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Roth 'N' Roll

After stealing his scenes in Rob Roy, Tim Roth has emerged as an offbeat, jack-the-lad sex symbol. Cathy Horyn profiles the 34-year-old Englishman who sucked Julia Ormond's fingers in Captives, had his hair combed by Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs, and bellhops through next month's hilarious Four Rooms, the much-anticipated collaboration of four hypercool Hollywood directors.

Tim Roth has glorious lips. At the moment they're nursing a bottle of Amstel, sucking away another murky Los Angeles afternoon in a piano bar off Sunset. The temperature is down in the clammy zone, where bare flesh begins to bond with Naugahyde, and from where Roth sits, with his Zippo lighter and half-smoked pack of Marlboro Lights, he can observe the neurotic rituals of his fellow man.

"Actually," says Roth, lighting up, "this is busy. Normally there's just three old guys in here watching O.J. on TV." He grins, and though his eyes make him look innocent--all soft and yearning--something about the way his upper lip curls around the smoke tells you that Tim Roth is anything but.

Much of the attitude that Roth exudes on-screen has to do with the fact that he seems to be exactly the sort of guy you could commune with in a bar. Sweet and funny, he knows the barmaids by name. But when he enters the place, springing on the balls of his feet like a prizefighter, ass twitching, he appears to assume that nobody will recognize him as anything other than plain old Tim, in for a tipple. This, of course, is not the case. At least not since his lavender performance in Rob Roy. As the monstrous Archibald Cunningham, the 34-year-old Englishman all but sashayed off with the film. And now Roth has emerged as a kind of improbable postmodern sex symbol--a boyish, semi-adorable putz who specializes in toying with people's minds. This is particularly apparent in Captives, a film that Roth recently made with British director Angela Pope. The plot turns on the love affair between a convict and a dentist, played with terrific anxiety by Julia Ormond. Strange as this scenario sounds--illicit lovers swept away against a backdrop of oral hygiene--it is even more mind-boggling when you consider that for a large part of the movie Roth is coaxing Ormond into submission simply by gazing into her eyes or, in one delicious scene, by sucking on the end of her latex-sheathed finger.

Among his fellow actors there is no shortage of praise for Roth. Jessica Lange, who stole every scene in Rob Roy that he hadn't nailed down, thinks Archie would have been far less believable if Roth had not embedded in him a sympathetic core of tenderness. "He's such a visceral actor," says Lange. "He's like raw nerves. And this is what I think makes him great. There's something so absolutely truthful about what he does."

"In my opinion, Tim could do anything," declares Lawrence Bender, who produced Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction -- both of which featured Roth -- as well as the film that will almost certainly be the actor's crucible, the much-anticipated Four Rooms. Due out this fall, Four Rooms is a sort of confab of hip Hollywood. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez, and Alexandre Rockwell, it stars, among others, Madonna, Bruce Willis, Marisa Tomei, Ione Skye, Lili Taylor, and Antonio Banderas. Roth plays an English bellhop named Ted who services all these people, in one way or another, in four rooms of a fashionably shabby hotel in Los Angeles. The film is hilarious. And Roth is so magic that he is bound to be compared to a young Jerry Lewis. "It was really a shock to see that Tim could go that far," admits Anders, who directed the sequence in which a coven of witches needs a fresh supply of sperm and turns to Ted.

When Miramax screened Four Rooms in May to a test group of college students, the filmmakers concluded almost immediately that no further research was necessary. "I was sitting next to Harvey Weinstein, Bender recalls, referring to the Miramax co-chairman, "and I don't think he's ever been to a test screening where the audience's reaction was so decisive. Those kids just loved Tim's performance."

Roth and I are sitting at the bar of a restaurant in Hollywood, poking through a pair of salads as we discuss the recondite sex appeal of Harvey Keitel's love handles.

"I don't think I could have done it," says Roth, munching thoughtfully. "Get naked like he has done."

Shifting our subject slightly, I point out that not many actors can say they've had their hair combed by Harvey Keitel, as Roth did in Reservoir Dogs. I ask him if this was an improvised bit of grooming for the dying Mr. Orange. Roth shrugs at the memory of his freshly combed character's demise. "I don't know if it was in the script. It may have been a Harvey thing. I just kind of went with it."

"Still," I suggest, goading him a little, "it must have been nice."

"Well," says Roth, wiping his mouth, "as far as I'm concerned, Harvey could have done anything to me right then and there. He's the man for me. I think he's one of the best actors in the world."

You have to understand something about Roth: He loves acting, the craft and the life. He loves the jokes, and the sets, and those of his fellow actors who practice the craft and live the life--the men who are gods to the audience and to those who have seen their raw talent and power at a closer range. At one point, Roth asks if I know why Bruce Willis refused star billing in Nobody's Fool. "Because he wanted to be near Paul Newman," says Roth. "That's the man. It was all about being with Paul Newman. I loved him for that. Bruce is just so rich. And he has great cars." Roth then tells me about the time Willis pulled up in this gorgeous Shelby Mustang and handed a gob-smacked Roth the keys. "He said, 'Go take it for a drive.' I said, 'I'm not fuckin' touching it." So he took me and my friend Pauly to the 7-Eleven for a pack of cigarettes. We blew out of the parking lot, and the front end lifted off the ground." Roth smiles appreciatively. "He's a boy, Bruce."

