By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Tim Roth in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
After appearing in what seemed like every other ’90s Amer-indie classic (and not just Tarantino films, thank you very much!), London-born actor Tim Roth branched out and found new critical success with his 1999 directorial debut, “The War Zone.” In the years since, Roth the actor has turned up in a few studio projects, but his most notable thesping still tends to be for auteur-driven films; the ’00s have so far seen him collaborating with Wim Wenders, John Sayles, Werner Herzog, Michael Haneke and, just in time to be Oscar eligible, Francis Ford Coppola. “Youth Without Youth,” Coppola’s long anticipated return stars Roth as an aging linguistics prof in Romania who finds himself physically aging backwards and evolving intellectually after being struck by lightning. Admirably pretentious and gorgeously shot (may I just re-emphasize: gorgeously), it’s an intimate yet unruly, ultimately romantic epic about the nature of age, memory and the primalism of language. “I knew that if I made the movie, I’d learn how to express time and dreams cinematically,” claims Coppola in his director’s statement, and what actor wouldn’t want to work someone who spoke that boldly? I sat down with Roth to chat about the legendary filmmaker and his own creative passions.
You haven’t been as ubiquitous as you were in the ’90s. Where have you been hiding?
I don’t know. I went off and directed a few years back, then I did a slew of trying-to-get-money-in-the-bank movies, and it’s hard to find stuff that you’re interested in. Also, I was caught up in the tail end of what was really an interesting time in American film, and then it changed. The way that films are financed and the structure of them became radically different. As a consequence, the stuff that was being made became uninteresting, so I just got bored. This film, and a couple of others I’ve done recently have made me interested again in acting.
So you’re disheartened by the landscape they call independent film today?
Independent of what? You’re really not. We were able to make films like “Little Odessa” with a pretty good budget for a film like that, carefully used, and so on. You couldn’t do a script like that now unless you had an A-list [actor] in it. They just wouldn’t want to make it. It’s much harder to tell a story that concerns you as a director nowadays.
Do you plan to direct a second film?
Yeah. I was never in any hurry, really. People kept telling me I should direct, so I did. That was really what it was about, and then I fell in love with it, but that’s a different story. But I do, I have two things most definitely that I want to make. It’s just a question of putting enough money in the bank so I can take two years off to make a film. It’s hard, but I think it’s the best job in the world… short of being Cèzanne, or something.
On “Youth,” what did you take away from Coppola that could potentially influence your future creative endeavors?
What I think happens is, you find yourself in situations as a director, and then say, “What would he have done?” That’s when you find out. I liked to watch how Francis constructed street scenes, how he would place extras, cars, bicycles and all that kind of stuff. We were very limited on the amount we had and he would make the most of that. I would look at an empty street, but when you see it on the screen, it’s not. It’s very clever stuff. And he very, very rarely moved the camera. Purely as a facile thing, I just wanted to see how a director of his stature works the frame. It was fascinating to me. His cinematographer was a very young Romanian guy [Mihai Malaimare, Jr.]. The two of them had a real connection.
The film is adapted from Mircea Eliade’s novella, which is dense with heady, universal concepts. While filming, did you ever find yourself waxing philosophical about your own views of age and memory?
No, I’m very dim. [laughs] I just make the day. Let Francis worry about all that stuff, that’s his deal. My job is “what’s the scene about at this moment?” Fix that. Work with Francis on what he wants to do, how he wants things to be. His job is to look after the arc, the editing, the whole nine yards. My shit is to be in it, get it done, and get as close to what he wants, so he can say “wrap!” and figure out if he’s got something.
You’re going to push that off? You didn’t once think about your own mortality while filming?
[laughs] No, no. I think about that more outside of the film. For me, it’s not a big deal because you have to remember that I see myself aging [on-screen]. It’s all there. You guys can see it. I’m looking at the back door of life. That’s my deal, because I’m 46. It’s coming at me now. So I suppose that was interesting to me in being the old guy, so that if I get there, I can see if there’s a comparison. I tried to play him as an old man even though he was young. When he gets his middle age back, he’s still old, even in the way he moves. That kind of theatricality is fun. Confusing, but fun.
How did you and Coppola collaborate whenever you felt confused?
Well, he was clear. You know, Francis was making this film for his own reasons. He’s an incredibly bright man. He would launch into things, rattle [off] stuff… He’s read a few books in his time, and he’s absorbed that information. I haven’t. I’m an actor, you know? We pretend that we read books. Our conversations were amazing. If I went to Francis [and] asked “What about A, B and C?”, he’d go “Okay, this is the reason for this, this is the reason for that.” Because he was making something very personal, his direction quite often was quiet and personal and philosophical, or the other way around; something you’ve missed because you’re thinking too much. He’s very good with actors. He likes his actors.
Well, if you won’t fill me in on the lofty specifics, what can you tell me you’ve been thinking about?
What happens to my children by virtue of the White House. [laughs] I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about writing a bit, actually. I wrote something that was never made for that “Paris Je T’Aime” movie, but it was a little too dark for them, I think. It’s one of those things you can do for free. You just sit down and write, one of the hardest things to do. So when the actors go out on strike, which they probably will, I’ll write when they force me to take time off, which is what will happen. I have a bad feeling about this. I already know people who are losing their houses. You have to remember the knock and effect in L.A. First of all, most people don’t have much sympathy for white collar strikes. It’s a hard thing to get sympathy for, but it’s hitting people who run coffee shops, people who have dry cleaners, people who make silly things for films. It’s not hitting the A-list. It’s never going to touch them. If anything, it’ll just make them richer. But there are people out there who are going to get it, and bad. I worry that the strike is exactly what the communication companies want because it can make more “Big Brother.” That’s what they want to do anyway.
And now this has just turned depressing. Is your outlook on the film industry generally pessimistic?
I’m actually quite hopeful, really. I’m saddened by these huge companies that have nothing to do with film owning film. But as soon as I think down that road, I think about people like Ken Loach, and I know we’re all alright. [laughs] There’s only a creative decline if you allow it to happen. I don’t think that there has to be. It’s never stopped Ken. It’s never stopped Mike Leigh. It doesn’t have to be that way. But they’re real filmmakers. I think what is encouraged by these big companies is not filmmaking, but the opposite of filmmaking. It’s tabloid entertainment, which sells and makes them tons and tons of cash. There’s plenty of room for that, and I love to be a part of it sometimes, it’s brilliant fun, but it can’t be everything. If we let it, it will be. Unless the audience goes on strike! That would fuck ’em.
“Youth Without Youth” opens in limited release December 14th.