This Gun's For Hire
From right-wing London thug to blood-spattered undercover LA cop, Tim Roth has been there and done that. Here, he talks to Neil Kulkarni about his new film, Liar.
"Uncut? I really like your magazine." Are you gonna read this piece? "Nahh, I stopped reading things about me a few years ago. Not because people were lying about me, or even because I get particularly precious about revealing too much. It's just that I'm not interested in the slightest. The press, what people I don't know think about my stuff, it's all so very far away from my own relationship with my work and what I do. Oh yeah, and I used to cry at very bad reviews. Plus, I am very boring. You can write what the fuck you like. Seriously, make the whole thing up and you can piss off down the pub as soon as you like. Honest."
Tim Roth is sitting opposite me getting cocaine blown up his ass by a transvestite through a diamante pipe as he fucks a penguin and a troupe of acrobatic dwarves piss on his face.
"See? A damn sight more interesting than anything I'm actually going to do. Go for it. Just don't mention me smoking. My son might read it."
No worries. That's a lovely basque you've got on.
Fucking liar. It's a teddy. Sheesh.
Actually, he's not boring. Rather, Tim Roth is disarmingly downbeat and unassuming, in the way that most good actors are. Time and time again during an hour with Roth in a little hotel room off Tottenham Court Road, he seems so bemused and disinterested with the interview process that your mind wanders off and focuses in on the face. That nose, those eyes, the goatee -- the oddly sexy face that's convinced you of so many things every time you've seen it since 1978. Tim Roth is the Mark E. Smith of cinema; his career is defiantly, definitely one in which the dictates of integrity have weighed far heavier than anything else, a filmography which seems to show a willfully perverse insistence on only doing films he believes in and can learn from. There's no baiting to be done here, but no wave to coast either; his constant insistence that his public persona lasts as long as the camera rolls is both admirable and makes for a bugger of an interview. Yeah, he's a lovely fella.
From his early appearance in Leigh's Meantime and Alan Clarke's masterful Made in Britain, through Frears' The Hit and Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover and onto Hollywood -- Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Gridlock'd, Rob Roy and Four Rooms -- Roth has absorbed us in a curiously unaffectionate way.
Here's a brilliant character actor who has resolutely refused to grow bigger than his roles, who spurned Reservoir Dogs' potential major-player springboard for the determinedly low-key Bodies, Rest and Motion, and who retreated from the worldwide explosion of Pulp Fiction with the bleak downbeat realism of the massively underrated Little Odessa. His continued commitment to independent film work, including his newest work, Liar, and his dedication to always test his own talent in non-typecast roles reveals a restless, quixotic urge. Where most British actors move to Hollywood with the express intention of being a star, for Roth it was an attempt to rediscover the reason he got into acting in the first place -- a spirit he found lacking in his UK contemporaries.
"In 1990, I felt completely alone in terms of cinema acting in Britain," he admits. "I would never audition. I'd say, 'Either you want me or you don't.' I was very ambitious and, to a certain degree, quite ruthless with myself. I knew that the kind of acting I wanted to do, the kind of acting that all the actors I'd ever related to did -- DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Brando -- wasn't going to be encouraged in this country at all. I saw Gary Oldman making it, so even though I knew it would be impossible for me to stay in LA's little private club or even make a Hollywood movie, I just thought, 'Sod this,' and went. As it turned out, I spawned it and stayed!"
What exactly did you feel was missing in the UK?
"Struggle, honesty, a challenge. Any attempt to talk about life in a non-prissy, non-period, non-Oxbridge way. One thing I really regret about coming to the US is the fact I never got to work with Ken Loach. That's it, though. Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke are, I think, three of the best film-makers on the planet. I think one of the greatest shames in the US is that Public Broadcasting has never had a look in. In the UK, briefly, for about 20 years, public TV gave us some of the greatest popular works of art this century. It just felt to me, in 1990, we were so deep into a despicable Tory government with no end in sight, with the BBC already being destroyed, with the whole concept of honest, truthful films being trashed in favour of a load of period flouncy bullshit, that I had to go before I gave up. England just felt defeated and decaying, and I wanted out. Basically, I have no regrets about leaving -- I just regret being forced to leave."
