Tim Roth talks about his newest role and working with Francis Ford Coppola

Tim Roth is one of those actors who has a strong relationship with his audience. His choice of characters in such films Reservoir Dogs and Little Odessa, lets viewers know that when they see he has made a film it most likely one that they should watch. This is what makes his work in Youth Without Youth so intriguing.

Teaming with director Francis Ford Coppola for his first film in 8 years, Roth plays Dominic Matei, a professor whose life changes after a cataclysmic incident during the dark years prior to World War II. Becoming a fugitive, he is pursued through far-flung locations including Romania, Switzerland, Malta and India. The screenplay is adapted from a novella by legendary Romanian author Mircea Eliade.

How did Francis Ford Coppola cast you in this movie?

Tim Roth: He left me a message on my cellphone. The usual process where you go through an agent, he bypassed that. I just thought it was a friend playing a joke on me. He came up to see me in Italy, we talked for a few hours and then I finished up what I was doing there and we just stayed in touch with one another. I know he was talking with other actors... we played around with ideas.

Where you familiar with Mircea Eliade's story?

Tim Roth: No, he sent me the script when I was in Italy, his first draft I think. The very first one.

What was it about this film that attracted you to it?

Tim Roth: I thought it was impossible. I didn't know how... and it completely, very, very difficult to act and the challenge also is that it's a very understated character. He's not a dynamic man in any particular way. Things happen to him but he's a gentle soul, I like that.

Is Francis the kind of director that likes you to take a scene 5 or 6 different ways?

Tim Roth: What, so he's got it all in the editing room? Sometimes. He's pretty straight about it, you know? He's pretty honest about his needs. If he wants you to do it 4 different ways you just can do it. He's usually moving on when he's got what he wants.

How difficult is it when you're doing this kind of material to know what level of reality you're playing?

Tim Roth: Just ask. Ask Francis and he tells you. Literally to map out this film was impossible for me. He had it all in his head, so I was like "Where am I? Am I real here? How old am I actually?" You know?

Did you ever understand the film?

Tim Roth: For me it wasn't understanding the film, for me it was understanding the book or the script. A lot of the philosophy, to be honest with you, is beyond me. I haven't read as many books as Francis. He would sit and discuss, very articulately, what was behind the method.

It's a fascinating film...

Tim Roth: To study age on that level, to study life... on film, and what happens inside your mind, to try and film inside someone's mind is interesting.

Can you talk about filming that scene of you and Alexandra (Maria Lara; she plays Veronica/Laura) on the rocks in Malta? That looked so cold...

Tim Roth: Yeah, it was horrible. It was not supposed to be that way. We came in the morning and I'd come down for breakfast... and I saw Francis looking at the water and I thought, "Oh sh*t!" Because there's always something weird that's going to happen everyday with Francis. The scene was supposed to happen, I think, in bed; a quiet little scene. Then he said, "What about if...?" and I thought, "Oh, God." Okay, I was freezing. Then I saw Alexandra come down. I saw him take her on to the rocks and try to con her into doing this thing. She went, "Alright" and we did it and it was, truly, truly, cold. It would suck the breath out of you. That was in Bulgaria, that was where we shot that.

So was the challenge for you on this film more intellectual than it was emotional?

Tim Roth: It was all of it. For me it was a 7 month period of being away from my family; there was a little gap in between. It was all of it but in the end you fake it. It's acting. It's a director's medium, I think, in film, anyway. What you're trying to do is get as close to what's inside the director's head and also give him alternatives.

Did you think of the film as a suspense film?

Tim Roth: Yeah, a lot of it was shot... I think the first assembly he put together was 5 hours. It was huge. We shot 85 days and we moved and motored. It was less romantic in the book, I think, but he chose to push down that road and that's what it became.

What's the premise of this film? Man's relationship to time?

Tim Roth: It is, but again, you'll have to ask Francis. Basically it's your conscious, what's your conscious seeing? What are you? How do you film that? How do you tell that story?

If you could go back in time to a younger age... how far back would you go?

Tim Roth: I'd go back to around 17, 18, probably, and paint and veer off away from the acting thing. Do some painting... see what would happen if... but you don't have a back-out clause. You can't go, "Well, that shit didn't work, I'll go back to what I'm doing now." If you're going to take a gamble you've got to really take it. I often wonder if I would have stuck to painting or sculpture, what would have happened?

You've worked with countless directors... what was it like working with Francis? Did you go in there with any starstruck kind of thing?

Tim Roth: Ah, yeah, I was very panic stricken at the beginning because it's a name that everyone associates with certain films. For me when I was trying to become an actor his films were very, very influential. Just for me, personally for me. His actors and the performances they gave and his direction was very important in my development as an actor. When I came in to work with him even though I was very open, I think I was overwhelmed at the beginning. He irons that straight out. You've gotta get to work and work very hard.

On what ways did he work...?

Tim Roth: I think you come to set with Francis, my generation, you come to the set with the Apocalypse Now documentary somewhere in the back of your mind. He's a very different person now. He's in a very different world and we're making a very different film. You just shed all of that. It's a lot of improvisation, a lot of creativity... but truly hard work. It made me interested in acting again.

When you say hard what does that mean?

Tim Roth: It's a tough day. Every day is a Friday. You feel like you've done a weak in a day, every single day. You're just cramming stuff in. There's set-ups, you learn what you're supposed to have learned, you arrive and that's changed immediately. Suddenly you're in a different place and you've got to let everything go and not be too upset when it just veers. Then an idea will come to him and he'll shoot it. You'll come back the next day and he'll shoot it.

How is it working with Edward Norton on the new Incredible Hulk movie?

Tim Roth: It's been fun. It's a kids movie. I did it for my kids. It's really been fun, we're still shooting it that's why I can't talk about all of it. I know when actors say that it's BS for journalists. I'm running around and going "Grrrrrrrrrr..." Hopefully, my kids think I'm gonna be cool when they see it.

Was it different doing this sort of movie which is primarily based on spectacle?

Tim Roth: They're all different. From going from Francis, (Michael) Haneke to (Louis) Leterrier. That's great and they're all different. They're all completely different. Different directors, different films that's what makes it kind of interesting. It keeps you going.

When does the film wrap?

Tim Roth: They tell me in November.

Youth Without Youth comes to theaters December 14 in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics.