Of Thugs and Thespians
By Darius James
In Hoodlum, Tim Roth plays the ultimate greedy, racist gangster; but he's anything but that in real life.
When Tim Roth enter the bar room of Dresden, a popular watering hole in the boho Los Feliz section of L.A., he's dressed in worn jeans and a funky looking T-shirt, carrying a small trash bag stuffed with God knows what. He looks like a poster child for that common L.A. tourist dis-traction: the homeless white man. If Roth hadn't gained such wide recognition for his Oscar-nominated performance as an evil Tutti-Frutti in Rob Roy and for his work in hits such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the LAPD would've locked him up for vagrancy years ago.
As Roth strolls toward my booth, he freezes in mock surprise, saying "You're eating here?!"
I look at him coolly, thinking why is it that Brits can be snotty over absolutely nothing. "How can you fuck up a hamburger in L.A.?" I retort.
Ordering a beer, he sits across from my companion and quickly leaps into a discussion with her about food. Out of nowhere he says, "I've gotta do this press bullshit," then turns to me with a big crocodile grin. I resist the impulse to go upside his head with the bottle of Amstel Light he's sucking on and set his ass straight.
"Is this for Hoodlum?" he asks, resigned.
"I haven't seen it, so I don't know what it's like."
It's a movie.
"That's what I figured. I like [director] Bill Duke a lot. He's great. And Larry [Fishburne] is terrific. But I haven't seen it yet."
Homeboy doesn't know what he's missin'. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vanessa Williams, and Roth, Hoodlum is a richly detailed period piece that mixes classic gangster film tropes with a "kill whitey" blaxploitation. Built around the legend of Bumpy Johnson--the Harlem mack and numbers kingpin who figured in Shaft and Uptown Saturday Night--the movie is also a lesson in black empowerment. It substitutes the Marxist concern for the urban underclass--characteristic of the 1930s gangster film--with Garveyite Nationalism. Fishburne is cast as the politicized Bumpy, and Roth plays his nemesis, Dutch Schultz, an I-don't-give-a-fuck-about-you-or-your-mama-so-kiss-my-honkie-ass- then-eat-shit-'n'-die greaseball in a cheap suit. And he's one funny greaseball in a cheap suit too.
When Roth met with director Duke, he said he didn't want to do the typical movie bad guy with the sinister, sandpaper whisper. "I wanted to do Dutch Schultz as a cross between James Cagney and Bugs Bunny," says Roth. He comes off more like Yosemite Sam crossed with the Tazmanian Devil.
Roth is highly entertaining, but the central conflict between him and Bumpy lacks tension at times. This is because Fishburne's character doesn't have a clear internal flaw to overcome. He's Bumpy without the bumps, and he remains too distant, too distinct from the money-hungry white boy Schultz. After all, truly classic battles require that there be a bit of the villain in the hero and vice versa.
"There really wasn't the time for that type of collaboration," Roth says. "Laurence and I didn't really [spend time together] until we got on the set....We talked about how to play the character and kind of invented stuff. But the film is not exactly true to history. I don't think Dutch and Bumpy ever met.
Born into lower-middle-class circumstances in London, Tim Roth was a "red-diaper baby," meaning his parents were socialists. His mother was once a school teacher, but now, she devotes herself to painting. His father, deceased, changed his name in the late '40s from Smith to Roth. "He was a journalist after the war," explains Roth, "and he would go to places like Tripoli where the English were very unpopular. To have the name [Roth] helped him. It's German-Jewish, I think."
Roth, 36, graduated from a working-class high school (where he was often "on the run" from classmates looking to kick his ass) and later attended art school. "There was always drawing in my family," he says. "My father could draw. My sister does it. We could all do it. I was given a place in art college but I didn't spend much time there. I had discovered acting already."
Roth isn't a big fan of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where many prominent English actors got their training. Instead he prefers what happens on the fringe of British theater in the smaller companies, such as those that perform in the pubs, where he himself first started acting. As for his film career, he favors working in low-budget movies with first-time directors. "It's one of the greatest pleasures there is for an actor," says Roth, who fondly recalls his work in Mike Leigh's Meantime, Jeff Stanzler's Jumpin' at the Boneyard, and Vondie Curtis-Hall's Gridlock'd. "It's 'us against the world.' It's a little band of players going 'Fuck you! We're going to make this film!'"
Regardless of budget size, Roth is none too eager to do any typically British "Merchant/Ivory-type stuff." "I was never interested in doing films about the problems of the upper classes," he says. "My philosophy was that the [upper classes] have got the money to deal with it. Get a shrink. You can afford it. I'm much more drawn to working-class social issues. And that is a direct result of my upbringing."
