I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When I was asked to interview my friend and fellow “dog” Tim Roth, I was glad to have the opportunity to catch up with him over a few beers. It’s something we used to do often when we worked together a few years ago, but living on opposite coasts we hardly ever get the chance. I was also excited to finally have access to his earliest films which were made on his home turf in England and are extremely difficult to obtain here. To truly appreciate the versatility of his enormous talents I strongly recommend seeking out, however hard it might be, Allen Clarke’s Made In Britain and Meantime by Mike Leigh. Throw in Stephen Frear’s The Hit, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo and you have an impressive array of strong performances in a number of eclectic films made before he bloodied a warehouse floor as Mr. Orange (in Reservoir Dogs) and proceeded to take the States by storm in a slew of risk-taking films. If there’s one actor I sometimes feel a tinge of jealousy over, it’s Tim. In my paranoid mind I envision the casting director saying, “Yeah Buscemi’s okay, but what about Roth?” I sometimes give him shit about all the Brit actors who have invaded our turf, but the truth is, I respect his talent and dedication to his craft. Since he’ll soon be making his home in New York, I guess I’ll have to accept that this town is big enough for both of us. And of course there’s no shortage of beer, even with us both at the bar.
Steve Buscemi You just got back from Sundance?
Tim Roth Yeah. I have a film called Gridlock’d that premiered there. It reminded me of Reservoir Dogs: first time director shitting himself but loving it all. We were standing in the lobby of the Egyptian Theater, smoking where we’re not supposed to be and acting terrified. It was a lovely experience, wonderful, actually.
SB I’m seeing ads for it, your picture on the side of a bus. How does that feel?
TR Well I saw the ads for Gridlock’d the first time the other day, driving down the street. It was very strange. Considering it’s a fairly low budget film. A lot of it has to do with the fact that Tupac’s record company got involved with the marketing. It’s a very odd, very funny film.
SB You’ve worked a lot, but in the past you were able to enjoy a certain amount of anonymity …
TR Yeah, that’s gone. It went a little bit with Reservoir Dogs, a little bit more with Pulp Fiction, but it really went with Rob Roy. Once you get nominated for an Oscar you’re fucked. It’s a lot harder. You walk into the same places you’ve been going to forever and it’s all changed.
SB I was sitting in a diner the other day with my son, just a little diner that he loves, and this guy came up and sat in our booth totally uninvited. He started talking to me, ignoring my son. It’s tough, because I didn’t want to be rude, but the guy wouldn’t leave. Finally I had to say, “I’m sorry, but can you go away?”
TR You don’t want to be rude, but they’re being really rude.
SB The last time we were here in this place was right before the Academy Awards with Quentin [Tarantino] and Alex [Rockwell]. You remember? Quentin was telling you if you lose you have to say “Oh, fuck” into the camera. (laughter) I’ve read that you thought your acting was pretty big and over the top during the Rob Roy shoot, but even that wasn’t enough for the director, Michael Caton-Jones.
TR I really thought I was going to get fired. I thought that they would get the dailies back in America—it was a proper studio film—they would say, “Get this fucking guy out of there!” But it was what Michael wanted. It was a real case of the director saying, “You’ve got to trust me on this one.” He was right and I was wrong.
SB Were you going to dailies then?
SB You don’t like to go to dailies. But I remember you fought for my right to go on Reservoir Dogs.
TR Big argument, too. It’s an actor’s right to use them, I know some actors thrive on it.
SB I like to go because it’s fun, and I also find it really useful. Some directors are concerned that actors might change their performance, and they want to have the freedom to talk about the actors when they’re not there. But if an actor wants to alter his performance based on the dailies, he should discuss it with the director.
TR It scares me, because I start seeing things maybe I like or don’t like.
SB Did you go on the Robert Altman film, Vincent and Theo? I know he really likes the actors to.
