Name: Timothy Simon Roth
DOB: 14 May 1961
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor, film director
Mr. Roth, you started your career by playing a teenage racist skinhead in Alan Clark’s Made in Britain. Were you aware what a gutsy career move that was at the time?
Well, the gutsy move was theirs actually! Because I'd never been in front of a camera before that. You know, Alan Clark was a hero of mine because of his previous film Scum, which I had watched so many times in the cinema — Scum was originally commissioned by the BBC, I think, but when they saw it, they cancelled it because of the violence. So Alan went on and remade it for the cinema. Anyway, so I had Alan, David Leland had written the script, and Chris Menges on camera, which was my saving grace. And I was given speeches. I don't think that would have benefited by me whispering my way through that character! (Laughs)
How did that first experience then influence the following years of your career?
I remember, it was very strange, when we were finishing up filming Made in Britain, Alan asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to be an actor.” And he asked, “Well, who do you like?” And I said, “Well I've heard about this guy, Mike Leigh, who does all this improv stuff.” Alan called him because he happened to be casting at that time, and I ended up going from Alan’s film into Mike's film, Meantime, with Gary Oldman! One after the other. So that was drama school for me. And from then on, I started working with some of my heroes, Stephen Frears, John Hurt, and Terence Stamp, which is not so bad. All of that was going on — I just kept my head down, kept moving, really, which I still do.
“The overall industry was elitist. But it wasn't, really, uppermost in our minds. It was our turn now.”
Together with Gary Oldman, Daniel Day Lewis, and Colin Firth, you became part of the Brit Pack: a fresh arrival into an otherwise elitist film industry in Britain in the 1980s.
At that time, it was a “pretty boy” kind of world, and it had a wealth about it. Acting was not necessarily something that you considered if you didn't come from those classes — if you didn't have a bank balance that you didn't have to keep topped up. It wasn't a job that you thought of, it wasn't top of your list. The overall industry was elitist. It did feel elitist. But it wasn't, really, uppermost in our minds. It was our turn now. There was definitely something that was moving. I suppose the fact of it was that the roles that we got were much harder to get made at that time. That kind of political drama like Meantime, was harder to get off the ground. So there was an experimental feel. When I say experimental, I mean it dealt with issues of class and of race at that time, when most of the other stuff wasn't.
And were you also watching those more experimental films at the time?
I didn't particularly have much of a film education, but I knew what I liked. We were all in love with DeNiro, with Pacino, the early stuff — with American cinema! My mates and I, we used to go to a cinema in Brixton, South London, called The Ritzy, where you’d have all-nighters, for example, you would have a Dennis Hopper night. And you would bring your own beer, and your own weed if you were so inclined, and you'd have a night of it! The place to get your film education was there.
Were those the kind of roles that drew you to moving to the States?
Actually, it was a series of weird events that brought me to the States. I met Robert Altman, for a film he was making about Van Gogh. I was big fan of Altman, and I managed to scam my way into that. And while I was in America publicizing Altman’s film, I managed to snag myself an independent agent, a very interesting woman who stayed with me for 16 years. And she told me, “You get your ass down to LA, you can do a few meetings, and then you're allowed to go home.” So I did that and one of the first scripts that came through the door was Reservoir Dogs.
From an unknown, young director at the time.
Right, and that was the kind of work that I wanted to do! Quentin and I were just talking about this and I said to him, there were three captains of my life as far as my career… My teacher Jill Walker, who at the very beginning saw something in me and pushed me down this road, the road lead to Alan Clark, and then Quentin. I mean, I arrived in America with 10 years under my belt — good or bad — and got lucky enough to have someone like Quentin go “Alright, you're on,” and off we went. There was a moment of real independent filmmaking that was happening then. And I happened to be there, and work with James Gray on his first film, Little Odessa, and work with Quentin on his. I got in there before the moguls saw that there was money to be snagged out of it.
“I never made any kind of career plan, so hopefully it will be okay. I never know what the next job is going to be.”
One could say you were once again at the forefront of a new wave of independent cinema, only this time in the States.
It did have a similarity, in an odd way, between what Ken Loach, for example, and other young filmmakers had been trying to do in Britain. But also, at the time, there weren't many English actors out there in the States, of my sort of background. The only one that had gone out that I knew was Gary Oldman. He was the one that put the bridge out for me, he made me think that it was possible. He wanted to be a big movie star, so he went off and did, I think, State of Grace, with Sean Penn. And the idea of that to us was just, “Wow. Fuck it. If he can do it, I can have a go at this.” So I started playing Americans immediately. And it took a long time for them to realize that I was not American, even when my accents were really bad. I stayed in the States, and they kept employing me.
Was it hard to then keep the balance between more commercial films and independent films?
Well, fear of unemployment is something that drives a lot of actors, because you certainly never know when the next job’s coming along. Sometimes you get bursts of work, and sometimes you're unemployed. There are things that you get into to pay the rent... And it hurts you, actually hurts you, doing things that you don't believe in. I've been in a position where it's been agony. It's demoralizing. But sometimes you go like, “Should I do this...?” for the same reason, and it ends up being one of the best experiences you've had! For instance, when I first read the script for Tin Star a few years ago, I was quite struck by the audacity that they killed off a central character within the first episode. It almost had a touch of Hitchcock about it, and I thought, “Well, let’s see where this goes.” And it was quite a wild experiment!
It sounds like you’ve learned to trust the process over the years.
The thing with acting is, there's no pension scheme ready. I have worked with actors like John Hurt, and he wasn’t worried about it, he just kept on going. And I don't know if I can do that. I have no idea if I can do that. I also don't know how I would handle the kind of change in the roles. But I never made any kind of career plan, so hopefully it will be okay. I never know what the next job is going to be.