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Profile : Soul Searching : TIM ROTH SHRUGS OFF AVERSION TO AMERICAN TV TO LOSE HIMSELF IN TNT'S 'HEART OF DARKNESS'

March 13, 1994|JEFF KAYE | Jeff Kaye is a frequent contributor to The Times

LONDON — All's quiet on the set as British actor Tim Roth, dressed in a turn-of-the-century suit, enters a spacious room and, looking confused, makes his way silently toward another doorway where two women sit knitting. One of the women, dressed in black, has embroidered a white skull.

"Cut," says director Nicolas Roeg. Roth is walking too quickly, the director decides. Roeg walks through the scene himself, slowly, describing the pace and sensibility he is looking for.

Nearly 100 years after it was written, Joseph Conrad's enigmatic novella, "Heart of Darkness," is finally going to be a movie. Others have attempted it, most notably Orson Welles, who reached an advanced stage of pre-production before abandoning the project in 1939 under the weight of technical and financial problems.

Forty years later, Francis Ford Coppola took the basic outline of Conrad's book and set it against the Vietnam War for "Apocalypse Now." But until this year, no one has been able to faithfully transform the story to film.

Like an ever-increasing number of daring works bypassed by the feature film industry, however, "Heart of Darkness" is being made for cable TV. It will debut Sunday on TNT.

Roth, who has won critical accolades for his work in such films as "Reservoir Dogs" and "Bodies, Rest & Motion," plays the story's lead character, Marlow. A young sea captain in the late 19th Century, Marlow is sent up the River Congo by a Belgian trading company to locate their station agent, Kurtz (John Malkovich), with whom they've lost contact.

Although Roth leapt at the opportunity to work with Roeg ("Don't Look Now," "The Man Who Fell to Earth"), he nearly missed his chance. After an unpleasant experience working on the ABC movie "Murder in the Heartland," he swore he'd never work on American TV again. ("The censorship really (expletive expletive) me off," he says, recalling what he saw as continual interference from network executives.)

So when the "Heart of Darkness" producers approached his agent about having him appear in the cable TV film, he says, "My agent just turned it down without even telling me what was going on." Once he found out about the offer, however, he signed on immediately.

"I hadn't even read the script when I agreed to do the thing," he says, sitting in a London cafe, across from the august building where the film's opening scenes are being shot. He has ordered a pack of cigarettes and a beer.

Roth doesn't want to say much about his interpretation of "Heart of Darkness," or his character, Marlow, preferring, instead, to let viewers form their own opinions. But he says that the story is "a journey into the big depths of your soul and what you see when you get there."

Working with Roeg, whose fragmented and oblique style of filmmaking seems particularly suited for Conrad's obscure tale, proved to be as unusual as Roth expected.

"It's the strangest position I've ever been in," he says. "From day to day, you don't really know what's going on. The more confused I was when we were filming, the better Nick liked it."

Roth even professes to have found some enjoyment working amid the chaos and miserable conditions in Belize, where the cast and crew spent more than a month filming jungle scenes. "Heart" producers Bob Christiansen and Rick Rosenberg wrote a seven-page memo detailing the litany of horrors the film crew faced, including storms, disease, freak accidents, violent drug gangs, robberies, theft, tropical insects and a wayward monkey.

"It was insane," says Roth. "I liked it."

Born in London to a leftist journalist and a painter, he moved to L.A. several years ago for the increased job opportunities. His explosive performance in the low-budget crime drama "Reservoir Dogs" brought him attention and big-money film offers. But he says he is torn between the things you do for money and the things you do for art.

"I want to keep enjoying acting and I'm managing to do that," he says. "And now I'm starting to get paid to do it, which is really good. Not being broke feels good.

"But the films I'd really like to do are going to make me broke again. They're so obscure and so strange. They appeal to me."

A "Heart of Darkness" production assistant approaches Roth to tell him he's needed on the set. He takes a last swallow of beer, grabs his cigarettes and stands up.

"Am I sticking you with the bill?" he asks. "Excellent. That's the way I like it."

"Heart of Darkness" airs Sunday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT .

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