You're So Cool
Tim Roth's famous pep talk into the mirror as Mr. Orange sets off for the heist in Reservoir Dogs could just as easily be applied to Roth himself. Now, as he celebrates ten years as one of Britain's more versatile yet consistently impressive young actors, Roth has another low-budget American cult hit on his hands with Bodies Rest And Motion. John Naughton met up with him in London last month. And The Douglas Brothers took the photos . . .
Picture the scene. It is 1984, and a rainy Saturday night in London's West End. As a puzzled queue of moviegoers looks on, a bedraggled figure with camera clenched in clammy hands clicks away, taking pictures of what appears to the naked eye to be the outside of a cinema. Who is this drenched loon? A particularly crazed Japanese tourist perhaps? No, it is, in fact, Tim Roth, aspiring thespian, snapping his name in lights (opposite John Hurt in Stephen Frears' The Hit, to be precise), keen to capture the moment for posterity.
Fast forward ten years from this touchingly moist scene. It is still raining in London, but it is now a little trickier to storyboard the life of Tim Roth. He has moved to Hollywood, but not to a house in the Hills; he's found fame and acclaim, but clearly keeps at arm's length from the studios; he's married (to American fashion designer Nikki Butler) and happy, but only sees his beloved son, Jack, during school holiday visits or when he pops back home to Blighty. And, after a decade of strutting and fretting about on stage and screen, he made the biggest leap forward of his career by just lying back in a nice suit, watching his red corpuscles seep slowly away, in Reservoir Dogs.
The one constant, it seems, in this changing decade has been his addiction to the evil weed. As Roth proffers his right hand here in the inordinately smart yet suitably discreet hotel where we meet, his left hand cautiously cups a Camel, and a snout is seldom further from his lips over the following hour. Kitted out in black biker boots, black leather trousers and jacket, and on his head, a ski hat, the most immediately striking thing about Tim Roth is his right bicep where he sports a thick armband of a tattoo of an interwoven Celtic design. Further examination of this well-punctured arm reveals the legend, "JER 1.9.84", a handy, if painful aide-memoire of his son, Jack Ernest Roth's birthday.
Drink has been taken the previous evening, but Roth still gamely motions towards the bar, where beers are promptly ordered and no money changes hands. It is a transaction which still clearly fills Roth with glee, the words "on the house" (or more accurately "on the Electric Pictures account") obviously occupying a special place in his unsullied heart. The reason for today's particular film company largesse is Roth's involvement in a little $3 million independent picture called Bodies Rest And Motion. Apart from the rather confusing title (meaning something highly symbolic about Newtonian physics and the laws of inertia), the film is a rather good, self-contained adaptation of Roger Hedden's stage play that also stars Phoebe Cates and real-life squeezes Eric Stoltz and Bridget Fonda.
Roth plays TV salesman Nick who, bored with his life in Enfield, Arizona, leaves his job and his girlfriend (Fonda), tries unsuccessfully to find his estranged parents and then returns home to discover that his recently abandoned girl has bunked up with itinerant painter/decorator and part-time philosopher Stoltz. Though it sometimes wears its existential heart on its sleeve, it's a film strong on wry smiles and observations, and Roth delivers another convincing performance, once again with an impeccable American accent. After being courted by Stoltz over a long period, Roth agreed to take the part of Nick and was then whisked along in the film's brisk five-week shooting schedule. Given free rein to develop and improvise, he "found" his character relatively easily.
"It was all in the haircut," he concludes. "And the cigarettes and the tie! That horrible fucking yuppie kind of shit."
After the emotional intensity of Reservoir Dogs, the shooting of Bodies was an altogether lighter experience.
"We laughed all fucking day," confesses Roth. "I actually made Phoebe pee herself during one take!"
Whatever ripples Bodies Rest And Motion makes, however, it is unlikely to get anywhere near the explosive depth-charge of Reservoir Dogs. It is customary, of course, to find actors reluctant to talk about former films when promoting a current one, but Roth is still almost evangelical about that now legendary colour-coded heist movie.
