In "Rob Roy," Michael Caton-Jones' historical epic starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange, British actor Tim Roth all but steals the picture with his performance as a foppish villain with lace sleeves and a cruel streak a mile wide.
Set in 18th-Century Scotland, "Rob Roy" (opening Friday) is a departure for Roth, who has made a name as a master of the modern tough guy. Caton-Jones, however, had no doubt the 33-year-old actor could turn in the highly mannered performance the part requires.
"Tim is the king of naturalistic acting, but I knew he had great technical background and had the potential to handle roles people haven't previously associated him with," Caton-Jones says. "It was simply a matter of getting him into the costume and getting his head around this style of acting. That wasn't easy at first, but once he got into it, he really flew."
Concurs Roth: "It's \o7 real\f7 over-the-top acting, and at first I hated doing it because it felt wrong. But by the end of the shoot they couldn't get me off camera without 50 bows," he says with a laugh.
Best known for his work in two films by Quentin Tarantino, "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," Roth has a reputation as something of an angry young man, but he comes across during a morning meeting at his publicist's office as the soul of amicability. He arrives exactly on time, albeit looking as though he just rolled out of bed, greets everyone in the office warmly, requests an ashtray and a glass of water, then sits down to be interrogated.
On the agenda, along with "Rob Roy," is "Little Odessa," a film directed by 25-year-old New Yorker James Gray, which opens June 9 in Los Angeles. Set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where New York's Russian emigre community is centered, the film stars Roth as a low-rent hit man.
"This is a story about a family and its inability to communicate, more than it's about a guy who kills people," says Roth, who committed to the film on the strength of first-time director Gray's script. "The thing that interested me about the story is that nothing is clear, and that it's about deep emotions, most of which are left unspoken. In that way it reminded me of the great American films of the '70s like 'Taxi Driver,' 'The French Connection' or 'The Godfather.' "
Roth's work in "Little Odessa" is very much in line with the performances he has given for Tarantino, a director he admires for "the tremendous joy in his work." " 'Pulp Fiction' is a comedy--it's twisted, yes, but it \o7 is\f7 a comedy, and there's great fun in it."
As to whether it's questionable to interweave fun with the extreme violence central to Tarantino's films, Roth says, "I thought it worked better with 'Reservoir Dogs' because you really felt the violence there. Actually, there isn't that much violence in 'Pulp Fiction' compared to something like 'True Lies,' which leaves you completely affected."
Roth's affinity for the distinctly American milieu of Tarantino's films is odd, considering he was born in London in 1961. "My mother was an artist who became a teacher, and my father was a journalist and free-lance writer," he recalls. "My parents split up when I was young, but that wasn't a trauma for me, and I had a normal, liberal upbringing. My parents took my older sister and I to museums, and I was exposed to theater at school. We saw lots of stuff in the Shakespeare vein, none of which I enjoyed."
Roth didn't like those school plays, but he did love movies. "I remember my father taking me to see 'The Sting,' and being knocked out by it--it didn't occur to me, however, that I could be in a movie."
Roth's first taste of acting came at age 16, when he appeared in a musical production of "Dracula" at school. "I was terrified, but I got out there and sang and danced, and I loved it," he recalls. "After that I did loads of British pub theater, of modern plays by people like Strindberg and Genet."
Roth had discovered his aptitude for performing but still hadn't committed to a career as an actor, and at age 19 enrolled at the Camberwell School of Art planning to study sculpture. Eighteen months later, he realized he was in the wrong place, and by 1983 he'd landed his first part, as a snarling skinhead in "Made in Britain," a critically acclaimed television drama directed by the late Alan Clarke. "Alan taught me everything," Roth recalls. "How to get inside of a character, and more important, how not to be afraid."
Plum parts in several prestigious films followed, among them Stephen Frears' "The Hit," Mike Leigh's "Meantime," Robert Altman's "Vincent & Theo" and Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." One would imagine Roth would've been over the moon working with those directors but, he says, "that was the hardest period of my life." "There were no films being made in England in the late '80s, other than those Merchant Ivory things, which they'll always make. But I have no interest in those, so there simply wasn't enough work for me.