Archibald Cunningham is the kind of archvillain you love to hate, and Tim Roth is the actor for the job.
Roth’s spooky performance as this heartless, deceitful fop overshadows nearly everything else in Michael Caton-Jones’ Scottish epic “Rob Roy,” starring Liam Neeson as the 18th-century Scottish rebel of the title and Jessica Lange as his lusty wife.
They may be the A-list stars, but Roth gets the scene-stealing role: a swordfighting hit man whose powdered wigs and fey manner hide a lethal fighting style.
The movie is likely to create a buzz that even Roth’s appearances in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (as a desperate restaurant thief) and “Reservoir Dogs” (as an undercover cop) failed to match.
“This character is just outrageous,” said the 33-year-old British actor by phone from Los Angeles. “He made me giggle.
“You look at old portraits of these duelists, and they look like really ugly drag queens. We went for that. You can just let go with your mannerisms and behavior on a part like this.”
Best known for his more introspective performances as Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman’s “Vincent and Theo” and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s movie of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” Roth never worried about going over-the-top with Cunningham, though he did look for nuances in the character.
“This is the kind of big film where you can really let off steam, but I also wanted to show glimpses of what’s truly underneath,” he said.
“Subtlety is there, but in a different form. Every so often you can lift up a little corner and let the audience know what’s really happening. There’s a performance going on, someone pretending to be something they’re not, like the undercover cop in ‘Reservoir Dogs.”’
The Cunningham character does not appear in Disney’s 1954 film “Rob Roy,” based on the same story of a Scottish rebel’s resistance to a vindictive landowner in 1712. While neither movie is as fanciful as Walter Scott’s novel “Rob Roy,” they’re so different from each other that they seem like completely separate stories.
“It’s not a documentary,” said Roth. “The movie is good guys, bad guys, a love story and a bit of a Western.”
Although he hadn’t worked with Caton-Jones before, they became drinking buddies in London when Caton-Jones was shooting his first picture, “Scandal.” For years they’ve talked about projects that might bring them together.
“I think Michael was very keen to get me for this,” he said. “He could have offered it to a star, and he really had to do some talking to get me involved.”
Roth once attended art school and planned to be a sculptor, but he caught the acting bug as a teenager, playing the leading role in a musical-stage version of “Dracula.” He was a skinhead in his first British TV film, “Made in Britain,” following it up with Mike Leigh’s “Meantime,” in which he played someone “simple, quiet and withdrawn.”
He was 21 when he made his big screen debut as a boyish killer in Stephen Frears’ 1983 gangster movie “The Hit.” He played Barbara Hershey’s sympathetic pal in “A World Apart,” another punk in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” and an American criminal, Charles Starkweather, in the ABC miniseries, “Murder in the Heartland.”
Soon he’ll be seen as a bellhop in Tarantino’s new picture, “Four Rooms”; as a hit man in the low-budget “Little Odessa”; and as a killer who falls in love with Julia Ormond in “Captives.”