TR No, I didn’t. I would sit and wait for everyone else to come out, and then say, “So, what was it like? Was it good? Was it good?” The only time I saw dailies was with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, because of the language. I wanted to make sure the timing was right on the comedy acts.
SB Did you choose to go as big as you did in Four Rooms because you had just done that in Rob Roy?
TR No. The choice to go big in Four Rooms came not during rehearsal or any preproduction process. The first time we shot, there was a moment where lone Skye appears in the distance and then, suddenly, appears right in front of me, and I chose to do a thing which I did when I was a lot younger and first saw Jaws. When a human head floats across the hole in the bottom of the boat, I literally, and I was sitting quite normally, leapt into a fetal position. It scared me that much, so I decided to use that. And, once I’d used that I had no where to go but …
SB That dictated you.
TR Yeah, it was really on the spur of the moment that that happened. It’s that comedy thing—you’ve done comedy—comedy performance is the most dangerous thing in the world. After the fact, you’re in the hands of the editor and the director, and their timing is very different from yours. As much as you may get your timing right or wrong, it’s really the editor and the director who pull the scenes together.
SB Your character, Ted the bellboy, is in the whole film. How did that work in Four Rooms, having four different directors [Allison Anders, Robert Rodriguez, Alexandre Rockwell and Quentin Tarantino]? Did the four of them discuss that character with you, or did they leave it up to you?
TR No, they saw the dailies, and then took that character into their rooms. They did their own work to a certain extent. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Each section had its own tone, and I think what the financers really wanted was the one that worked best in the test screenings. They wanted them all to be the same. It was basically a little experimental film that should have remained as that, but they put the full weight of Disney behind it. I saw an uncut version of it which was a lot better than the final cut, but it just plain didn’t work. Interestingly enough I get so many people who come up to me and say, “Oh, I loved you in Four Rooms.” On the one hand, I think the experience of making it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, but my experience watching it is one of the most painful.
SB Well, I think the hype surrounding that film actually hurt it.
TR For me, it did one real service, apart from working with directors I really love, it gave me a kind of armor against the press. Ever since then, I don’t bother to look at bad reviews because who needs it? Even if the critics slaughter it, I know that there is still an audience for a film and that’s great ammunition to have as an actor. But it was a very weird experience—I would definitely want to work with the directors again. The time, the experience of making the film, that’s another part of what I’ve learned. If you really, really enjoy that …
SB It doesn’t matter how well the film does.
TR You really have to bear that in mind because you’re an actor after all, you’re not a movie star.
SB A question I get asked a lot is, when am I going to do a romantic lead?
TR I’ve done it once.
TR Actually, yeah. We don’t usually get offered them because of the way we look. I mean, we’re not Brad Pitt.
SB I was offered his part in Legends of the Fall, you know, but I turned it down.
TR I did one in England, where I played opposite Julia Ormond. It would have to be in England, they cast people like us over there.
SB I was going to bring that up: Angela Pope’s film Captives. You play a convict. You’re in prison, and she plays a dentist who falls for you. She’s on the rebound from her husband and you’re this mysterious guy. You two have a wild love scene. We should explain that your character is let out once a week to go to college. You meet her in a pub and both of you go into the bathroom. It’s a really hot scene.
TR Slightly disturbing. You know, it’s kind of horrible to watch yourself being in love with somebody. Definitely don’t go to those dailies—unless you’re one of those horrible people who look in the mirror while they’re fucking.
SB Is that bad? (laughter)
TR Well, in this case I was watching myself being in love and goo-goo over this woman, and I watched it and I was like, “Oh my God.” I’d never had to put that kind of experience on film. In a sense I would love to play those roles again because they’re a new type of exploration as an actor. But physically, the way I look, it doesn’t occur.
SB Well, my romantic lead was Living in Oblivion, because I got to kiss Catherine Keener. Even though it was a dream sequence, I still count it as a love scene.
TR I had a little bit of a sex scene in Little Odessa. But it was so weird that it can’t really be counted.
SB Now for Little Odessa, how much research did you do about the Russian mob in Brooklyn?
TR Absolutely nothing whatsoever.
SB So you got everything you needed from the script?
TR From the script and from James Gray. It was really a film about a family, a family where the devil has gotten into their house. I love that film, it’s one of the films I’m proudest of.
SB Very dark.
TR Very disturbing. Horrible, horrible, film. I like that.
SB Now, in the Bill Duke film Hoodlum you play Dutch Schultz. On the one hand you were playing a real character, and also there’s the knowledge that two other actors have played him. Had you seen Dustin Hoffman in Billy Bathgate, or James Remar in The Cotton Club? What does that do to your head?
TR I had seen Billy Bathgate a long time ago, when it first came out. But my main inspirations for the character were Bugs Bunny, Edward G. Robinson, Bogart and Cagney. You know, go for it, let it rip and be big about it. I didn’t want to do the whispering bad guy thing that everyone does nowadays, it’s boring.
SB Did you do any reading on that period? There’re some really good books.
TR The William Burroughs screenplay was the most interesting. I read that and Requiem of a Dutchman, and that was it really. I just read from the script. Historically, it’s pretty inaccurate, but it doesn’t really matter. We were making a film, and it was about an aspect of the mob scene back in the thirties that I didn’t know anything about. I had no idea about the black gangsters in Harlem at that time. It’s a historical character, but in the end it’s a Hollywood movie. And I just went full and big. That was my goal.
SB What are you working on now in South Carolina?
TR I’m going to do a film called Animals, which is by a first time director, Michael D. Giacomo. John Turturro’s in it, Martin Landau, Mickey Rooney. It’s got all of these weird characters, it’s gonna be good.
SB Let’s talk about your directing. Where’d the script come from?
TR It’s an English novel called The War Zone by Alexander Stewart. It’s about a fourteen-year-old boy whose life was destroyed by the discovery of incest within his family. It’s very graphic, but it’s quite beautiful. It broke my heart when I read it.
SB When I was directing, I was kicking myself in the ass for all the times I’ve been on film sets and not really paid attention to the technical side.
TR Well I always did, because I thought if I wasn’t an actor, I really wouldn’t want to be a director, I’d love to be a DP. In fact, I acted recently in a film called Liar. It was really low budget, but I met the DP Bill Butler who shot Deliverance, George, Cuckoo’s Nest, an incredible guy. And the stuff that he was pulling off for no money whatsoever was fantastic. So I sat with him and watched.
SB Have you been watching other films for ideas?
TR Films like My Life as a Dog, which is one of my favorite films, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve been doing my homework. I’ve got a ton of films that just deal with children—from Russia, China, Germany, all over the world. Just looking at how directors deal with children.
SB What directors have you been influenced by?
TR Truffaut, Bergman, Tarkovsky. You probably couldn’t do anything without that guy. Early Coppola, Kubrick. Jim Jarmusch I love. Wim Wenders. There’re plenty out there.
SB You also mentioned the Hollywood movies of the ’70s …
TR They were probably some of the best films ever made. So, how’s your son? Does he still look like an angel?
SB No, he’s got straight hair now. He’s trying to grow it long so he can be a rock n’ roller. How old is your son, Jack?
TR Twelve. I’m getting to the stage with him where I’m not cool anymore: “You don’t really know what’s going on dad.” Especially in the music scene. For example, I didn’t know who Tupac Shakur was and he did. So basically I’m just not very cool.
SB It’s great when your kids can educate you. I saw Allen Clarke’s Made in Britain, where you play a 16-year-old skinhead. It’s an amazing film.
TR At the time I had absolutely no experience in film whatsoever, so he would rehearse scenes lock, stock, and barrel really thoroughly. There was absolutely no star system within the cast at all. Everybody was equally important, which was great. We had only three weeks to rehearse it in a little church hall in England, and then we shot it. Chris Menges shot most of it on steadycam.
