Skinheads, hit men, cops, criminals, cops-posing-as-criminals, princes, junkies, executioners, politicians, supervillains, an 18th-century fop, a 19th-century impressionist painter and a 21st-century psychotic chimp – you name it, and there’s an extremely good chance that Tim Roth has played it. The 56-year-old British actor has the sort of varied, overstuffed resumé that suggests a reserved spot in the steadily-working-character-actor canon, and has not one but two projects hitting TV screens at the moment: Tin Star, an Amazon thriller that about an expat cop living in Canada that starts as a quirky fish-out-of-water drama and takes several sharp right turns into violence, madness and mayhem; and Rillington Place, a BBC miniseries about famed British serial killer John Christie that streams on Sundance Now starting October 5th.
In between several beers and much vaping (“Don’t take the piss out of me in your article for this,” he jokes, pointing to his e-cigarette, “just say that ‘He rolled his own cigarettes and it was very, very cool”), Roth laid out the who, what and where of his two new projects, as well as looking back at getting his early gigs, meeting Quentin Tarantino, accidentally stabbing Liam Neeson, befriending Tupac Shakur and deciphering David Lynch’s directions.
What was it about Tin Star that made you sign on?
Well, I was not looking for a television series – it wasn’t like I have anything against the idea, obviously. I mean, I came out of British TV in the 1980s, originally. I’d done a network show a few years back [Lie to Me], and it was great. This, however, was different. It’s a 10-act story in 45-minute increments.
Actors describe TV now as something like making a 13-hour movie …
… Instead of 22 one-hour episodes just featuring the same guy, right. When I first got to Hollywood, you did TV or you did film, if you were lucky. You could be George Clooney and go from a show to movies, but it wasn’t a two-way street. Personally, I have to give it up for David Simon. To me, The Wire is what really changed the game: Oh, TV could be that? Ok. At first, I was jealous of everyone who was on that show – that’s what happens when you see good actors doing good work. Then, when we did Lie to Me, the idea was: Let’s steal as many Wire actors as we can!
“I wish I could have been in that scene with ‘Cutty’ Wise …”
“So let’s hire the guy [Chad L. Coleman] who played him!” It’s the next best thing, exactly. But you could see the barriers starting to come down a bit. It wasn’t so much TV versus film anymore; you could start to do both. I had some actors calling me while I was doing Lie to Me and asking me, “How is it, doing this?” And you know, it was a network procedural with really good writers, so overall, it was good. You knew where you were going.
But with Tin Star … they only gave me the first three scripts to read, and they ended up changing quite a bit. But I found myself reading it and going, “Eh.” Then you get to the end and you go, “Oh, shit! That’s bold!” I suddenly wanted to know what was going to happen next, and that suggested there was something there. Then the more you read, the more you realize: They’re really peeling the onion on this guy. You begin to understand who this cop in the middle of Canada really is. And then it was like, Oh, so we’re going there? I’m in.
Also, very early on, Rowan Joffe, who was writing the series and was directing the first episode, noticed that the actors who played my family and I would improvise small things – just the sort of business that makes you think, these people are related and have a history. And he began to go, Right, keep doing that. He’d start to tailor the scripts to that more. By the end – I think it’s the ninth one – there’s an entire episode that’s improvised.
Improvisation, when it’s just actors wanking about, is horrible. But yeah. This was structured, and incredible. And with a whole other cast.
It gets complicated. I shouldn’t say more than that. But we’ve been renewed for a second season and start filming it in January. I can’t wait to get back into it.
Tin Star is coming out around the same time as Rillington Place, this BBC series you did last year on the notorious British serial killer John Christie, is premiering here in the States. How much did you know about Christie before you signed on?
I knew the Richard Attenborough movie [10 Rillington Place, made in 1971]. I knew the case was instrumental in abolishing the death penalty in England, which was an extraordinary thing. But I knew very little, really. Then the producers sent me the material: autopsy reports, interviews, witness testimonials, a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the tabloids. It was a difficult read and a difficult role to play. I did all the research, and then I put it away. You can’t carry that around with you.
Why do you think people are so fascinated with serial killers?
It’s like looking at an accident from the top of a your bus. You know, the traffic-slowing-down-on-the-freeway mentality: There but by the grace of whatever go I. It’s a bit like that. Also, I think that the entertainment of it lies in the fiction of it? I mean, do you really want that to come to your house? No, you do not [laughs]. But to view that from a safe distance is cathartic. I mean, I love reading thrillers. I don’t want to live one!
“I’m happy to be in Funny Games, but please don’t come in my house and torture me…”
[Laughs] Oh, man. That was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Michael Haneke is fucking divine and I love him, but that movie was shot in sequence. So you start your day going, “Oh, I’m about to get stressed.” Then, day’s over, stop. Next day: Pick it right back where you left off, extremely stressed … then day’s over, stop. Next day: even more stressed. Repeat. It was like that for the whole shoot. They’d come out to get me between shots where I’d be smoking and just go, “Tim, are you okay?!?” And I’m just [mimes trembling, wide-eyed, waving folks away]. Also, the little boy playing my son looked exactly like my son did at the time, so I’d go into those scenes and find myself becoming incredibly upset. It was tough.
