The Esquire Interview: Tim Roth
By Amy Raphael
In ten years as a hired Hollywood gun, he sailed close to the wind. But now he's home, with a shocking directorial debut that breaks the last movie taboo.
Margaret Thatcher wouldn't be impressed, but without her there would be no Mr. Orange and no Pumpkin. No "I love you, honey bunny." Really, it is that simple. Back in 1991, Tim Roth swapped England for the US because he had had it with the Tories. "I finally left after 11 years of Thatcher," he shrugs. "And," he adds, without smiling, "because I have a problem with the wet."
Now, after almost a decade in Hollywood, Tim Roth is thinking about coming home. "Yeah," he says softly. "They are slowly inviting me back." But nothing is that simple. "It's a fucking weird situation," he adds, sucking hard on a Marlboro Light. "Who do I hate more? Thatcher or Major or Blair?"
Tim Roth has been up all night. He is living in an apartment in central Paris with his wife and their two young sons, making a film with Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman. Normally, on his days off, he cycles across Paris with his wife Nikki and their two kids -- Timothy Hunter (after S. Thompson) and Michael Cormac -- avoiding the dog shit as much as possible.
Yesterday he had a day off, so he caught the Eurostar to London, jumped in a taxi at Waterloo and got out at Leicester Square. There, in one of the all-American cinemas he despises, he walked into a press screening of The War Zone. He has seen the film more times than he can remember, but as it is his directorial debut and as it was a new print, he wanted to watch it one more time. Yet he only stayed for one minute, deciding he didn't want to distract the audience.
Afterwards, he went to London club Soho House with some friends. Tim Roth likes a beer, but each time he sees The War Zone, he feels as though he needs a drink. Based on the controversial novel by Alexander Stuart, it is the devastating story of a family torn apart by incest. The book is shocking but superbly written; the film is harsh, terrifying and appalling, a documentary of social breakdown with beautiful photography and astonishing acting.
As Dad, Ray Winstone's portrayal of the abuser is as brutal as his wife-beating character in Nil By Mouth, and Tilda Swinton's Mum is finely understated. But it is Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe who, as the teenage kids Jessie and Tom, not only reveal themselves as two potentially great British actors, but also show that Tim Roth might just have what it takes to become a director as revered as his heroes: Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh, and Ken Loach.
The film was not easy to make -- Lara and Freddie had never acted before, and even Ray Winstone cried -- and it's certainly not easy to watch, but it is a remarkable debut for Tim Roth. It will not win him an Oscar -- it is the antithesis of theme-park Britain films such as Trainspotting and Notting Hill -- but then he has always been more interested in reality than artifice.
Tim Roth has been up all night -- he was on the 7 am Eurostar back to Paris -- and yet, at 1 pm, he's still wide awake, drinking beer and smoking. His hair is cut short, shaved probably 10 days ago, and his face is London grey; he shows no signs of living in L.A. Although it is a warm day, he wears a V-necked jumper with his white combat trousers and on the back of his chair is a black, showerproof jacket. The sleeves of his jumper are rolled-up, displaying the tattoos on his lower right arm: the names and birth dates of his three children.
He can do South London, he can do Cockney geezer -- just as he can do an American accent so impressive that American autograph-hunters are often surprised to find he's English. But really Tim Roth is well-spoken, a little actorly at times, with the occasional lapse into a South London growl or a slick L.A. drawl.
We meet in the Hotel Raphael, a few hundred yards from the Arc de Triomphe; Roth likes the stained red velvet and the serious Parisian waiters who pretend not to understand any English. He likes it so much, in fact, that after he got married in Belize in 1993, he spent his honeymoon here.
Roth thinks journalists exist to betray him; his interviews sometimes read more like interrogations. In the past, he's simply dismissed a subject with "that's private"; today he ducks out with "you don't want to know," as though he could reveal something sinister. He has little trust but much passion.
In the dusky bar of the hotel, he asks if I'd like a beer and then folds his arms and stares at me. Hard. "Who the fuck wants to talk to actors? Nobody said we had to be bright, it's not in the contract . . . Questions. Ask me questions." His stare intensifies, then he smiles; perhaps he is joking around. "We've met before, right? I remember."