SB So it was steadycam, because all those great shots with the camera starting on the third floor and then following you down from room to room.
TR Yeah, it was all steadycam, and so I thought all films were like that. After working with him and Mike Leigh, I couldn’t understand why they just didn’t get the steadycam out. I had no idea that there were different styles. That was the first time, that was losing my virginity. What was yours?
SB A film called The Way It Is with Eric Mitchell where there was no script, shot in black and white, and no sound. We dubbed the sound in later. So I thought, this is how they do it, it’s normal. The character that you played in Made in Britain—Trevor was so disturbing because he was so intelligent.
TR That was the intention. I went to school with guys like Trevor. 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.
SB There just seemed to be no way to get through to Trevor, to change his way of thinking. As much as you can disagree with his politics and the way he sees the world, there was something you had to admire about his conviction.
TR He was determined. I think in the back of his mind he thought prison would be a good idea for him.
SB At the end, when he could have escaped, he goes to the social worker and tells him everything. And he never talked about his home life, but there’s the scene of you passing a model family in the store window, and the look on your face told everything.
TR That is the difference in our styles. With European film it’s not as necessary to give the details, the background, as it is with Hollywood films. Adults can fill in the blanks.
SB Your character takes everything in, lets everybody have their say, and you think maybe they’re slowly getting to him, but then he says, “You guys are the assholes, because you buy the system. I don’t.”
TR Yeah, A-B-C-D. He absorbs information so he can spit it back at them. He’s a very intelligent guy.
SB Do you ever think about your characters, like Trevor? I mean, you did that film 12 years ago?
SB What would Trevor be doing now?
TR He’d probably be dead. The ones I went to school with are either dead or in prison. The one I loosely based the character on became a drug dealer. He was very violent. I think he’s probably in prison back at home. I mean, he did kill somebody.
SB So then after Made in Britain you did the Mike Leigh film Meantime. What’s interesting is that he cast you in a role that was 180 degrees opposite of what you played in Made in Britain.
TR When Mike hires you there is no character. The characters emerge from a series of discussions. It’s all improvised. In fact, there were a few circumstances that happened on set that changed the entire story. I think one of the guys came out and started having trouble on the set, another one had a nervous breakdown, so the story veered off into another direction.
SB What’s interesting about your character, Colin, in Meantime is that you can tell, like Trevor, that he has a lot of anger in him, but it is all turned inward. And so he’s just a basket case most of the time.
SB I didn’t know which character was sadder, Trevor or Colin.
TR Colin was based on somebody I went to school with. He was very, very poor and his father died. He was living with his mother and they didn’t have any hot water, it was really awful. And he was bullied, mercilessly, beaten up everyday. By teachers and by kids, and he became the basis for that character.
SB And the actor who plays your brother?
TR Phil Daniels. He plays the lead in Quadrophenia. He’s one of my heroes. Phil also did an Allen Clark movie called Scum, which was about abuse in a juvenile prison. It was produced by the BBC, and then they banned it. Watching Scum and Taxi Driver is what made me want to be an actor.
SB And had you known Gary Oldman before that, who is also in the film? Or Alfred Molina?
TR No. I didn’t know any of them. I was so new.
SB When you were doing these films, were you also doing theater?
TR Yeah, I’d do plays above pubs.
SB Above pubs?
TR Yeah, pub theaters. There’s a whole tradition of it in England, where pubs will have a twenty seat theater upstairs, or in the back. Some of them are really well-respected. You’d do a play and earn a bit of money. Theater was what kept me going, it kept me acting.
SB The first thing I saw you in was Steve Frears’s The Hit. Another great role.
TR A brilliant role. At first Joe Strummer was going to play that part and he couldn’t do it, so I got it.
SB Were you feeling more confident as an actor by then? I mean, you seemed pretty confident.
