He went to Camberwell art college before he did pub theatre, before he stumbled across an audition for Alan Clarke's 1982 film Made in Britain. Cast as the terrifying skinhead Trevor, Roth personified the disillusioned dole-kids of the Thatcher years to whom the phrase "no future" was more than just a lyric. He furthered this in Mike Leigh's 1984 unemployment drama Meantime, co-starring with Gary Oldman and Phil Daniels. If it was playing the blood-soaked undercover cop in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs that made his career in 1992, it was acting for the likes of Clarke, Leigh and Stephen Frears (as a thug in The Hit) that defined him. "It was great way to come up," he admits.
Like Oldman, Roth has no successor in the succeeding generation of British stars. He is, as he puts it, part of "the last batch". He's referring to the type of politically-conscious performances funded by the BBC and Channel 4 in the 1980s - but he could easily be referring to the type of actor that no longer exists in the precious celebrity culture that has engulfed us. To play Meantime's "muppet" Colin, he didn't wash for 14 weeks, and he travelled the London Underground as Trevor to prepare for Made in Britain.
In his time, Roth has got to "mix it up", as he puts it - playing Van Gogh in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo and singing for Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You. He's gone from the ribald wit of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the theatrical follies of Rob Roy, which saw him nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1996. Most of all, he's been in a lot of "boy's films" - a hold-up merchant in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction; a Russian gangster in Little Odessa; and a Jewish mobster in Hoodlum.
Making his 1999 directorial debut with the stark child-abuse drama The War Zone was a huge change from his streetwise screen persona. He hadn't acted in two years. "I don't miss it," he said. "If I could afford to, I'd give it up." Despite The War Zone winning Best New British Feature at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Roth has yet to follow it up. He has had to contend with the realities of being an uncompromising actor-director in an era where box office numbers are everything. He has an adaptation by Harold Pinter of King Lear he'd like to film. "It's very difficult to make," he sighs.
Much of what he has done since The War Zone has been either wildly esoteric (Werner Herzog's Invincible), thankfully unreleased (Nora Ephron's Lucky Numbers) or barely seen (To Kill a King, in which he played Oliver Cromwell). His one major studio movie, Tim Burton's so-called "re-imagining" of The Planet of the Apes, was hardly an advert for his talents, given he was heavily disguised by monkey make-up. "I know it wasn't very well received," he says, "but I had a great time making that movie!" Spending all day in simian garb was "a good shock to the system", he says. "You get treated exactly the same as the extras. You really vanish - which is what you're supposed to do as an actor. You're completely invisible!"
He admits his screen baggage has prevented him working with directors like Ken Loach. "He's one of my heroes - part of the reason why I'm an actor," says Roth. "But fame gets in the way. I have to fail hugely and disappear off the face of the earth for 10 years to work with Ken Loach." He nervously knocks on the wood of the table in front of him. "That's asking for trouble, isn't it?" So has he managed to find renewed interest in acting? "It's 50-50. I keep working. And I've been reading some very bizarre and interesting tales."
Roth has been working with directors such as Wim Wenders, John Sayles and Walter Salles, in supporting parts. "It's luxurious playing a cameo," he argues. "By the time you arrive on set, the crew have already got their shit together." Salles's Dark Water is based on the 2002 Japanese hit by Hideo Nakata, a ghostly story about a mother and her young daughter moving into a dilapidated apartment. He calls the cast "a good group of people". Jennifer Connelly plays the mother; his old friend Dougray Scott is her ex-husband; Pete Postlethwaite is the apartment building's janitor and John C Reilly a slimy real estate agent. "I love him," says Roth. "He's like a big teddy bear." Roth plays Connelly's divorce lawyer, Platzer, a kindly soul whose car doubles as his temporary office, complete with fax machine in the passenger seat. Platzer is a moral crusader in a town of shysters.
Later this year Roth will be seen as a detective attempting to track down Sam Shepard's missing cowboy actor in Wenders's Don't Come Knocking. His other new role is playing the website rabble-rouser Mitch Paine in John Sayles's political noir Silver City. This follows a muddy campaign run by an inarticulate Senator (Chris Cooper) for governor of Colorado. Roth's character is a former alternative newspaper editor hell-bent on stirring up conspiracy theories. Roth thinks it's vital that room is made for politics in cinema. "It's a mistake to believe we aren't given a voice, because we are. Some of the best stuff that came out of Britain was made during Thatcher's years, when she was oppressing the arts and destroying the unions."
The UK's former political climate encouraged Roth to live in America. Intending to stay for just a couple of months, the country has been his home ever since. Ever the curmudgeon, he's not entirely content. "Right now, I despise America," says Roth. "Not the people but the government." He calls Bush a "radically right-wing religious nutcase". Does he miss Britain? "Aspects of it I really miss. But I get to spend a lot of time there and I get to see it in a good way because I visit a lot. I get the good stuff, then I go."
He lives in California with his wife, Nikki Butler, a fashion designer he met at the Sundance Film Festival. Married in Belize in 1993, while Roth was making Nic Roeg's TV film of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, they have two children, Timothy Hunter and Michael Cormac. Roth also has a 22-year-old son, Jack, from his short-lived first marriage. He admits he finds it tough to leave his offspring when he heads off for a shoot. "On a very basic level, I have to have this conversation: 'I'm leaving tomorrow and I'll see you in three months.' That's a complicated conversation to have with a little child. But that's what they come to know. The other side of it is, is it's not like I'm working in a shop - where I'm down at nine o'clock in the morning and back at five. I have big chunks of time away but I also get big chunks at home. That's a luxury to me."
This is the extent of Roth wearing his heart on his sleeve. But, talking about the "legacy" of his work he will leave behind, he evidently cares what his kids think - or will think - of his work. "There are a lot of films that I've done that I don't want my kids to see, that I'm not pleased with," he says, refusing to elaborate. "Quite often you make the wrong choice. It's a gamble. It's out there forever. And as long as film lasts, it's out there; as long as DVD lasts, it's out there. I'm not. I'm here for a very specific and small amount of time. So it is a gamble."
The immediate future looks less chancy. He has just reunited with Made in Britain's writer David Leland for an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron and finished the gambling story Jump Shot, with Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger. Then there's a mooted version of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, directed by the former Bergman muse Liv Ullmann, and rumours of a reunion with Quentin Tarantino. "I think there's something Quentin wants me to do," he says, cagily. "But I don't know when he's going to do it. I know what it is - but I ain't telling!" It's no major secret. Roth's Reservoir Dogs co-star Michael Madsen has already been quoted as saying the three men will reunite on Tarantino's long-gestating Dirty Dozen-like Second World War film, Inglorious Bastards.
The last time he and Tarantino worked together was when Roth played the hapless bellhop in the woeful Four Rooms a decade ago. They're still good friends and, whenever Roth gets the chance, he also gets together with his fellow "Dogs". "It feels good," he admits, "even if we're more long in the tooth now". But he avoids going out dressed in a black suit, white shirt and pencil-thin tie. Others, it seems, do it for him. "I was in a bar in New York on Hallowe'en one time - one of those where you can find a quiet corner in a very loud bar - and a whole ton of people came in as the Reservoir Dogs characters. A couple of guys were playing me - quite handsome they were!" Sounding pleased, this pasty punk cracks a huge grin. Roth may shy away from the spotlight - but he can't resist the odd ego-boost.
'Silver City' and 'Dark Water' are released on 22 JulyReuse content