Easing into a booth at a Los Feliz, Calif., supper club, nuevo Angeleno Tim Roth — a.k.a. Mr. Orange, a.k.a. Pumpkin, a.k.a. the man Quentin Tarantino can’t cast enough — swigs on an Amstel Light and fires up a Camel. He’s wired but happy because T. Hunter Roth (yes, the T. is for Timothy) is 1 week old and doing fine, as is the missus, fashion designer Nikki Butler. ”It’s weird because you panic so much beforehand,” Roth says. ”And then it does kind of fall into place. It’s wonderful.”
To hear Roth tell it, most of his 34 years were anxious, friendless, and miserable, even while he was landing plum roles in London, playing dour punks in films like Stephen Frears’ The Hit. Things started looking up when he moved stateside in 1990, and now the anxious or friendless or miserable characters he inhabits (like Pulp Fiction’s diner bandit) have made his name. He grabbed raves this spring for an over-the-top villain, Rob Roy’s fey, rapier-wielding rapist. ”When I read it,” Roth grins, ”he just made me laugh — it was a chance to tear up the scenery. But if Rob Roy had brought me to America, that’s all I’d be able to play.”
Instead, Roth followed the example of his scenery-shredding South London colleague Gary Oldman: He moved to America to play American. ”Gary made me think it was possible,” Roth says. ”He made the accent specific, down to the block. That way, if you slipped, you’d only slip out of state, not across the pond.”
So Roth played a Bronx crackhead’s brother in Jumpin at the Boneyard; the bleeding cop in Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs; an Arizona TV salesman in Bodies, Rest & Motion; a Nebraska spree-killer in the ABC movie Murder in the Heartland; and a ruthless Brooklyn émigré in this spring’s Little Odessa. He understands the advantages heavies have. ”If you do a juicy villain, it gets remembered,” he says.
It even beats romance. In his first love story, Captives, due next year, he plays a hardened prisoner who escapes into an affair with repressed prison dentist Julia Ormond. But don’t ask Roth to watch himself play at passion. ”If you’re supposed to be in love with someone,” says the actor, married now for two years, ”and then you see it on screen, it’s disgusting. It’s kind of gross.” Besides, he says, ”I don’t have the face. Look at Liam Neeson’s face — it’s extraordinary.”
But the 5-foot-7-inch Roth can, does, and will play in anything from a studio epic to an indie comedy like this fall’s Four Rooms, directed by a disparate quartet that includes Tarantino. And whenever called upon, he’ll hide the clearest traces of who he was: not his accent, but the five tattoos on his right arm (marking the birth of his first son, Jack, 10, who still lives in England, his wedding to Nikki, and other passages). ”They’re hell to cover,” he says. ”I’ll have to get another one for Hunter.”