"I was sent the script by my agent, and there was a little Post-it saying, 'Look at Orange'. I didn't even know what that meant! So I started reading it, and Orange hardly says a word at the beginning, so I though, 'OK, it's a cameo, I'll do two scenes, and that's fine.' Then it unfolded and I couldn't see anything else."
With the worldwide receipts from Reservoir Dogs still mounting, someone somewhere must have presumably made a small fortune out of the film.
"Everyone got a little points deal and we keep getting the odd cheque through," says Roth. "But you know what, I don't give a fuck! I would have done it for nothing. Quentin knows that. It was great to play a lie within a lie within a film."
The biggest lie, of course, being Roth playing a Yank.
"Yeah, not only was I convincing the gang, but I was convincing the Americans that I was American."
It's a skill that Roth modestly attributes to the talents of his voice coach, Suzanne Celeste (the woman who actually shoots him in Reservoir Dogs, fact fans). Roth teamed up with Celeste after he dispensed with the services of his former voice coach when he discovered that she'd been responsible for altering the strident timbre of Mrs. Thatcher.
"Suzanne goes with me everywhere," he enthuses. "She's extraordinary, she makes me hear things that I wouldn't hear otherwise."
Like Gary Oldman before him, Tim Roth has discovered that being able to cut it as an American has increased his job prospects dramatically. While Sean Connery can rely on his grandee status to assure that his peripatetic accent never receives too much attention, Roth has instead had to rely on rigorous authenticity. "Before Dogs I did a thing called Jumpin' At the Boneyard," he recalls, "and people from the Bronx came up to me and said 'I love that film you did' and then they would hear me speak and say 'Where the fuck are you from?' They kind of get pissed off that they've been deceived, and then they love it."
Last year marked Tim Roth's tenth anniversary as an actor, an occasion for reviewing and taking stock. As with much of his life, however, it is difficult to trace an upward curve of linear development in Roth's acting career. Nothing so calculating. Although recent years have seen him establish a seemingly unstoppable momentum, 'twas clearly not always thus. Indeed, after two years of unemployment in Britain in the late '80s, his move to L.A. was, he claims, not to seek fame and fortune, but simply to pay the rent. In this he has certainly succeeded, although his determination to work with material he believes in has kept him will clear of any earnings superleague.
Despite consistently good reviews throughout the '80s -- from his debut as an NF bootboy in the TV play Made in Britain, through Mike Leigh's Meantime (in which he is virtually unrecognizable as Colin, the backward brother of Phil Daniels) and his role as John Hurt's sidekick in The Hit (for which he won the Evening Standard Best Newcomer award) -- it was his performance as Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo that gained him exposure to an American audience and finally made the big move to the US a realistic option.
So much for success. Despite his avowed horror of the bad and banal, Roth can still point to some stinkers in the past decade.
"I did a film called To Kill A Priest," he confesses. "I went blindly on with it. I read it and I spoke to the director, Agnieszka Holland, who I think is a really good director, and I said, 'Is this going to be an anti-Communist diatribe?' and she said, 'Absolutely not'. And it was. It was, but I'd always wanted to work with Ed Harris . . . "
The litany of low points continues. "I did a film in Ethiopia which was shit. One in Australia which I was wrong for. A couple of bad BBC things, an Agatha Christie TV film with Bette Davis which was shit. But you've got to work with Bette, haven't you! Things like that will always stand out and I encourage people to go and fucking find them too!"
Not for Tim Roth, then, the Edith Piaf regrette rien school of self-deception. Roth, it seems, regrette plenty, even if he does not seem unduly troubled by it all. So when a film doesn't work out, when does this fact become obvious to one so closely involved?
