Since his first appearance on film as a wiry skinhead in Alan Clarke’s 1982 ITV movie Made In Britain, Tim Roth has made a career out of playing jittery, quick-witted guys who always seem on the verge of either speaking their mind or pitching a fit. In the ’90s, in movies like Reservoir Dogs, Little Odessa, and Rob Roy, Roth imbued heroes and villains with the same restless energy. Then in the ’00s, he became more adventurous with his choices, taking on a variety of roles in smaller movies. Currently, Roth can be seen on American television every week in the Fox series Lie To Me, playing Dr. Cal Lightman, a master of reading body language (based on real-life “human lie detector” Paul Ekman). After a hiatus earlier this year, the second season of Lie To Me is finishing up its run on Fox on Monday nights this summer, and it was recently renewed for a third season.
The A.V. Club: What drew you to Lie To Me?
Tim Roth: It’s like an experiment for me. I’ve done telly before. I’ve done films for TV, and miniseries. But I’ve never done anything like this. When they first came to me, I thought the character was really interesting, and I thought we could go in different directions, and it wouldn’t be just a procedural. The character I thought was potentially quite wild and fun. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to settle into something like this, so I walked away from it initially, until [creator] Sam Baum came back to me for another run, and I took him more seriously. My kids were all about to hit the teen age, and I’d heard that as much as you’re not around when you’re doing TV, you do get to go home. You’re there at the weekend. You get to see your guys growing up. It was a chance to be around for that last chunk of childhood. So I got into it. Then we got picked up, which was great, but I wasn’t sure it would succeed, if it would engage an audience on the kind of scale network television requires. But it seems to be working. And I’ve really started to enjoy it. It’s a very interesting experience, being involved in television. American television is very, very odd. And it will go on for as long as it goes on, but from my end, it’s been this grand and bizarre experiment. I like playing the guy, and he’s changing all the time. And they’re writing good character stuff now this season. So hopefully he’ll evolve and become even more mad.
AVC: When you say “odd,” are you just talking about the difference between British and American TV, or the difference between TV and film?
TR: Well, I think American TV is probably some of the best TV out there at the moment. But network TV is a whole different animal. Basically, we have to turn in, every eight or nine days, a little 43-minute film with a certain amount of twists in it, and it’s quite a beast. You are completely in the hands of your writers and the talent of the people at the top. For me, it really was this weird test to see if I could find my way through it. It’s a very strange world, but it’s quite nice being a part of it.
AVC: Do you find that actors have a keener sense of when people are lying?
TR: I think you think you do, but quite often, you get it wrong. [Laughs.] You do spend most of your time as an actor being a liar. It’s the nature of your job. If you’re any good, you probably have a fairly keen idea of when people are telling you the truth or not. But there’s so much maneuvering that goes on in life, and there’s so much distraction, that unless you were trained like Ekman and are constantly looking… I mean, thankfully, I don’t know when people are lying to me, because I’m not really looking. That’s probably a very useful skill in life, but I don’t think I could go through life being able to tell. It would be pretty tough.
AVC: You mentioned starting out on TV, but much of the TV you made in the UK was with people who are better known now for their movies, right?
TR: Yes, that’s right. The Hit was my first feature film, but I’d done Made In Britain and Meantime on TV, both by extraordinary directors, Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh. Joe Strummer from The Clash was going to play my role in The Hit, but he was having trouble with the band, so he said, “I can’t do it, why don’t you get that skinhead in?” Which was the character I played in the first thing I had ever done. So they called me in, and I got on very well with Jeremy Thomas, who was a producer, and Stephen Frears, who was the director, so they gave me the job purely by luck. And then I had a complete blast on it. I played the driver in a road-trip movie, and I couldn’t drive. I had to learn in only a few hours, and I did almost crash and take out John Hurt and Terence Stamp.
AVC: How would you compare the experience of being a know-nothing kid in The Hit to being a middle-aged family man in Funny Games?