Tim Roth was a teenager in the late '70s when punk rock and conservatism were both on the rise in England. "It was the time of the Anti-Nazi Leagues and Rock Against Racism," says Roth. "It was the time of the National Front and the British National Party, which were both right wing. When I was a kid, my father would take me to demonstrations against those people, so I try not to do films that would make him turn in his grave. Even Reservoir Dogs was about working-class issues."
But your character was a cop, I say.
"I played the good guy," he grins.
"It depends on how you look at it," he says, grinning again. "Most cops are working class."
In Quentin Tarantino's Dogs (1992), Roth turned in an unforgettable performance as Mr. Orange, the undercover cop who refuses to reveal his identity to his fellow bank robbers even though he's bleeding to death. "I didn't want to rehearse the role, and I didn't think about it before we actually shot it," recalls Roth. "What you see is the first take. If I'd thought about it, prepared it, and tried rehearsing it, the stuff probably would've been boring. That it was fresh was important to me. A lot of the time I don't think about it until the day they say 'Action.' Certain stuff requires that."
How do you know what requires preparation or what doesn't?
"As I've been going along, I just figured it out," says Roth, who's had a few beers by this point. "I never went to drama school. I don't buy into that whole method acting thing of living your character. For me, it's nonsense. Sometimes you just go on gut reactions and trust the script, the director, and the people around you. Each script requires a different method....So really, what it's about is the experience of acting as opposed to anything else."
One can observe this same kind of commitment in Hoodlum. Though Roth spits out the word "nigger" with a relish that might make some uncomfortable, his role as a racist is instructive. In one scene, his character, Dutch Schultz, treats black flunky Bubb Hewlett (Clarence Williams III) with uncharacteristic benevolence, offering him leftovers from a deli sandwich. Hewlett resists at first, but Schultz browbeats him into compliance, demonstrating the underlying bigotry of liberal patronage. I ask him about the racial dynamics of the film, but while framing the question I fumble and speak aloud: I'm trying to find a context for the word "nigger."
"I'm trying to find one too," says Roth. He then laughs like Woody Woodpecker, implying there is no context.
Roth tackled more complex "racially charged" terrain in last year's Gridlock'd as Stretch, the dope-addicted pal of Tupac Shakur's Spoon. The movie is about the love that bonds two people from different backgrounds. For Roth and Tupac, it was a bond that extended off-screen as well. "Tupac was a man on the verge of becoming an adult," says Roth. "He wanted very badly to play the character in Gridlock'd. He said, 'People are going to expect me to pull out a gun, shoot it sideways, and wear my hat fuckin' backwards. But this is a chance for me to make a change.' Tupac wanted to change his life, but he was in the grip of unscrupulous people."
Though Roth himself has played his share of "unscrupulous people," off-camera he steers clear of them. "Drug dealers and pimps and murderers fascinate me to play, but I really don't want to hang with them," he says. "I wanna keep those types of people away from my kids." (Roth has three children, whose names are tattooed on his bicep.)
Tim Roth has become one of indie cinema's most bankable icons, building his career on the outcasts and underdogs he's portrayed in movies like The Hit, Little Odessa, Captives, and the ABC mini-series Murder in the Heartland. But I still wasn't convinced that the image he presented as a serious, radically engaged artist with leftist sympathies was entirely true. What bugged me was a comment he made in a recent issue of Bomb magazine about his first film, the award-winning BBC production Made in Britain (1984), in which he plays a racist skinhead. The comment: "I've always hated whenever skinheads or racists aren't portrayed right. They have the National Front in England, which is a pretty nasty organization. I went to a couple of their meetings and there were some very bright people there."
I ask Roth to explain what he meant.
"Stereotypes are too easy," he says, eyeing me with some wariness. "The insidious and cleverly disguised arms of the right are what bother me. It's very easy to portray skinheads as stupid--then they don't mean anything."
"But," he continues, "if it comes from reasoned and intelligent thought, then it's truly terrifying. The guy I played in Made in Britain was fucking intelligent. It was his intelligence that had taken him into right-wing politics. In fact, when I went to the meetings, the skinheads and storm troopers didn't scare me as much as the lawyers, the teachers--the people you wouldn't be able to see. The enemy is hard to pinpoint if they're clever about it. Look at the White House--the biggest and best-armed gang in the world."
Tim Roth's father would be pleased to know that while his son has become a hot commodity in the film industry, he's still true to the color of his diapers.