Surely you miss the potency that British film can possess, though? In a small country, a film crosses over into life in ways that can't happen across a continent. I remember after Made in Britain was shown on telly for the first time, kids coming into school with crew cuts ripping off your lines and wearing daft hats. I remember when every kid in my year had seen Scum on video, and kids'd walk around with a sock full of stones murmuring, "I'm daddy here now." That centrality to life, that immediate connection with its audience must be something you miss.
"Sure, but what I miss is film's ability to do that any more even in England. Trainspotting had to use drugs, glamour and a good soundtrack to do that. That's it, it's all about soundtracks now. I remember in 1984 coming out of a tube station and being chased down an alley by 12 genuine, red-faced skins, and absolutely bricking it. And, when they caught up with me, they wanted my fucking autograph and a photo of me hugging their mum! That felt weird, that felt good even, but fundamentally the UK wasn't permitting those sort of films to be made anymore, apart from with Ken Loach. And I couldn't wait around for him to cast me, I needed to keep working to stay interested."
Were you encountering prejudice from your own profession?
"Yeah, I always have. I never felt at home with any kind of luvvie crowd, and everything in my life up 'til then had taught me that class exclusions persist everywhere, no matter how rarefied and veiled they are. In fact, that's one of the major themes of Liar, and one of the things that appealed to me."
Liar, directed by twin brothers Joshua and Jonas Pate, and set in Charleston, Carolina, is a carefully crafted crime story, told in flashback from an interrogation room where sleazy socialite murder-suspect Roth is given a lie-detector test by blue-collar detectives Michael Rooker and Chris Penn. Cutting back and forth between the events leading up to the night of the crime and the tense claustrophobia of the cop-shop, the film twists to a conclusion as dark as it is cruel, a pitilessly bleak denouement Roth found particularly fascinating to play out.
"It's all about one simple fact: the upper classes will always fuck you over," he says. "Wayland, the character I play, is a Charleston blueblood, a totally different kind of American character for me. He's rich, arrogant, alcoholic, misogynous, utterly immature. He's just a bastard, a fucked-up piece of moneyed-up shit who changes every second and fucks you off for the entirety of the piece."
"Some of the scenes where I get to be so obnoxious," he chuckles, "I enjoyed them so much. I was totally getting off on it while still reassuring myself that politically it was an honest film. Cos it is. They're fuckers, and they'll always fuck you over. That's the way of the world."
Was it difficult to play someone so different from yourself?
"Well, it wasn't so much Method as basing it on certain people I've seen, and an actual use of the imagination to put yourself in that position. The elaborateness of the plot allowed that. Because what he does in the film is so horrible, is so set up to almost prove the evil status of his class, I played him like a monster, like anyone's nightmare of the most morally bereft, repellent upper-class c*** you could think of."
You've acted in, and sometimes hustled the finance for, a lot of independent movies. What appeals to you about them?
"The script is always the first thing to appeal to me, independent or not. It's just that independent movies are the only place where decent scripts like that are even allowed to get beyond the planning stage. In many respects, Liar is a horrible movie with a horrible ending. And it's that cruelty which appeals to me. When every single film you go and see seems to be almost an advert for a certain lifestyle, or perpetuating some revolting false notion that bad things only happen to bad people -- and even that a person can just be 'bad' -- it appeals to me to work with things that have a more honest moral complexity. Films for fucking grown-ups, basically."
Liar is very wordy for a crime story. There are goddamn soliloquies all over the place.
"Well, like I said, I got involved because of the script. It's unusual to find long scenes in which the characters have actual speeches. The writing appealed to me cos I've always liked stories with deception and ground-shifts. Wayland is a manipulator purely because of his wealth; he gets information and uses it, he turns the tables on the cops and confronts them, they turn the tables on him and confront him. The audience never knows who's in control, the audience never really likes anyone in the movie. They're all wretched in their own way. That's what I love about the film."
