By Steve Pond
Unusual Suspect: The offbeat British actor keeps audiences guessing in Deceiver
You half expect a sneer, a curled lip, a look of disdain, but of course Tim Roth isn't that predictable. Sure, he was the coldblooded, simpering sadist in 1995's Rob Roy, a character so indelibly evil that it netted Roth an Oscar nomination. Sure, he was the paroled con in Everyone Says I Love You who strolled through Alan Alda's smug upper-class portal, kissed little rich girl Drew Barrymore in a way you just knew her wealthy beaus had never kissed her and gave Woody Allen's parlor comedy a jolt of adrenaline. Sure, he was the petty criminal who jump-started Pulp Fiction by brandishing a pistol in a coffee shop.
But while those characters--every one vividly etched and every one a very, very bad man--may be difficult to shake, the off-duty Roth isn't nearly so thuggish or threatening. Sitting in an East Hollywood hangout, drinking coffee, he's just another pleasant, slight, transplanted Brit, smart and amiable and a little bleary from dealing with two children under the age of 2. "I'm so sick," he says, "of changing diapers."
Then he glances around the room, which is the sort of fashionable dive where you just know that the guy working on his laptop at the next table is sweating over a script he hopes to take to Sundance. Roth spots a woman working behind the bar and grins. "I didn't recognize her," he says, "with her clothes on." Quickly, he clarifies. "I did a scene with her where we were having sex. In an independent film I did."
The film is Deceiver, the latest in a string of low-budget movies in which Roth, 36, has made his name. Directed by brothers Jonas and Josh Pate, it's a psychological thriller in which Roth plays a brilliant, manipulative Southern blueblood accused of murder. "It has a really wonderful script," Roth says. "If you ever saw Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, it's kinda reminiscent of that feeling. Very dark and twisted."
Roth likes dark and twisted, and he loves independent. "Basically, I think real acting can be done [in independent films], as opposed to in the studios," he says. "Studio films are really not what I'd be good at, in the end. Because it's got a lot to do with what you look like, as opposed to what's going on in your head."
His head, apparently, is always working. "This is Tim," explains laughing Alexandre Rockwell, who directed Roth in an episode of the anthology Four Rooms. "The makeup's on, everyone's ready, you start to say 'Action,' and he raises a finger and says, 'Wouldn't it be better if the camera was over there?' And the thing is, he's right a lot of the time."
Roth has been immersed in acting since the age of 16, when he was cast in a school musical production of the Dracula legend. School was in South London, where Roth's mother was a teacher and his father an eccentric liberal journalist. Although acting wasn't a likely career for an untrained lower-middle-class teen, Roth took to it and began appearing onstage and in small films, specializing in working-class outsiders and punkish rude boys: a touch of De Niro here, a bit of Johnny Rotten there. He made his professional debut as a neo-Nazi skinhead in 1983's Made in Britain, but pursued his career halfheartedly for a few years until he decided it was time to get serious.
"I said, 'Well, fuck it,'" Roth says. "I'll just sign on the dole and call myself an actor, and then I'll have to do something about it." He eventually won high-profile roles in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Vincent and Theo, which brought him to the attention of Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in 1992's Reservoir Dogs. To Roth's surprise, he ended up staying in Hollywood. "The idea of going to America was just an absurd notion," says Roth, who moved to Los Angeles in 1990. "Even when I came here, it was really hard for me to stay, because it was like a private club that was impossible to break into."
Seven years later, Roth has managed not only to break into the club but to become one of its most respected members. (On his trip to the Academy Awards: "It was like going to Liberace's house on acid.") Even so, he is planning to leave L.A. to move to New York with his wife of four years, fashion designer Nikki Butler, and their two children, Timothy Hunter, 2, and Cormac, who has yet to turn 1. (Roth also has a 13-year-old son, Jack, from a previous relationship.) "L.A. is a better place to visit than to live," he says. "And I don't really want to bring my kids up here."
The move has been in the planning stages for some time, but steady work keeps getting in the way, including a trip to Russia to shoot The Legend of the Pianist on the Water, the new film from Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore. Still on the agenda is a stint in London, where Roth will make his directorial debut with an adaptation of Alexander Stewart's dark, incest-themed novel The War Zone. "I'm terrified," Roth admits. "I mean, as an actor, you show up and do your stuff and after about six weeks you're done. But this is a year--at least a year--and you get about 700 questions a day. And you have to have the answers, even if they're the wrong ones."
After The War Zone wraps, Roth will probably head back to the life of an indie-film actor--or, at least, mix things up like one of his heroes. "Look at Harvey Keitel," he says, thinking of a likely role model. "He does Sister Act and then Bad Lieutenant. It's a pretty good mix; one for the kids and one for the soul."