He was the one good hood in Reservoir Dogs, but good-guy roles have been few and far between for Tim Roth. So being the moral centre of the movie is a nice change, he tells DONALD CLARKE
Tim Roth is being a nice guy. This is not something we’ve seen all that often. The compact British actor, now 51, is best known for playing oiks, malcontents and hoodlums. You’ll know him as the haemorrhaging Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs, the ranting, guntoting Ringo in Pulp Fiction and – his only Oscar nomination – as the odious villain in Rob Roy. It is, thus, not overstating it to suggest that he is cast against type in Rufus Norris’s impressive Broken.
The opening film of this year’s continuing Jameson Dublin International Film Festival features Roth as a worried dad coping with a young daughter distracted by violent mayhem in an English housing estate. His character, a solicitor, is the moral centre of Mark O’Rowe’s fine script.
“Yeah, I think my stuff is more twisted usually,” Roth agrees. “He is just there. It’s funny. At first, they wanted me to make my accent more middle class. I said no. He’s just there. That’s how it is if you live in London.”
Is it difficult to make a decent man interesting? There is, perhaps, more red meat in the villainous roles.
“No, not really,” he says. “But sometimes they are often in boring situations in films – unless something goes terribly wrong. I was intrigued by his sense of goodness. I loved the way he loved his kids.”
And the way he never stops worrying about them?
“Oh yeah. My oldest is 28 and I still worry about him. I’ve also got one that’s 17 and one that’s 16. You worry. Then you are amazed when they make adult decisions – more adult than me.”
The real Tim Roth comes across as a nice fellow. This has not always been the case. Previous interviewers have occasionally found him a bit prickly. But he appears to be enjoying his trip to Dublin for JDIFF. Full of good stories, he buzzes with the same classless energy that characterises the speech of his contemporary and chum Gary Oldman.
Roth admits that he is, indeed, hard to place within the stubbornly resilient British class system. “My dad was working class and my mum was middle class,” he says.
In fact, his father – who sounds like a fascinating fellow – was born in New York and emigrated with his family to England before the second World War. Originally named Smith, he changed his name to Roth in sympathy with the victims of Nazi tyranny.
“He ran away from home, joined the air force under age and became a tail gunner during the war,” he says. “He saw a lot of his friends killed. Recently, at my mum’s funeral, my sister showed me a letter from a friend of his talking about when he was shot down. What? He never told me that.”
Tim Roth had some notion of being an artist. He enrolled in Camberwell Art College, but he couldn’t quite shake the desire to act. As he tells it, while still at school, he auditioned for a play as a joke and was then “stuck with it”. He secured the odd role in plays. He moved into his a flat in south London. He tramped to auditions.
As is often the case, the big break resulted from a happy accident. He got a flat tyre somewhere near the Oval and dropped into a theatre to ask for a bicycle pump. The person behind the desk mentioned auditions for an upcoming TV film directed by the legendary Alan Clarke. His role as a racist skinhead in Made in Britain placed him on the map.
This was 1982. It was an interesting time to be an actor in England. The long slump in film production that ran through the 1970s was coming to a stuttering close. Roth joined a generation of actors – Oldman, Phil Daniels, Daniel Day-Lewis – who seemed to have some chance of forging a career without crossing the Atlantic.
I would imagine there was a great deal of friendly competition.
“There was at the time,” he says. “But there isn’t now. You will say: ‘Blimey, they are doing some good stuff.’ But I am over it. Phil Daniels, Gary and I were all in Mike Leigh’s Meantime at the time. Then suddenly things happened for us. We would always meet up. I remember Gary and I sitting in a hallway waiting for somebody and then Phil turned up. ‘Oh fuck, no. Not him again!’ We were laughing about it, though.”
Roth has had a fairly clear run since that big break. In the mid-’80s he delivered an extraordinary performance as the transformed Gregor Samsa in Steven Berkoff’s stage version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He turned up opposite Oldman in Tom Stoppard’s film of his own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Then, in 1992, Reservoir Dogs happened. It’s hard to remember a time when we hadn’t heard of Quentin Tarantino. One wonders if the cast – which also included Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi – had any inkling the film would be so special and so influential.
“Special, yes. Influential, no,” he muses. “We didn’t know that. Nobody could have known that. I remember Harvey and I drenched in blood chatting away one moment. He said: ‘I think this is fucking good.’ I said: ‘Now, don’t jinx it.’ It came about because of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Quentin loved that dialogue and sent the script over. He got me drunk and I read for him.”
Among the most resilient images in the film is that of poor Mr Roth bleeding spectacularly to death – first in a car and then on an increasingly sticky ramp. The thought still causes him to shudder somewhat
“It’s really horrible because it’s sugar. It’s syrup,” he says. “They had to shovel us off the floor at the end. And then they would hose me down so I could get out of the costume. Since then, I don’t like doing bloody movies. It makes me feel claustrophobic. I was in it for weeks.”
That performance set him up for life. In recent years, he has turned up in the TV series Lie to Me. In a few weeks, he plays a cop hounding Wall Street crook Richard Gere in the excellent Arbitrage (also playing in JDIFF). The heady days behind him, he now lives in California with his wife, Nikki Butler, and their two teenage children.
“They are Americans,” he says without sounding wistful. “ They do claim Britishness occasionally for a laugh, but my 16-year-old can be very Californian.”
Yes, indeed. You never stop worrying about them.
Broken opens March 8th. For JDIFF reviews and comment, see Arts i’n the main paper