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Going ‘Ape’ — again

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Tim Roth really had no idea what he was getting into.

The 40-year-old character actor has wanted to work with one of his favorite filmmakers, Tim Burton, for years. So he agreed to take a role in Burton's "re-imagining" of "Planet of the Apes," which opened in theaters today — and which marks Roth's first major role in a big-budget, major-studio picture.

"I was thinking to myself, 'How bad can it be?'" Roth recalled during a telephone interview from New York. "I'll get to work with Tim, who's just this great idea guy. And it'll just be a big laugh, really."

Instead, his part in the film — that of villainous chimpanzee General Thade — was not only most physically demanding role Roth has played so far, but he also wound up having to do scores of interviews, which he is sometimes reluctant to do.

"I'm actually a little bit (ticked) off at (Burton)," Roth said. "Tim made it sound like it was going to be a giggle, and it turned out to be something of a hassle. My work's still not over, even though I'm supposed to move over to other projects."

As an example of how physical an ordeal it was, Roth said that he and other actors playing ape characters had to spend weeks in "ape school," where they learned how to walk and talk in ways that would make their performances appear to be more apelike. "That's come in very useful, because I now walk in a very intimidating fashion. No one's going to want to mess with me now," Roth joked.

Then there were the daily sessions of makeup appliance and costuming, which were done sometimes for only a minute's worth of footage. "By the time (the makeup artists and costumers) are done with you, you feel like you've been pummeled. But then when you finally get to the set and you find out you're only in one scene that day, it's a bit of a drag."

However, with that part of his work done, Roth says he now finds the sheer physicality of his role rather gratifying. "This is such a far cry from everything else I've ever done. I got to use a completely different set of acting muscles," he said. "Back then, it seemed draining. But now I think I wouldn't mind doing something like it again — as long as I don't have to do all the training and makeup, that is."

It should be noted that, in scenes where his character leaps large distances and performs acrobatic feats, Roth's part is played by a performer from the Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil. "I'm not nearly that nimble. But if Thade is throwing someone around or menacing someone, that's probably me," he said.

Besides Burton, Roth was glowing in his praise for his co-stars, especially Mark Wahlberg, who stars as Leo Davidson, the astronaut who leads a revolt by human slaves on their ape masters. "I think Mark's doing amazing things, especially when you realize that he's still learning on the job. I mean, he's not really a professional actor. He started out as a musician and a model, and yet he's been able to hold his own with some tremendously talented people."

To which Roth added with a laugh, "He's still not in my class, though."

One co-star the British-born actor kept mum about was Charlton Heston, who appears, uncredited, in the role of General Thade's warmongering father. Though the two reportedly clashed over their differing political viewpoints, Roth did say that the veteran actor is "a true professional with a very storied career."

As for his own career, Roth said he's beginning to wonder if he may have carved out a new niche by playing villain roles. (Roth was nominated for an Academy Award for his evil turn in 1995's "Rob Roy.") "I certainly don't want to get pigeon-holed, but it's rather gratifying to know that there are filmmakers who believe someone as slight of stature as myself can make such a character believable."

Roth also continues to vary his film work. For instance, he just wrapped up the low-budget thriller "Emmett's Mark," which co-stars Gabriel Byrne. "This was exactly what I needed — something where I could just play a character with a minimum of muss and fuss," said Roth, who this time heaped praise on first-time director Keith Snyder. "It's a terrific little film, something I think is very worthy of making the festival circuit."

Speaking of which, Roth said he will put in a pitch to get "Emmett's Mark" into the Sundance Film Festival, where he's been something of a regular. (Roth made his first real splash at Sundance in 1992, with Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," and has returned for such films as "Gridlock'd.")

"I always have a good time at Sundance. They treat me royally there," Roth said.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com