Yes, I say, just before the release of Rob Roy, when he was so scruffy the doorman at The Dorchester was reluctant to let him in.
"Most journalists are in search of their own celebrity, even in fucking Kosovo. I've made it an absolute rule never to read interviews or reviews, until now. With The War Zone I can't help myself. If only to read a piece first so I can protect the cast from the arsenic of dickhead journalists."
I ignore this invective and say he couldn't have set himself a harder task for his directorial debut; the book itself was awarded the Whitbread Prize and then, following a moral outcry, the prize was withdrawn.
"I never thought of it as a hard task. A hard task would be a little light comedy. I can't do that stuff. I'm crap at it; I've tried. I had to find out if I could direct. If I couldn't, I'd have packed it in and gone back to acting. I knew on the first day that I was OK." His voice softens. "I was really scared of not being able to talk the actors through the script -- not being able to help them when they were desperate."
Tim Roth finds the film so tough to watch (Q & A sessions after screenings have proved almost impossible) that he is worried about his 15-year-old son Jack seeing it. Roth talked him through Reservoir Dogs scene by scene, but only after Jack had spent time on set, making friends with Michael Madsen and learning exactly how to do that dance.
"He can do impersonations of all the characters in Reservoir Dogs," Roth says, smiling. "But it's Nintendo. There's red syrup everywhere and guns that go 'bang!', but if you've got half a mind, you know it's toy town. The War Zone, although it's cinematic, has an element of very, very real pain and real evil. It's different from guys in black suits coughing blood and going 'fuck' a lot. So I'll really have to talk him through it . . . I've told Jack that when he's 18, after his A-levels, he can do what the fuck he wants. I think he might actually be quite a good actor, but I ain't a stage mom."
At just 16 and 17, Freddie Cunliffe and Lara Belmont aren't much older than Jack, but Roth gave both their parents scripts and waited for their approval. He doesn't know what would have happened had they not given their consent and support.
Lara was spotted wandering around Portobello Market, Notting Hill; she had never even considered acting before. "Discovering Lara was like discovering Ingrid Bergman," he says, incredulous. "When I first met her, she couldn't look anybody in the eye. I told her I was going to turn her into a hugger -- we all had to be able to give each other that physical support."
Freddie turned up for the audition with a friend, thinking it was just for extras; they had seen the ad in Time Out which read: "Award-winning producer Sarah Radclyffe is seeking new film stars, male and female, aged 16-18, for a contemporary movie to be directed by Honey Bunny's favourite Pumpkin."
Tim Roth shrugs. "He was my Kes. He was so fucking good."
A little unexpectedly, Roth cast Tilda Swinton -- because he was besotted. "God, yeah! I was in love. She's the fucking bollocks. I fancied her rotten as an actress and I wanted to fucking work with this loonpot," he says, his eyes glinting as he laughs.
He pauses, leans his head back and tips beer into his mouth. "I'm star-struck with Tilda. The same with Ray. In fact, now I'm star-struck with Freddie and Lara, to be honest. Fucking incredible."
I am curious to know how Tilda Swinton -- middle-class, old-fashioned thespian -- got along with East End boy Ray Winstone,
He grins. "Well, I was nervous about their sexual chemistry. But straight away, Ray said: 'Come here, my Maureen O'Hara, my strawberry blonde.' She went bright red and they were in love. It was fantastic."
Tim Roth stands up. "I'm gonna nip to the loo." While he is gone, I watch two elegant Frenchmen who sit at a nearby table. They are somewhere in their sixties, drinking chilled wine and smoking cigars. They both wear black suits and immaculate white shirts. When Roth returns from the bathroom, one of the men stops him and chats for a few minutes. He stands holding his hands behind his back, a young boy in front of the head teacher.
"My God," Roth says, back at our table. "My God." He sits down, and holds his hands out in front of me. They are shaking. "That man works with Jean-Luc Godard. His financier or something. He's seen the film and he really loved it. Can you imagine?" He summons a waiter. "Time for more beer."
I ask if directing The War Zone has altered things. From character actor par excellence (he is matched only by Robert Carlyle in this country) to becoming a great director.