"It comes early. You know what it is? You convince yourself it's going to be good, and then you turn up and you think ,'Oh fuck'. You're trying to make it work. When you find yourself in a position where you know you're trying to make it work, you know you've lost. You're trying to cover for bad dialogue and poor direction and you know it's all over."
The move to America has brought him a higher profile and more regular work. Does he have any regrets about it?
"No, not professionally. My only regret is that I've missed the chance to work with Alan Clarke again (the late director of Made in Britain). He was the British Scorsese. He was my hero, and still is. When we did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, me and Gary were saying, 'We've got to go back and do one together with Alan.' But we blew our chance."
That man Oldman again. Ever since they both appeared in Meantime, his and Roth's careers have been intertwined. Recently Roth said that Oldman's success was good for him, suggesting that he was more than happy to wear Gary's cast-offs. Was this still the case?
"No, you can't say that anymore. He makes big, big studio films. I don't."
Not that there is any trace of bitterness in these words; nor should there be as Roth has just fulfilled another longtime ambition in working with director Nic Roeg on his adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Filming the novel was a task which proved beyond even the young Orson Welles, but with Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich playing Kurtz, Roeg has, Roth reckons, finally got it right. As well as having the Conrad classic "in the can", Roth has collaborated once more with Quentin Tarantino on the forthcoming Pulp Fiction. It sounds like it could well score another ten for drugs and gun content, and Roth is as pumped up about it as he is about Tarantino's previous project.
"It is the most insane movie ever made. It's got 36 characters and three stories that interweave in the most sick and twisted way. I think it's Quentin's way of saying goodbye to the crime genre for a while. He's got Harvey in for four days, Chris Walken's in for one day, he's got John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Rosanna Arquette, Amanda Plummer. He got them all for no money. They all did the same thing and got a back-end deal. Everyone got the same. He got Bruce Willis in to do it for nothing. Fucking hard to do! And John Travolta playing one of the most wicked characters -- he's got hair extensions and a gun."
So the Travolta revival can officially start here? "John Travolta's done some great fucking films. Saturday Night Fever was a phenomenal film. You've got to remember Travolta is a DePalma man and you want to see him in this. Of course, now I've done a film with John Travolta, I am a hero in my house!"
On a less ballistic note, Roth's reason for being over in London at the moment is to film The Prisoner. Backed by the BBC, it's billed as an explosive love story between a prisoner and a dentist. More mayhem could, however, be just around the corner.
"I'm going to work on a really fucking outrageous film called Little Odessa," he enthuses. "About the Russian-Jewish mafia, at the really low end of it. Where they're killing for dollars. Then I'm going to work with Sissy Spacek, which I've always wanted to do. She's one of my heroes, like Harvey. And they're both really low-budget first-timers."
His most recent spell of work in England, along with the news that his old pal Phil Davis is to make his directorial feature film debut, has gone some way to removing the disillusion he used to feel about the UK film industry, though Roth remains cautious about the future of film in this country.
"We cannot just have costume dramas as representative of our nation's filmmaking," he complains. "We can't do that. It's absurd. They don't actually last that long over here, but Americans fucking love them. There's got to be more."
And what of the future for British actors trying to work over here. Will Naked's David Thewlis, for instance, have to follow a similar route to Oldman and Roth?
"Depends if he's versatile or not. If he sticks to the same role, he's fucked. They'll just pocket you, throw you away at the end."
Along with the embryonic signs of revival in the British film industry, Roth takes encouragement in the rise of political activity and the return of the Anti Nazi League, a cause which he has long held dear on account of his own left-wing upbringing (Roth's father was a left-wing journalist who travelled to inhospitable places, changing his name from Smith to Roth to avoid constant labelling as a Brit).
So will these two mini-revivals in politics and film finally persuade Tim Roth to return to England?
"Hollywood's the centre of the English-speaking cinema," he sighs. "What are you going to do? I don't know if I ever want to live in England again. At the moment. I miss my family, and that's it. I live the same kind of life that I lived here. I just live it in America . . . "