I'd say here we get to the heart of what Roth offers cinema, and perhaps the explanation for his maverick career curve. What Roth gives to film is what he misses from film; the attitudes and desire of popular Seventies cinema, pre-Star Wars. Then, it had the room and the muscle to experiment, address serious subjects in serious ways, make stars out of ugly, old, physically unique men and women. It was an incredibly fertile time when cinema could make great films cheaply and, free of the star and studio systems, create great art out of popular entertainment. When I suggest he'd have been happier back then, he nods enthusiastically.
"The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Godfather, Badlands, Last Tango in Paris, Mean Streets, The Conversation, Chinatown, Ulzana's Raid. . .God, I could go on forever. I think they were some of the greatest films ever made. Star Wars fucked it all up and fundamentally condemned the Eighties to blockbuster nothingness and the murder of intelligence, passion and progress in film. Only since sex, lies and videotape and Reservoir Dogs has some of that territory been won back. That's why I'm not really interested in big studio films and continue to do independents, because there's where that questing spirit of great Seventies cinema is still going on."
Do you believe in being a star?
"For myself, it'll never happen. I think stars got replaced by great acting which then got replaced by stars who can't act or be stars. Of course, I yearn for the time of Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, John Wayne; people absolutely larger than life but still possessed with enough presence and unspoken depth which completely convinced you. They were stars. Today's 'stars' can't act, are starting to look the same -- ie, thick as fuck -- and only get called stars according to how much bullshit surrounds them and how many zeros they can command at the end of their pay-cheques."
We talk of the great stock players of the early Seventies: Robert Shaw, Borgnine, Ryan, Strother Martin, James Coburn, Harry Dean Stanton, David Proval, Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, and the bright-eyed enthusiasm Roth talks with shows his ambition, his defiant stance, and perhaps, the lineage he would wish to belong to. He missed out on a golden age and he wants it back: in independent cinema, maybe he's found it.
"Look at Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, Minnie Driver, John Cusack, Dan Hedaya, John Turturro. Look at Larenz Tate, Ashley Judd, Sam Jackson. All these people do their best work in indie cinema, and they're the best actors out there. That's why I do so much independent work. Because I just want to keep working regardless of fame and completely regardful of the experience of movie-making, get to the end of my life and think, that was a good run. It's just a shame that we're forced underground if we want to maintain that control. But I'm happy here. There's nothing more satisfying than being part of a great movie."
Straight off, we should say that Liar is not a great movie, laboured as it is with TV movie direction and an irksome clever-clever plot that never quite gets past its own construction into anything like intrigue. What it does have is great performances. Michael Rooker (the titular star of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) is a beautifully tense body of anxiety and repression, Chris Penn is perfecting the kind of dumb brute roles once marked out by Ned Beatty or Edward G. Robinson. And Roth is, for his part, the slimiest urbane thug you'll see all year, a fantastic horror-hero amalgam of every single brand of upper-class nastiness known to man. It's the roles, rather than the movies, that Roth seems to have an eye for; the fact that he even cares about what pays his mortgage marks him out as a genuinely free acting spirit perhaps yet to do his finest work. His best performances so far have been in films that are as wound-up and faintly hostile as he is (Dogs, Little Odessa and particularly Made in Britain). That cramped thirst, that fuck-off seriousness, that willingness to be pulled, that idea of acting as art, marks him out as one in a million.
"I'm directing The War Zone," he winds up with by way of a coda and summation, "based on the novel by Alexander Stewart at the moment, and I'm learning all the time. Fundamentally, I'm terrified, because you don't just show up, get it done in six weeks and fuck off. This is a year of my life, you get questions about every two seconds and you have to have answers for every single one of them. I'm absolutely fucking terrified of going into work, and I think this might completely destroy me."
But you're learning all the time.
"Oh yeah, loving every minute. Fear keeps you moving. Especially fear of fame."
Spot on. Let's hope Roth stays out on a limb for some time yet. A cinema punk. A national treasure.
"That was great," he says, lighting up. "I love interviews."
A little liar.