Curiously, the words most often used by Roth's colleagues to describe him are "kind" and "decent." "His friends are not in the movie industry," insists his longtime American agent, Ilene Feldman. "They're not yes-people. They're on equal ground with him." This is not such a paradox. Roth lives up in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, Nikki, a fashion designer whom he met four years ago at the Sundance Film Festival (she was skiing; he was screening), and their newborn son, Hunter. Rob Roy, he says, "was my first real paycheck." His origins are humble, too--lower-middle-class London, all the way. His father was a Fleet Street journalist who later took up freelance writing, and his mother taught school but is now a painter. Of his father, he says, "he looked like Spencer Tracy. Very handsome and he could be very witty. A Socialist. We were always going to demonstrations when we were kids."

Perhaps as a measure of how little (or much) his life has changed since then, Roth tells me a story of the time his sister came to visit a few years ago. She slept on the couch, and one morning she woke up to find Liam Neeson standing in the doorway with two bottles of wine in his arms. "I had forgotten I told Liam to come over for a drink," explains Roth.

Bruce, Liam: you have to wonder. Roth makes it sound so ordinary, these star drop-ins. But he hasn't gotten too blase to smile with pleasure at the telling of his tales. One of his first acquaintances when he came to Los Angeles in 1990 was Sean Penn, who had phoned Roth some months before to tell him how much he liked Vincent and Theo (the Robert Altman film in which the actor gave one of his first major performances). Penn suggested that Roth give him a ring if he ever got to town. By the time our hero actually arrived Stateside, he had appeared in a number of widely touted films in England, including Stephen Frears' The Hit and Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, in which he played a nazi skinhead. And he had had a relationship with a London woman, a partnership that produced a son, Jack, now 11. But when Roth got to L.A., he did phone up Penn. He says that at the time he really hadn't planned to stay in California. "Then I thought, why not?"

He says his friendship with Penn has produced amazing insights--at least on his side. For one thing, he found out that someone whom he had once considered a "hero" was also generous enough to be a friend, to take him around to parties and introduce him to people in the industry. The second insight? Roth found out he hated the Hollywood social scene. "We went to this one party," recalls Roth, "and everybody was there. Sean introduced me to people, but I felt so out of place. I think I ended up in a corner munching a sandwich."

He looks around the bar and shrugs. "I always feel so wretched at those things."

Maybe it's the hour, but this sounds a wee bit disingenuous, and I suggest that perhaps people are now talking about him with the same awe.

"No, they're not," he snorts. "Most of the time they're talking about real estate."

Lawrence says that Roth was not the first choice to play Ted the bellhop. Steve Buscemi was, but for one reason or another he couldn't do it. "We were all sitting around one night--Quentin, Allison, Alex, and Robert--going through actors," recalls Bender. "We came up with a lot of interesting choices, but as soon as Tim's name came up, we all said 'That's a fucking great idea." It was completely unanimous."

Roth seems to have figured out the dynamics of working for four directors simultaneously. "Allison is very, very mellow," he says. "She has a real hard edge, but it has a completely different texture. Alex Rockwell is all psychological--he should be seeing a shrink constantly. Robert, I don't know. He was so fast. We were doing 58 setups a day. It was mad....and Quentin, I know the way he is. He has this incredible enthusiasm. His was the last section, so it was like going home again."

And Madonna? "A breeze," sings Roth. "An absolute breeze. We just kind of got in each other's face and had fun."

There is no doubt that Roth is now at a very different place in his career than he was just a year ago. Having overcome enormous fears about his ability to play the fey Archie, he proved himself--and to MGM/UA--that he could rise to almost unbearable heights of wickedness, and still be human. His decision to play a remorseless Russian hit man in James Gray's obscure drama, Little Odessa, was no less risky. And, of course, there is Ted. A complete send-up. Totally strange. Brilliant.

So I ask Roth if all this doesn't provide him with an excellent springboard.

He looks at me, puzzled. "A springboard to what?" It is so like Roth to proceed on his instincts and then be blessed with roles that invariably reveal yet another aspect of his talent. Next month he'll go to work with Woody Allen, appearing with Julia Roberts in a film whose title and plot remain, par for Allen, closely guarded. For now, though, he is working on a low-budget drama on Staten Island called Gasoline Alley. It is telling that Roth's first choice after Rob Roy was not with a studio, as one might have expected, but with an independent filmmaker named Buddy Giovinazzo. The film, co-starring Peter Greene (who played the sodomist in Pulp Fiction), is about the relationship between two brothers after one (Roth) gets out of prison. Although Roth was offered "a large amount of money" by a studio to star in a thriller, his agent says, he turned it down because he wasn't passionate enough about the character. "I really respect him for that," says Feldman. "He doesn't want to sell out."

But then, Roth has never been predictable. For years he has refused to do auditions, which is not an uncommon inhibition among actors. In Roth's case, however, the list of directors he's turned down is pretty impressive. He wouldn't read for Steven Spielberg when Spielberg was casting Schindler's List, and he almost didn't read for Tarantino. But, says Roth, "the two of us got so drunk, I said, "Ah, fuck, I'll read for you.'" Tarantino wrote out the lines on a cocktail napkin.

Jessica Lange says that one of the reasons she wanted to work with Roth was that "he is still so unknown as an actor." One suspects that Roth would like to preserve the mystery of his aura for a little while longer. Because, after all, isn't that the point?

Roth gets up to leave. He's supposed to meet Peter Greene at his house at four P.M. He starts to smile.

"I first met Peter in a bar. He said, 'I want to work with you.' And I said, 'Oh, O.K.'" Roth's voice drops to a low whisper. "He said, 'Yeah, I'll kick your ass.'"

Roth shakes his head.

The putz.

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