"Robbie and I are both ugly. We have that in common. We are the strangest looking fuckers. But directing . . . It's changed my life completely," he says. "I live with everything I've acted in, good or bad, forever. But this is special. It's like working with Alan Clarke on Made in Britain, which was my first acting job -- and still, by the way, the best film I've acted in. It's amazing to find a new passion at the age of 38. It's lovely."
Directing was not without it's problems. He didn't want the cast to be self-conscious; not to the extent of Mike Leigh's ad-libbing but in an attempt to emulate something of the gritty realism of Clarke and Loach. "Ray started off at the very beginning being a character and it was crap. I couldn't work out what was going on. After two days, I said: 'Ray, I didn't hire you to be Napoleon or whoever. I hired you to be you. I know you feel you need to earn your money, but believe me, you will.'"
Roth pauses for a moment. He plays with the cigarette packet before finally tapping one out and lighting it. "I'm not bullshitting you when I say this." He looks me straight in the eyes. "Ray made me want to be an actor when I saw him in Scum, and now he's made me want to stop. He's better. I don't care if he can do a crap film; when he's good, he's fucking good. I look at myself and I'm not that impressed. I'm really not." He sucks on his cigarette, holding it between thumb and forefinger. "I'm trying to get the passion back."
I speak to Ray Winstone a few days later. He is filming but he phones on his mobile during a lunch break; he will always take time out to discuss The War Zone, such is his commitment to the film.
"All right, babe," he says amiably, even though we have never met. I ask him what Tim Roth is like to work for. "He's very special. Very clear about what he wants. People -- actors, crew -- have a kind of respect and love for him. There were times I wanted to kill him because, to be honest with you, the subject we were doing, we were taking it to the limits. But he held it together. He's from the British school of film makers who have something to say. Which I kinda like. I think he's a great film maker. Very special. And a great, great friend."
The wife-beating scene in Nil By Mouth was desperate, but there are moments in The War Zone which are wretched. "It was tougher doing some scenes in The War Zone. Which is worrying, because wife-beating and incest are both abuse. I was looked after by the girl, Lara. She's unbelievable. I've got two daughters myself and certain days were hell . . . I think there's a lot of Alan Clarke in what Tim and Gary (Oldman) do, and Ken Loach; the legacy rolls on."
I tell Ray Winstone about his acting almost making Tim Roth want to give up. "That's really kind. My head's now so big that I can't get through the door! We all lose our way with acting sometimes, but with Tim, the proof's in the pudding; we have seen what he can do. I'd love to act with him. Teach him a thing or two. Ha ha!"
People who become famous rarely do so accidentally. Tim Roth decided very early on that it was for him. Although he briefly thought of being a missionary when he was 11 or 12 -- "I sent off for the information, got the pamphlets back and decided it was a load of bollocks" -- he was always seduced by celebrity.
"I wanted it so badly. Before I even thought of being an actor, I wanted to be famous. When I was seven, I used to walk down the road pretending that I was famous. I'd perform it . . ."
How? How do celebrities walk? "I have no fucking idea! I would just perform it and hope to be discovered."
Why the obsession with fame? He laughs. "Because I couldn't get laid, for a fucking start. I was a late developer, a small guy with spots who was bullied at school. A lower middle-class kid with no money, but with a different accent from the other kids. What was I going to do? Be an actor. As soon as I called myself an actor, I got laid. Almost the following day."
As young as seven? "No! You don't want to know . . . I went to art school; they realised I was taking the piss so they told me to fuck off -- but they kept a place open for me."
He managed to make a few sculptures before he left; figurative pieces cast in bronze. He made some work he was proud of, but lost track of it -- he thinks it may have ended up in a skip somewhere. "Never mind," he says, "I spent most of my time in the pub, anyway."
Tim Roth was discovered as a result of a flat tyre. In the early Eighties, he was selling advertising over the phone to make money and spending his spare time acting at a youth theater near the Oval cricket ground in South London. On his way home from the theater, his bike got a flat and he asked someone for a pump.
