The Japes of Roth
A tear-up with a psychobilly was enough to land Tim Roth his first role. Now, says John Patterson, he's Brit pack royalty, decoding 'micro expressions' on US TV and starring in Sky's Easter blockbuster Skellig
Tim Roth, on the set of his latest job, is talking about the audition for his very first, Alan Clarke's Made In Britain, in which he played - quite indelibly - the nihilistic, hyper-intelligent 16-year-old skinhead Trevor.
"I can't believe I even did shit like this back then. For the final audition - which I think was in front of the producer, the writer David Leland, and Alan - I turned up early on purpose. I came in and I told 'em, 'When you need me I'll be in the park across the way,' knowing full well they'd be watching me through the window.
"And I did some, you know, character work in the park. And luckily a friend of mine turned up who was in a band called King Kurt. And he has this fucking huge mohawk and I'm bald and we started mock-fighting and he's making a peacock noise - and then the police turned up and got involved - and Alan and his lot are all watching me out the window. And then I went in and did a reading; but by then it was more of a formality than anything else. Alan said, 'Oh, we saw you through the window,' and I'm like, 'I know ...'"
Having made his bones at the tail end of the golden age of gritty, politically committed British television drama, Roth - soon to turn 48 - is now making his bones in a whole different kind of television, in its own kind of golden age, American network drama.
Make no mistake, this is the big leagues. His new dramatic series, Lie To Me, is filmed here on the Fox backlot, and is backed by the Ron Howard/Brian Grazer powerhouse, Imagine TV. And at the centre of it all is an actor known for his intensity, commitment and ferocious attack (and especially in the US, for his work with Tarantino). It's not where you expected to see him fetch up.
Lie To Me is another beachhead in the ongoing invasion of US TV drama by British actors. There's been a wave in the last two years, prompted by the ratings success of Hugh Laurie in House and by budget cutbacks (because Brits come cheap, work hard and don't bitch all day). But of all the invading hordes - Damien Lewis, Rufus Sewell, Kevin McKidd, Lena Headey, Michelle Ryan - Roth has easily the most intimidating and impressive resumé, and is the actor most familiar to US audiences, albeit from indie roles and arthouse pictures. He's also been an LA resident since 1992, so perhaps he wanted to commute to work for a change; he lives in the mountains inland from LA, maintaining a firm distance from the movie industry. In fact, not being a TV watcher, he'd completely missed the influx of Brits, beyond being stunned to learn that Dominic West in The Wire was actually English. "They came after me, and at first I said no, but I was missing so much of my children's growing up that I thought, 'This'll keep me at home.'"
Roth's kids - he has two teenage boys with his wife, plus another son in his 20s - are much on his mind lately. Before Lie To Me kicked off he returned to Britain and spent time in Wales shooting an engaging adaptation of Skellig, the fantasy novel for kids, partly because the script - with its echoes of Stig Of The Dump and Whistle Down The Wind - grabbed him and partly because, as he recalls, "My 13-year-old, Hunter, came in and said, 'What you reading?' It was the script for Skellig, and he's like, 'I've read that!' It was in the library at his school, and all the kids study it in class. Which is interesting, that it's made it across the Atlantic." He also signed on to play the Abomination in last summer's The Incredible Hulk largely due to the prodding of his comic-happy kids.
In Lie To Me, Roth plays Dr Cal Lightman, an expert on "micro-expressions", the science of what facial expressions involuntarily tell us about people. Put Dr Lightman in front of a suspect and he'll decode a range of tics and tropes - facial tautening, blinking, body language and panicked eyes - to determine their veracity. (The science is real, pioneered by Dr Paul Ekman, but Roth has avoided becoming too familiar with it because always knowing who's lying would "drive me insane").
The Roth the Guide meets today is a very different animal from Trevor in Made In Britain or Myron, the jumpy little sociopath he played in Stephen Frears's The Hit. Back then, all pale and skinny, with those vestigial fang-teeth, he looked freshly peeled, like a wet, pink new puppy. Now he's filled out a bit - though Incredible Hulk revealed a torso as ripped as it was in 1982 - and the face has more meat in it, more wisdom and experience.
It's odd to recall that Roth never had much formal acting training. "Yes, but don't forget, I went from Alan Clarke to Mike Leigh [1984's Meantime, with Gary Oldman and Phil Daniels] to Stephen Frears, all in one 18-month period," he stresses. "And I learned from their crews as well, especially their cameramen: Chris Menges with Alan, Roger Pratt with Mike Leigh." He was lucky to go straight to work for one of his idols, having watched Clarke's Scum many times, starring his future friend Ray Winstone. "It was an inspiration to me, that film. I thought if Ray can do work like that - as basically a beginner, almost a non-actor at the time - then I can do that as well, and of course, then I ended up with Alan Clarke too."
Roth's move to the US - after working with the full elite of directors in Britain, plus Robert Altman on Vincent & Theo - took his career into a different register. "Gary Oldman came to the States to do State Of Grace and he built the bridge for a lot of us who came after. Then I came out and I thought at the time it would be better to keep playing Americans because the casting directors mostly didn't know who the fuck I was; they thought I was American!"
He also worked with Tupac Shakur, in 1997's Gridlock'd. "He was a natural. A really good actor. I didn't even know who he was then, which is fucking typical of me, but I didn't. [He was] charismatic, funny, and incredibly articulate. We became very good mates. In fact, somewhere in the vaults of Death Row Records, there's a tape of me and Tupac rapping, which is hilarious."
A few indie projects later he won the part of Mr Orange in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. "My agent had me look at Mr Blonde or Mr Pink. I said, 'No, I like Orange.' Because I liked the idea of an Englishman playing an American, playing a cop, pretending to be a bad guy. Complete deception through and through! And I remember walking back to the trailer with Harvey Keitel one day, us both covered in blood, and saying, 'I think this might be pretty good.' I knew Quentin had a great eye for composition - judging by the cinematographers he liked, the kind of movies he was obsessed with - plus it was a fucking good script. And it's equal opportunities for his actors; everyone gets to take a big bite." He and Tarantino had a juicy part worked up for the latter's forthcoming Inglourious Basterds, but "the timing fell apart on us; next time, maybe."
For Roth, TV is, among other things, a way to return to directing. He calls his disturbing directorial debut, The War Zone, the happiest experience of his life - "I learned most about directing from the bad directors I've worked with because you're better off knowing what not to do" - and TV's "serious money, for very gruelling work, is a way back to that". He has a version of King Lear written for him by Harold Pinter that he'd like to film, and a script about Christopher Marlowe by Scottish writer Alan Sharp.
Meanwhile, little Trevor is all grown up and starring in a major US TV show coming your way very soon. It feels so weird to say that.