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The Day of Roth

James Cameron-Wilson reports on the career of a "low-budget monster" actor Tim Roth.

In Mike Leigh's Meantime (recently released on video) he played a pimply, bespectacled East London retard. In Robert Altman's intelligent, literate Vincent & Theo, he was an obsessed and unpredictable Vincent Van Gogh. In Quentin Tarantino's searing, brilliant Reservoir Dogs, he portrayed a dying LA cop soaked in his own blood. And in the controversial American TV movie Murder in the Heartland, he was the murderous, charismatic serial killer Charlie Starkweather.

It's hard to reconcile the same actor with all four roles, but then Tim Roth is currently the most exciting English actor bubbling under the tide of Hollywood celebrity this side of Gary Oldman. Of course, Roth has been branded Most Promising Newcomer for more years than he'd care to remember, but lately he's been getting even closer to household stardom.

However, in spite of such versatility, Roth is not readily associated with the gentility of such fellow Brits as Daniel Day-Lewis and Jeremy Irons. As he revealed last year, "Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the Jeremy Irons-Kenneth Branaugh England. And it's a fake. It's an absolute con. Merchant Ivory? Bollocks!"

Indeed, if Roth's main body of work betrays any characteristic, it's a reflection of the angry underbelly of England. So much so, that the actor has been forced to turn down roles that typecast him as "the voice of yobbo angst." More recently, he's been honing his American accent to play a number of roles that reflect, er, the underbelly of American angst. Still, that does mean avoiding Hollywood with a barge pole.

He continues: "My accountants are, like, 'Are you high? Are you crazy, turning down a million dollars?' I'm not -- I'm turning down a bad script. Acting is political, you're making a statement, you're invading people's living rooms. It's better not to invade them with rubbish."

Dubbing himself "the low-budget monster", Roth has appeared in a number of projects in the US that have caught the eye of local reviewers. Besides Reservoir Dogs and the Charlie Starkweather film, he top-billed in the (exceedingly) low-budget Jumpin' at the Boneyard, a drug drama set in the Bronx, and teamed up with Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda and Eric Stoltz in Bodies, Rest & Motion, the latter budgeted at $3 million (by Hollywood standards, that's peanuts).

The latter open this week and is a serio-comic look at the discontent of four twenty-somethings, a film enlivened by Roth's trademark intensity and sardonic humor. However, at one point he almost capsized the project by agreeing to do another film for "a lot more money", but then changed his mind just to annoy his accountants. Instead, he deferred his salary to appear in the very film he almost junked.

The move would appear to have paid off, as he's now a confirmed ally of the picture's coproducer and star, Eric Stoltz. Stoltz, who's one of the most respected actors of his generation (knocking the thespian pants off such peers as Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland), has recently finished another Stateside movie with Roth, the romantic comedy Sleep With Me. And both actors have been announced to appear in Tarantino's upcoming project Pulp Fiction, also starring Bruce Willis and John Travolta.

Interestingly, on this side of the pond Roth formed an equally faithful alliance with Gary Oldman, a star with whom he shares more than a passing comparison. Both actors were raised in South London; both made a name for themselves essaying working-class, unstable men (and made their reputation playing punks); and both have excited critics on the other side of the Atlantic with flawless American accents.

They first met 11 years ago while working on Meantime. "Here was this quiet, laid-back, long-haired geezer," recalls Roth, and "after a few weeks of top-secret isolated improvization, in storms this loony skinhead drinking a pint of milk." An on-set improvization saw Oldman hurl the milk bottle at Roth, who threw it back and put Oldman into hospital. To hear Roth tell it, Gary "was really proud of the scar he got, said it suited him really nicely."

Later, the duelling duo took the title roles in the film version of Tom Stoppard's acclaimed stage play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead -- and acted co-star Richard Dreyfuss off the screen. Today, Roth is proud of his mate's success, but points out that he, Roth, made the cover of Sight and Sound first. And, he philosophizes, "I like Gary being up there. The more parts he turns down, the more are likely to come my way."

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