I had a shaved head at the time because I'd been playing Cassio in Othello. While I was fixing the tire, someone saw me and asked if I was interested in auditioning as a skinhead for a telly film. I didn't see why not. And that's when I first met Alan Clarke. That was it: a flat tire on a really dodgy bike with no brakes."
At the end of filming Made in Britain, in which Roth was a little too convincing as the ugly Nazi skinhead Trevor, Clarke asked him what his plans were. Roth said he wanted to be a "fucking actor." Not the stage, not TV, but the big screen. He wanted to be a star. Clarke suggested he pop next door, where someone called Mike Leigh was auditioning for a film called Meantime. He turned up, and walked off with the lead role of Colin.
His luck persisted. Joe Strummer was slated for the role of Myron in The Hit, but the Clash were breaking up and so the part went to "that skinhead off the TV."
Roth did his first photo shoot to publicize The Hit. "Topless. Dyed blond hair. Very bad cas[-ual]. For Jackie or Smash Hits, page three. I was desperate to be on the cover."
He was lucky, but he knew he was up to it. "I was good at being a hooligan. I had no fucking idea really, I had never studied acting."
Where, then, did the inspiration come from? "It came from all kinds of things that you don't want to know about," he says seriously, and a little darkly.
Quentin Tarantino must have seen some of Tim Roth's darkness. Even after the critical success of the Van Gogh biopic Vincent & Theo and the film of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Roth could see no reason to stay in England, especially with the Tory reign showing no sign of wavering. In L.A. he hung around with the likes of Sean Penn, drinking beer and shooting pool, until one evening he met up with a video-store manager called Quentin Tarantino. The young geek had written a film about which he was almost uncontrollably excited. He had seen Roth as Guildenstern and wanted him.
Roth, however, refused to read for him; in his time he has also turned down Steven Spielberg, declining to read for Schindler's List. But as the evening wore on, the pair got more and more pissed, until Roth finally agreed to read for him. Tarantino wrote out the lines on a cocktail napkin.
"He didn't offer me Mr. Orange first, but two of the other characters. I wanted Mr. Orange. I was a new boy in the States and, luckily for me, Quentin was a serious risk taker. As well as being a fucking good laugh. We always have a very good time when we meet up with each other. We're good for each other." He gets up. "Gotta go for a pee." He starts to walk off, then turns round. "But we don't fucking play gold together."
After the phenomenal success of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino asked Roth to work with him again on Pulp Fiction. Roth couldn't quite believe that he was going to act with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. "I didn't really know John, but of course I was aware that the last film he'd done was Look Who's Talking Now. We were sitting in a rehearsal and he suddenly said: 'It's fucking great to be back acting. I haven't done this in a long, long time.' He was a sweetie, he really was. Flies jets, you know."
Tim is interrupted by his ringing mobile phone. He answers it, gets up and wanders around while chatting, then hangs up, sits down, pulling a cutain back as he does so, and points through the window. "You've got some sun. It's quite lovely. Now, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, Pulp Fiction. Sam was great. I'd worked with him years before on this no-budget film in New York. So, during Pulp Fiction, he'd sit in make-up and say: 'I wanna see my cheque. Right now. I've been a poor black actor for too fucking long.'"
Talking of money, I say, are you rich yet -- considering the low-budget roles which generally take your fancy?
"Rich? Yeah. Completely. Well, compared to my father . . ."
Tim Roth's father died over 10 years ago, but he still finds it tough to talk about him. He doesn't often discuss his childhood. This afternoon in the bar of the Hotel Raphael, however, Tim is more open than usual. He tells me that it is "good shit" to find him on such a good day.
I say it's luck.
"It's not," he says, earnestly. "You've met me before . . . I respond better if I'm not given the jolly Cockney bullshit. Cor blimey guv'nor, strike a light . . . I may be dim, but don't make me sound dim."
Tim's mother was a painter and teacher and his father a journalist -- a Fleet Street hack. Tim has a photo of his father with Colonel Gaddafi, in which his father is striking a pose that says 'professional boredom.'"