TR: God, Funny Games was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, on many levels. Firstly, the director [Michael Haneke], I thought was wonderful. He’s a fantastic man. But we were remaking a film that had already been done, and he wanted to remake it shot-for-shot. There was no real room for maneuvering, and for playing with or experimenting with the character. You pretty much had to be where the other actor sat or stood and not play around with the lines at all. That was part of this weird experiment he was doing. And it was shot in sequence. So you started in the morning distressed, and you ended your day even more distressed, and then you got up in the morning and you started more distressed and you ended up even more distressed, on-and-on for five and a half weeks. It was absolutely brutal, but it was a hell of a journey. And I haven’t even seen the finished film. It was a horrendous experience just on an emotional level, playing it. The little boy I was working with, Devon [Gearhart], was a sweetheart, and he looked very, very much like one of my children, so that was quite disturbing too. He was kind of a strong shoulder for me to rest on, that boy. He was a good guy. It was a really depressing and exhausting experience, that one. It’s really tough to play somebody who can’t do anything about the situation he’s in.
AVC: Did you have DVDs of the original on the set to make sure that you were doing the same thing?
TR: No, I left that to the director. I watched it once, very early on. The first time I read the script, I passed on it. And then my agent said, “Have a look at the original, that’s what it’s really about.” And I saw it and went, “Oh, I get it,” and thought, “Well maybe it’s worth living through that experience.” And it was, really. Worth every minute of it. But I have to tell you, but it was really tough.
AVC: What was it like working with Francis Ford Coppola on Youth Without Youth, after he’d had such a long layoff?
TR: Well, Francis came to me very early on in his writing process. He had me read the script to see if I responded to it, and I didn’t really understand it, even in its early incarnations. I had read the book it was based on, and it was a very complicated text. On the one hand, I thought the dialogue was going to be pretty tough to deal with, but the journey is fascinating. The idea of a man who’s struck by lightning and becomes young again. Does he relive the same mistakes, or does he make big changes? And how does it feel to keep getting older and older and older? Is what’s happening to him even real? There are many levels that it operates on. And then there was Francis at the top of it. The experience of working with him, someone who is so much a part of cinematic history, and also a big part of my passion for film. All in all, it was an extraordinary journey. It was 90 days, I think, pretty much in Romania. I think I had one day off. And I think I made sure I switched my phone off so no one could get to me. It was very, very difficult, but incredibly worthwhile. We made it for a very small amount of money. It was a very low-budget movie.
AVC: Did you get the sense that Francis Ford Coppola had a learning curve of his own, having to work on such a small scale after making so many big movies?
TR: Yeah, I thought it was an interesting experiment in moviemaking at the time, and it still is. He’s unstoppable. I think he had more energy on set than anybody, or even all of us put together. And we had a very young, almost student team of filmmakers with us. It was him looking at other ways of making films and telling stories, trying to make new two-dimensional images. So that was a very fulfilling experience for me. And I loved my co-star, Alexandra Maria Lara, who is fantastic.
AVC: You’ve had a long, fruitful association with Quentin Tarantino, having appeared in Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Four Rooms. How did you originally get involved with him?
TR: Well, he came to me. He’d seen Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Vincent & Theo, which are films he really liked. My agent sent me the script, and wrote a little note saying I should look at the role of Pink or Blonde. And I read it and I said “No, I like that guy Orange, because he’s a liar. I’ll be an Englishman playing an American playing a cop who’s playing a villain.” And I liked that combination, because it seemed incredibly difficult to do. So then I met with Quentin and we got along very well, but they wanted me to read, and I wouldn’t do it. I don’t like auditioning in that way, because I’m not very good at it. But we all got drunk, and eventually I did. [Laughs.]
We became very fast friends. We worked very hard and very closely together, and then he wrote Honey Bunny and Pumpkin for me and Amanda [Plummer] to do together in [Pulp Fiction]. And then Four Rooms came about because Steve Buscemi couldn’t do it, I think. They came to me and asked, “Would you fancy having a crack at this guy?” And I thought, “Yeah, I’ll have a go, wild.” And from there we did talk for a long time about Inglourious Basterds, but with the TV show, the schedule just got in the way in the end, so I couldn’t do it. I was ready, though, to go out to Germany with him. Working with Quentin, you just hit the ground running. It’s a hell of a ride, but it’s always phenomenal. Really, I owe him, because I suppose he’s the guy who got me noticed in the States, which is where I’ve been living now for the best part of 20 years.