Let’s go back to your older stuff. Your first big role was playing a teenage skinhead in Made in Britain (1982), which attracted a lot of controversy – and made you a hero to certain boots-and-braces subcultures. How was it going from a relatively unknown theater actor to a guy showing up on T-shirts?
A little odd. I was on the cover of Gay News and was dubbed “Oi! Man of the Year” at the exact same time – so the image of this angry skinhead was a bit conflicting and open to interpretation. Which I loved, frankly! But even though people did sort of make that image of the character iconic, like you said, I mean: I could still take the bus. Do you know the movie Scum (1979)?
Quite well, yeah.
So I was in art school, studying sculpture and painting, doing theater in pubs and kind of making my reputation in the dodgy actor crowd. And then I went and saw this movie, about these teens in the juvenile prison system in England and it just … it changed my life. I watched it three times back to back and just sat their watching Ray Winstone, who plays the lead, and thought: I want to be that. I didn’t know what it was, but I kept thinking, That’s what I want to do.
Do you mean you wanted to generate that kind of energy? Because it’s a dynamic performance …
Yeah. You watch Ray’s performance, and it just tears your fucking head off. I’d never wanted to be a movie star; I was happy to do theater. I’d already wanted to be an actor. But then I’d seen what he was doing and just thought, Right. That’s the goal. Alan Clarke had directed Scum, so I started to seek him out, and he was the one who directed me in Made in Britain. That was my first movie. It just sort of went from there. That was my training ground. He’s the reason I’m sitting here.
What was your first impression of Quentin Tarantino? Clearly, he was not “Quentin Tarantino” yet …
Not at all. He was just a guy trying to make his first film. Robert Altman had essentially brought me out to Hollywood because he’d cast me in his Van Gogh movie [Vincent and Theo] and had me doing press; I got an agent here because of him. So I was in L.A., doing that thing that British actors do where they go, “Ok, I’m giving this three months to see if it works then I’m out of here.” I’d done a few small things – a Tales of the Crypt episode here, an independent movie in New York there – but mostly it was just me in California, sitting there and reading scripts.
“For Reservoir Dogs … my agent said look at Mr. Pink, look at Mr. Blonde. I just said, ‘I want to be the liar.’ I liked the idea of an Englishman playing an American playing a cop who’s playing a robber.”
Then suddenly, this script called Reservoir Dogs shows up. Quentin says he sent it to me because he’d seen me in the movie of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), which makes perfects sense; I’ve talked to Tom Stoppard, who wrote the play and directed the movie, a lot about the music of Quentin’s writing. But initially, it was like: What the fuck is a reservoir dog? Then I started reading it and 20 pages in, I was on the phone with my agent going, “Yes, please, whatever I need to do.” He said great, so look at Mr. Pink, look at Mr. Blonde – and I just said, “No. I want to be the liar.” I liked the idea of an Englishman playing an American playing a cop who’s playing a robber.
You originally refused to read for it, right?
Well, so … I show up at the first meeting and I remember this actor… he was in The Matrix, small bald guy …
Yes! He was waiting in the corridor to read for something, I don’t know what. Then they ushered me in to the room, and there’s Harvey Keitel and this other guy sitting there. They asked me to read, and I said, “Sorry, I can’t.” And they go, “Well, why not?” I told them, “Because I’m crap at it, I’ll lose the job if I read for you.”
“Well, you might lose the job if you don’t, too!” the other guys said. “Well, I’ll take the risk,” I replied.
Anyway, we chatted a bit, then the three of us went to a deli and had a beer and a sandwich, and they asked again: Would you please come back to the office and just read for us? No, nope, not going to, sorry. Eventually, Harvey had to go, so then this Quentin guy and I end up at a pub. We’re talking, and he starts writing out big chunks of the script on beer mats – I wish I’d kept those. Finally, I just said, “Ah, fuck it.” So we grabbed a six-pack of beer, went back to my apartment and just read through the whole thing. He was getting ready to head to the Sundance Institute with Steve Buscemi to work on it, and I was supposed to be heading up there with something else, so I just said, “Look, can you just tell me if I got it before we both head out there?” And he said, “Yeah, you got it.”
For the people who are in his theater troupe – it’s essentially a stock company he has now – he is our guy. There is no director who works better with actors, and I say that as someone who’s been lucky enough to work with filmmakers who are legendarily great with actors. We love him, and we’re very possessive of him. I mean, the guy is crazy as fuck. But he’s so damned good at making movies.
Is there a secret to getting the rhythm of his writing down?
You either get it or you don’t – but if you don’t get it, you just ask him and he’ll tell you. It’s one of those things that actors don’t tend to do. Sometimes you’ll be sitting there and go, “Hey, Quentin, can you give me that line?” And he’ll read it out and you go, “Aw, shit, right, got it now, thanks.” I mean, he’s got a gift for writing for actors, whether it’s Sam Jackson or, if he feels like taking the piss out of the English, for me. We have that in common, he and I: We love taking the piss out of the English! [Laughs] But if you aren’t getting it, ask him and he’ll tell you. Because it is very specific, the rhythm of his writing. It breaks my heart to think he may be stopping soon, but he’s a man of his word and I think he’s serious about [retirement].