TR I never had a problem with that. My problem was that I always felt that as soon as it was over, it was over forever. I still have a bit of that. If I’m not working, I go nuts. I never feel secure about it until the first day of filming and I can say, “Okay, it’s actually happening.”
SB Do you go through a little depression or withdrawal when you end a film? This happens to me. The film cast and crew become your family, and when that’s taken away …
TR I still do. And then after a while, you bump into somebody whom you’ve had this extraordinarily intense relationship with, and you have nothing in common. It’s very strange, especially if it’s been a great experience.
SB What were rehearsals like with Frears?
TR We didn’t do anything. We just showed up. My character was basically a football hooligan who got paid with a small amount of money and a gun which he didn’t know how to use. And he couldn’t drive particularly well. Frears let me go with it, let me run. He’s a funny guy. I like working with him.
SB So how did you raise the money to finance your film? Probably was the biggest acting job of your life.
TR God, I was good in that. I got yes’s from everybody.
TR Yeah, but it really is a performance. I get off a plane in England right, and I have a meeting with the head of drama at the BBC, Channel Four who did Trainspotting, and then two other companies. I have to sit and try and sell them on the idea of doing a film about incest. A very uncommercial film, it has no hip qualities about it whatsoever. A film I will not be in, but I want to have casting approval. When you’re an actor, you turn up, hit your marks and you go. But directing … I’m asking them to write a big, fat check. It probably counts as one of the strangest experiences of my life. When you become a director, you have to become a grown-up. I sit with my DP on the phone because I have to know what I want. I can describe shots to him that I need, and he will tell me what that will require, and I have to think about if it’s in the budget. I worked with Alexander Stewart on the screenplay, I structured it with him and let him run. An extraordinary feat. The lead character is a 14-year-old boy who discovers that there’s incest in his family between his father and his sister. The film is mostly about how your sanity is breached. It happened to him at probably his most vulnerable time as a young adult.
SB You talked about how his perception of reality keeps changing. Will you do anything with that in the way you shoot it?
TR Yeah. When something disastrous happens, even ordinary objects seem changed, those were always my nightmares. So I’m going to do a lot of that with the set designer, move already established objects around, and change the texture of surfaces, and the lighting. Start bringing the walls in, give them less space, play with things like Eli Kazan did in Streetcar Named Desire.
SB Well you’ll have a lot to be responsible for, and you’ll be working with a 14-year-old who may or may not have acting experience.
TR Yeah, and because it’s very graphic, and people don’t behave in the way that we expect them to behave, I have to find a young adult who understands this film’s around forever. I don’t want to become an abuser of the child who’s acting in the film. And his parents will have to be very aware of the story. It’s highly graphic, and it could fuck somebody up by just being in it.
SB Did you see Bastard Out of Carolina?
TR No, I read the book, but I haven’t seen the film.
SB It deals with child abuse that’s very graphic, and almost seems too much to put a young kid through that.
TR There are certain things you can do to protect the child.
SB I imagine Anjelica Huston did.
TR I know for a fact that she did, because I worked with a couple of people who were on that film. But you have to be careful as a filmmaker not to be an abuser. However, I have to be aware that probably three out of ten parents abuse their kids. So if I have an audience of 100 people, 30 of those people are going to be abusers. I may aim my film at that audience. You see consequences, it’s not gratuitous. You see how this boy is destroyed by what he encounters. There’s no happy ending.
SB Do you ever write?
TR The only way I write is when I’m in cahoots with somebody, when I already have a book or a script, and then I can embellish. I used to write short stories when I was younger and I was always very embarrased about what I had written, so I would burn them immediately. But the actual writing was always an enjoyable experience. Do you write a lot?
SB No, I’m slow. It took me seven months to write Trees Lounge. I think actors can be good writers, but the hard part is to just sit down and do it. I’m always jealous of these guys who have four scripts sitting in their drawer.
TR I know what you mean, and they’re working on another one.
SB How do they do it?
TR I’m just glad they do it, because that’s how we work.
Li Young Lee