spoke to who had escaped. He was in for drugs. They have these schemes where they are allowed out for the day, and he just didn't come back. He was out for eighteen months and started up a real estate business."
Does it matter to you whether people like you?
"If you get bad reviews it's pretty heartbreaking."
No, not as an actor. As a person.
"I don't really think about it. Not in this business. It's all hustle here. Nobody liked me when I was a teenager. I wanted to be liked but I didn't have any friends. Most of the friends I have in my life I made when I came to America six years ago."
Did Hollywood want to sleep with you because you were famous?
"I wasn't particularly famous. I'm sure that stuff happens here a lot, but I wasn't a catch--only in a very underground kind of world. When I first met my wife, she didn't have a clue who I was."
Has your heart been broken?
"A couple of times, yeah. I have broken hearts more often than I've had my own broken. I know I pissed a lot of people off because they told me. I've never been a person for timid women."
The casual observer of this unfathomable individual who has played so many popular psychotics can only wonder where the murderous oik ends and the bright boy from Dulwich begins. "I don't know why you turned out like you did," his father says in Little Odessa. This is not a question that Roth will ask himself, but it is a question that has always beset Hollywood tough guys. There are no answers. Some Hollywood tough guys mix with real tough guys, some come to believe they are tough guys, some collect Renoir.
Tim Roth's centre probably lies in the middle of all of them -- somewhere, perhaps, between John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. An encounter between these two Hollywood "hard" men encapsulates many of these anomalies. They met after the release of Lust For Life in which Douglas played Van Gogh, a character Roth would play 34 years later in Vincent And Theo. "Christ, Kirk," said Wayne. "How can you play a part like that? There's so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong characters. Not these weak queers." "We're actors," Douglas told him. "You're not John Wayne, for Chrissake. The Pentagon doesn't ring you up when we have a war."