Tim doesn't say it, but his parents sound bohemian and liberal, at least compared to other kids' parents at Dick Sheppard Comprehensive in Dulwich. When he talks about his parents, Tim's voice is softer, more sentimental. "My parents used to paint with me or take me to galleries. Force me to take an interest. To me, the Tate Gallery was like fucking Marks & Sparks. It was a fucking nightmare, it made my feet hurt, but they pushed me, and some of it sank in."
Are you grateful for that now?
"Yeah. But you try and get me in a fucking museum. I'd rather be in a pub. I'd take my kids, though; once I'm in, I love it."
The young Tim was more taken with politics than paintings. His father was in the Communist Party and used to take Tim on demonstrations with him. "That was when it was OK to be political," he says. "Do you remember that? I used to run the Anti-Nazi League at school. Now it's, like, All Saints are cool, Robbie Williams is cool -- and the only time anyone discusses racism is when they want to get on the cover of a magazine."
He explains that no matter how disillusioned he is with New Labour and how much he misses John Smith, he could never bring himself to leave the Labour Party.
"You only have to remember Thatcher," he says. "When we were young, we used to think: 'Is she a good fuck?' This ugly fucking woman who took the milk away from the kids. 'Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher.' That's what we used to chant when we were kids." He is angry, but composed. "You've got to think about her taking a dump, about her being damp -- and was she ever? Is she really human? If so, how could she have sunk the Belgrano? Is a fucking human being someone who breaks the miners' union in that manner? She abused an entire nation."
True, but surely the US isn't any better?
"Well, in many ways I find it utterly wonderful. But frustrating as hell. It's love-hate from minute to minute. Look at Charlton Heston and his lobbying for the NRA (National Rifle Association) -- despite the Denver massacre."
When Tim Roth's father died, Labour politicians spoke at his funeral. Tim wasn't there; he was filming in Ethiopia. "I wanted to be there, but I was in the middle of hell . . . you don't want to know . . . My father never believed in God, so I felt I could cry for him over there in Ethiopia." Tim looks at the table, plays with an empty cigarette packet. When he looks up, his eyes are full of tears. "He had a rose tree planted . . . funny fucker."
He pays another visit to the bathroom and when he sits back down, he is fidgety. Without saying anything, he suddenly gathers up his cigarettes, matches, sunglasses, mobile and stands up. I assume this is the end of the interview.
"I'm gonna walk now," he says, peering out of the window at the late-afternoon Parisian sun. "You wanna walk?"
As we stand outside the hotel blinking in the sunlight, half a dozen French boys and girls appear out of nowhere. "Tiiiim! Tiiiim! Please, will you sign this? Will you have a photo with me? Please, Tiiiim." He stands patiently and signs. After a few minutes, he smiles at them and tries to walk off. They follow, almost physically trying to make him stay a little longer. He is not happy, but he continues to smile. "Thanks. Bye. Bye," he says, walking faster.
"Someone in the hotel must have tipped them off," he says, without anger. He crosses the road just in front of me and narrowly misses being hit by a white van. "I almost got run over then," he says casually. "You'd have got a great story."
We haven't walked very far before Tim says: "Want to split a beer?" We sit on the pavement outside a small bar, watching a businessman smoking a ridiculously fat cigar.
This is no longer an interview, but a lazy, rambling conversation. We talk about musicals, partly because Tim Roth was directed by Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You, but also because he turned down a part in Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners.
"I thought the film was taking the piss; a bunch of trendy cunts trying to do a long-form video. I couldn't do it, even though I love musicals and David Bowie was in it. If ever I had to shag a man, it would have to be Bowie. But before he had his teeth done; have you noticed how his mouth changed a few years ago? Fuckin' Bowie."
We sit watching women walking past with their miniature dogs.
"I used to have the worst teeth," Tim offers. "I had my fillings done, all the amalgam taken out, so if I do a period piece, you don't see a bunch of dodgy fillings. Once my American dentist had me in his surgery, though, he was desperate to bleach them. I told him: 'You're gonna have to do the nose job and everything; I'm not going to look like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt otherwise.'" He smiles. "Profile like a pickaxe, mate."
We finish our beer and Tim Roth leaves 50 francs on the table. "A ridiculously big tip, but hey! I can afford it these days."