I assume he’s talked to you about the new project he’s working on?
He’s told me what it’s about, but I have no idea if there’s a part in it for me – none of us actors who’ve worked with him do. All he has to do is say when, and we’re there. And if not, we’ll go [sighs] and then go fucking see it anyway!
How much of the dandy psycho fop you played in Rob Roy – and ended up getting an Oscar nomination for – was on the page versus what you brought to the role?
None of it was on the page. Not that I could see, anyway. I remember going to the director Mike Caton-Jones really early on and going, “I’m not sure about this guy.” He eventually told me that once the wig went off, we had to see who this guy really was. But for the longest time, I kept thinking “Fuck, I’m going to get fired. They’re going to sack me over this.”
Because you were playing the part so over-the-top?
Yes! But the thing is: That’s the point of the role! It took me a long time to figure that out. I have to give credit to the director, because he kept saying, “Go there! Go there, go there, go there! Quit bitchin’ about, do it, go big, go bigger!” And then it just clicked. And then I got to fight Liam Neeson with a sword.
Had you learned swordfighting in your days in the theater?
No, I knew nothing! I’d never handled a fucking sword in my life [laughs]! While Liam Neeson was up in the mountain in a kilt, I was working with the sword guys to sort get the hang of it, and have a jump on him when it was time to do the scene. Liam is a fast learner, though. I did accidentally stab him once for real. The best advice I got was from [fight co-ordinator] Bill Hobbs, who told me “Swordfighting isn’t about craft, it’s about character. How would your character fight?” And that’s how we came up with the sort of feral, vicious way he attacks.
You worked with Tupac Shakur a few years after that on Gridlock’d. What was your impression of him?
I adored him. I initially didn’t want him for the role – it just shows my white ignorance. I was just this pasty-faced London boy who didn’t know who he was, despite the fact that he’d gone double platinum by that point, I think. But what happened was, I was attached to the project and we had another actor who was interested in the role, then backed out at the last minute. So we suddenly found ourselves without a second lead. Tupac’s name came up – “He’s a rapper, he’s a really interesting guy and he’s really up for doing this” – and I just said, “Can you get me an actual actor, for fuck’s sake? Please?” I had no idea he was an actor before he was a musician, that he’d gone to the Fame school in Baltimore, none of that.
While this was going on and they were looking for someone else, I got nominated for Rob Roy. And during one of those silly party things you have to go to while it’s Oscar season, Quincy Jones came up to me and said, “Hey, Tupac, you should really give him a chance.” And it’s like, Aw, fuck, okay. Quincy is vouching for him. Let’s set up a meeting.
So the director Vonde [Curtis-Hall] and I are sitting in this restaurant I used to go to, waiting to meet him, and in comes a security team. sweeps the place and then they go out. Then a group of women enter; they go and sit at this table in the corner. And then in comes ‘Pac, who sits down, politely says, “Hi, how are you?” At which point, he proceeded to totally lay out the character. He had it down. And I’m just thinking, This guy is fucking amazing! I want to work with this guy! What do we need to do to get him in the movie? Meanwhile, Vonde is sitting there with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face, just going “I told you so…”.
I had two issues with him. One was the fact that he was writing, he was directing and starring in music videos and recording an album. He’d show up on set exhausted, and I just told him, I need you for five weeks. Let’s make this together, concentrate on this and then you can back to doing the other things. Which he did, and he was really cool about it.
The other thing was guns. We were sitting on the back of a truck, waiting to do a scene in Downtown L.A., and I said to him, “What’s with all the guns, why is there all this drama, what have you got yourself into?” And he very calmly explained to me the world he was living in at that moment, then said, “I think there’s a bullet out there with my name on it, man.” He and I were supposed to hang out the day after he ended up getting shot; we were really excited because he was coming back to L.A. and I really missed him a lot. The joke was that he had to re-record some dialogue for the film, and since I’d already been in the Death Row Studios with him and we’d recorded stuff, it was like, “Okay, ‘Pac, you’re in my territory now!” And then, you know, we got the word he was in the hospital, and then a few days after that, he had died. I still miss him.
You recently worked with David Lynch on the Twin Peaks revival. How was the experience?
David is incredibly gentle, actually. He’s the Transcendental Meditation dude, so no surprise, really. The notes he’d give you are incredibly funny, then you go, “Oh, that makes sense!” Then you just try to give him what he wants based on these cryptic things he’d say.
What sort of notes?
You’ve seen my death scene, yes?
The note he gave me going in to that scene was, “I want a rag-doll Elvis from you.” [Laughs] One take, and we were done. And he’s just sitting behind the camera, laughing his ass off. That was his direction. Fucking brilliant, that.
You made the family drama The War Zone in 1999. Do you think you’ll ever direct again?
As soon as humanly possible. I just have to do a few more TV shows to put the kids through two more years of college [laughs] and once that’s paid for, then I’ll definitely do it again.