Amidst all the over-bloated movie star hype at film festivals, it’s refreshing when you meet someone as real and as engaging as Tim Roth. Long after his rise to notoriety playing nasties in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he provided one of my enduring festival memories at an intimate post-premiere dinner for his directing debut, the intense incest film The War Room (1999), at the Berlin Film Festival.
Seated on the other side of the dinner table alongside his film’s star, Ray Winstone, Roth was determined to let off some steam so that the two London lads were like a two-man circus, cracking jokes and scoffing wines and beers. Afterwards they went out on the town before finally retiring to bed in the wee hours of the morning, only to get up early for a hectic schedule of interviews. They had stamina and from all reports still do.
Most recently, I met up with Roth last year in Cannes, where he was the head of the Un Certain Regard jury and gave a few interviews for another intense British film, Broken, the directing debut of London theatre director Rufus Norris. Roth plays Archie, a lawyer who following his divorce is struggling to raise his two kids on his own.
“Archie is a gentle and relaxed soul, a lovely father and his heart gets broken,” Roth explains. “He can't pick it up again.”
The drama revolves around Archie’s 11-year-old daughter, Skunk, played by stunning newcomer Eloise Lawrence, who becomes involved in some violent neighbourhood scenes in an otherwise quiet cul-de-sac.
[ Read: Director Rufus Norris discusses Broken ]
It’s a different kind of role for the actor who made his name playing tough guys.
“Originally the script was sent my way to do that and I ended up playing the father,” Roth explains. “I’d played with that idea before in Funny Games – somebody who loves his child and has his heart firmly broken,” he says of Michael Haneke’s English-language remake of his own Austrian film where he played the parent together with Naomi Watts. “But I’ve done nothing like Broken. I think this guy is incredibly special and one of the best times I've had as an actor was working with Rufus. There is an intelligence in this man and he connects with actors in a way most directors do not.”
Unlike the working class Gary Oldman and Winston, Roth grew up in a middle class London neighbourhood, to a left-leaning journalist father and a painter-turned-teacher mother. He attended Camberwell School of Art, and says he intended to be a movie director rather than an actor. But then he met Alan Clarke, and appeared in Made in Britain, one of the director’s stories of the dispossessed made for television. Clarke died prematurely in 1990 aged 54 and Roth’s emotions swell at the mention of his name.
“I’m sitting here because of Alan. He spotted me, gave me a job and taught me how to be an actor.”
Roth’s first feature film role was portraying a hired killer in Stephen Frears' The Hit, which he followed with Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo. He moved to Los Angeles in 1991 and he says Oldman helped pave his way into American movies.
“Gary went to the States before me and was kind of a bridge for me to get there. He’d started a new interest in British actors, not just doing Basil Rathbone stuff, but playing Americans and doing tough little films that are very brave and I thought, sod it, if he can do it I can do it. We were mates; we’d worked together a couple of times.”
Roth was soon cast by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs after they bonded during a bar crawl. His association with the director led to his casting in Pulp Fiction and Four Rooms. He also appeared as a hitman in James Gray’s directing debut Little Odessa, he was just released from prison in No Way Home, he was the worst singer and another ex-con in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, a junkie in Gridlock’d, a hoodlum in Hoodlum, and immensely devious in Liar. These were all independently produced movies.
“I don’t want to avoid Hollywood, why would you want to avoid it?” he told me during our War Zone interview. “If I was asked to do Star Wars I’d do it tomorrow. But usually there’s like 50 million car chases, and fine, I’ve been in one, it was a lark. But my heart’s in different things.”
Since then Roth has appeared in The Incredible Hulk and as a hairy primate in Planet of the Apes, which his teenage sons think is hilarious. “They now love Gridlock’d, which I did with Tupac Shakur, and now I'm cool. And The Hulk, they like that stuff. I think Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction have been snuck.”
Roth lives in California with his family (he married fashion designer Nikki Butler after meeting her at Sundance), though he constantly returns to Europe for work. While this fan of social realism would love to appear in the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, he has never really been asked. (He played a small role as a simpleminded skinhead in Leigh’s Meantime.)
“I begged Ken Loach for a job that I lost; he's also part of the reason why I'm an actor," admits Roth. “But fame gets in the way. Part of the reason I made The War Zone and now why I appeared in Broken is because they are the kinds of films I love to go to see in the cinema and get really damaged and struggle with what I’ve seen.”
Roth has recently finished his leading role in the hit series Lie to Me, which played directly to his talents and his natural scurrilous personality. What’s it been like coming out of a series and re-starting?
“I missed it actually,” he responds. “I didn't like working on it in the beginning, and I took it very seriously so I was tough on the writers and I was tough on myself. But then it gradually just got better and better and funnier. I am a workaholic so doing television is good for me in that respect. It’s 14-hour days on a 7-day-a-week basis pretty much because you're using your weekend to learn. I quite enjoyed it and I wasn't patient with film when I returned. The first film I did afterwards was Arbitrage. It’s a good film but I was quite perplexed, like ‘Come on, come on,’ because I'd just come off TV,” he says clapping his hands briskly. “What are we wasting time for?”
Roth then appeared in The Liability, which he describes as “a little thriller in the middle of nowhere in England, a very different vibe. Funny.” While he notes The Absinthe Drinkers has been “on my IMDB for a million years,” he says the film probably won’t get made, even if he has been practicing.
“Yeah, I've been rehearsing on that one. If it does get made, that would shoot in Italy, which would be rather lovely. I like Italy,” he grins.
Clearly on something of a roll, after Cannes last year he completed the spy movie Möbius alongside Jean Dujardin and Cécile de France. “I play a Russian Oligarch, who luckily was brought up in London.”
Of course, since our interview Roth has landed his biggest role in a while, as Prince Ranier III in Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco alongside Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace. Maybe the British scallywag has finally metamorphosed into an elder statesman. Probably not.
Broken is in select cinemas from May 16.