In the 1980s, a pack of British actors began an ascent that would resolve not in stardom, per se, but certainly enormous respect from film buffs. Daniel Day-Lewis built himself a reputation as a towering, reclusive Method actor welcome in Oscar's inner circle, while Colin Firth and Gary Oldman's uncompromising choices eventually took a hard right turn into high-paying Hollywood gigs. But their peer Tim Roth has stubbornly placed his art before commercial success or self-mythologizing. He has collected directors like rare stamps: Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway, Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas Roeg, John Sayles, Wim Wenders, Tim Burton, Woody Allen, and Werner Herzog have all benefited from his idiosyncratic, fiercely focused performances.
Now add Francis Ford Coppola to that list. In the director''s first film in a decade, Youth Without Youth, Roth plays the leading role of Professor Dominic Matei, an old man whose youth is magically restored by a bolt of lightning. It's a vintage acting challenge for Roth, one that--as he explained to me by phone from New York--he literally took in stride. "I used to follow old people around Romania. I'd take photographs of them, and I would just watch how they worked their way across the street. And their center of gravity is very different, 'cause if you slip and fall in that age bracket, that's life threatening. You know, if you chip a bone...that's a very big deal. So I''d just watch how they prepared themselves to step up the sidewalk, and then into the street. And how they moved and where they placed their gravity and where they looked. Did they look ahead or did they always look down?"
"It's old school theater stuff," Roth adds excitedly. "It''s performance art, really." Roth likewise relished playing the professor's "Double," who carries on private conversations with the once-more dashing and young Dominic. "When I was working on him, I had to figure out for myself, 'Okay, does he exist or not? Is he just a figment of Dominic''s imagination?' So I made the decision that he was real. And I used to get angry and pissed off at people who said that he wasn't cause I was spending a lot of my day being him!" Luckily Roth had a compatible collaborator in Coppola. "It's high stamina with him. It's lots of rehearsal at the beginning, which I''m not used to. I don't normally do rehearsal for film. But it just gives you a chance to say the words out loud, really, and meet all the other actors. And then we just shot the crap out of it."
In fact, Roth had hit up Coppola for work when the actor was a tender young man with a nearly blank resume. His pitch was simple. "It was 'Dear Mr. Coppola, I really like your films. If you ever need an English actor, I'm your man.'" Roth laughs, adding that Coppola forgets nothing—indeed, he saved the letter and produced it years later. "He said, 'I''ve got something to show you,' and out it came. And I had completely forgotten—I mean, I'd wrote a ton of these letters, and made copies of a photograph. I knew nothing about acting, what you're supposed to do!"
Oddly enough, Clash front man Joe Strummer was largely responsible for launching Roth's feature film career, having seen Roth as an angry young man in a TV film. "There was some problem with The Clash at the time, and so he had to pull out, and he said, 'Get that skinhead in!'" So Roth made his big-screen debut in Stephen Frears' The Hit. "I did thank him, and I got to know him later in my life," Roth recalls. "He's a very good man."
Having tasted the authority of the director in making his incest drama The War Zone, Roth has taken a more reflective view of his acting craft. "I haven't been trained for this job, you know. I don't really have any safety nets. That actually can expose you to all kinds of problems. Most of what you're trying to do as an actor—I'd say ninety percent—is convince the audience that the dialogue is better than it is. So—you're running a con job on the audience. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't." Of course, when it's Tim Roth doing the conning, it's a pleasure to be fooled.