With lean hangdog looks that make him a natural for the criminals and fringe dwellers he usually plays, Tim Roth has the uncanny and incredibly effective ability to make sleaze look sexy, or at least raggedly photogenic. Since his debut in the made-for-TV Made in Britain at the age of 18, Roth has joined fellow Briton Gary Oldman as one of the leading interpreters of society's underbelly. His ability has been particularly appreciated by director Quentin Tarantino, who helped to propel Roth to international recognition with prominent roles in Resevoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the early '90s. Since then, Roth has continued to portray a variety of gritty characters, occasionally making room for the odd sympathetic or lighthearted role.
Born in London on May 14, 1961, to a journalist father and landscape painter mother, Roth initially wanted to become a sculptor. After an education at London's Camberwell School of Art, he decided to try his hand at acting, first appearing in a production of Jean Genet's The Screens. Roth's television debut in the 1981 film Made in Britain garnered critical raves for the actor, who portrayed a poverty-stricken juvenile delinquent with profanity-spewing gusto. The same year, he appeared with Gary Oldman in Mike Leigh's Meantime, a made-for-TV movie that was eventually released theatrically, but Roth's bona fide screen debut didn't come until 1984, when he played an apprentice hitman in Stephen Frears' The Hit. Co-starring Terence Stamp and John Hurt, the film did moderately well and earned Roth an Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Newcomer. Thanks to such positive notices, the young actor continued to find work throughout the rest of the decade, making appearances in a variety of films, including former Kinks frontman Ray Davies' 1985 musical Return to Waterloo.
In 1990, Roth began to enjoy a limited amount of international attention, thanks to two starring roles, his acclaimed portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo and a title role in the critically lauded film adaptation of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Starring opposite Gary Oldman, Roth made an impression on many a filmgoer, including Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino cast Roth as undercover policeman Mr. Orange in his 1992 ensemble piece Resevoir Dogs, a film that allowed the actor to prove he could do an American accent and bleed to death convincingly. The success of Resevoir Dogs paved the way for more Hollywood work for Roth. In a drastic departure from his previous work, he next starred in the 1993 comedy Bodies, Rest & Motion alongside Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates, and Eric Stoltz.
The following year, Roth returned to more familiar territory, as a hit man in Little Odessa and as one of the robbers who catalyzes the action of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. After the enormous success of the latter film, the actor appeared the same year in the psychologically terrifying TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness alongside John Malkovich, who played the unhinged Kurtz. After a disastrous third collaboration with Tarantino, the critically and commercially disemboweled Four Rooms (1995), Roth had significantly greater success portraying an ominously prissy English nobleman in Rob Roy, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work, along with a Golden Globe nomination and a British Academy Award.
Staying true to his habit of jumping from genre to genre, Roth next appeared as a convict with a jones for Drew Barrymore in Woody Allen's musical comedy Everyone Says I Love You (1996) before playing a mobster in 1930s Harlem in Hoodlum (1997). Roth remained in a down and dirty milieu for his next film, Vondie Curtis-Hall's Gridlock'd, which featured the actor, as well as Thandie Newton and Tupac Shakur, as modern-day heroin addicts. Although the film received critical praise, it failed to make a significant impression at the box office. Roth's subsequent films unfortunately suffered from similarly lackluster performances: 1998's Liar went straight to video and the actor's film with Cinema Paradiso director Giuseppe Tornatore, La Leggenda del Pianista Sull'Oceano, remained mired in obscurity. However, Roth continued to keep busy with other projects, appearing in the 1998 Sundance entry Animals (And the Tollkeeper) and making his directing debut the same year with The War Zone. Though it gained positive critical notice for its' downbeat story of a disfunctional family skidding towards oblivion, the subject matter found the film getting little exposure even though it won multiple film festival awards.
Roth's next turn as the menacing General Thade in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001) would be arguably his most mainstream, prolific and scenery-chewing role to date. As the sinister simian on an obsessive quest to kill Mark Wahlberg's Capt. Leo Davis at any cost, Roth provided more than enough gusto to adequately fill the film's evil villian quota. While the film was a box-office hit, Roth opted to follow it up by returning to more obscure films. However, his visibility was raised considerably in 2004 by a pair of projects. First, he acted alongside the likes of Oscar-winners Chris Cooper and Richard Dreyfuss in director John Sayles' highly-anticipated political film Silver City and then showed up opposite Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly in Dark Water.
He starred in the 2007 Francis Coppola film Youth Without Youth as well as the English-language remake of Funny Games. He was one of the main players in 2008's The Incredible Hulk, then enjoyed a well-regarded run on the FOX procedural show Lie To Me. In 2010 he played the title character in Pete Smalls Is Dead, and two years later he acted opposite Richard Gere in the drama Arbitrage. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi