Tim Roth on Skellig
By Benji Wilson
Tim Roth has taken a break from Hollywood to star in Skellig, the children's tale of a boy who finds a winged tramp at the bottom of his garden. He talks about making the return to Britain and why he was surprised by the low standard of TV drama.
The prospect of Tim Roth starring in a big Easter family drama is about as incongruous as ET showing up on Cranford. Roth made his name on UK television in 1983 playing an angry, racist skinhead in Alan Clarke’s searing Made in Britain. Then he broke into Hollywood a decade later as Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs, slathered in pints of blood for the majority of his performance. His 1999 directorial debut The War Zone, meanwhile, scarcely leavened the tone, with its unflinching study of incest and abuse.
No Easter bunnies on that CV then, yet here he is in Skellig, Sky1’s feature-length adaptation of David Almond’s classic children’s novel, which airs on Easter Sunday. Roth’s reasons for taking the part suggest that his priorities have changed over the years.
"They sent me a script, I was half way through it and I talked to my kids about it,’ he says (he has two sons with his wife Nikki). "They said, 'Oh, it’s great, that book.' They’d read it at school, so I said, 'All right, I’ll do it.'"
Roth plays the title character, a gnarled tramp discovered in a garden shed by a young boy, Michael (Bill Milner). For the first half of the film Skellig is pointedly surly. ("He’s a grumpy b------," chuckles Roth. "I kind of liked him.")
But won over by the boy’s innocence, Skellig is slowly revitalised. It turns out that he has wings, and may even be some kind of angel who can save Michael’s ailing baby sister.
Skellig is a captivating adaptation, but it is some way from the kind of fare in which Roth cut his teeth. Roth, like Gary Oldman, emerged at a time of state-of-the-nation television plays made by overtly political directors such as Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Clarke.
"Gary and I came up at the tail end of that," says Roth. "I think it shows in the film that Gary directed [1997’s Nil by Mouth] and the film that I directed – that’s where our taste is and it doesn’t necessary reflect in the kind of work that we do as actors any more. I do worry that that’s gone."
Roth, who is 47, has lived in Los Angeles for 17 years. Coming back to film Skellig in and around Cardiff, he says, gave him an opportunity to sample British television once again. He was not hugely impressed.
"The kind of television that’s happening in the States is of a higher standard," he says. "I was really surprised coming back here – the standard’s really dropped. I’m not going to tell you what I saw but I found that there’s much less drama and individual plays and films for television than there were. I was worried about it – a lot of it is an attempt to aim at American formats as opposed to what we used to do, which was distinctly British. I don’t know if you could make a Made in Britain any more. You wouldn’t be allowed to."
Actors such as Roth, Ray Winstone and Oldman, meanwhile, have grown up, calmed down and moved on. They have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay. Add this to the increasing quality of US television scripts and the comparative job security of a series television role, and it’s no surprise that big names such as Roth, once seen as film actors, are coming to television.
"I’ve noticed it more and more," he says. "Kiefer Sutherland on 24, Laurence Fishburne [on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation], Ray [Winstone] was definitely trying to do one and it didn’t get picked up, but I know that he’d like to. I also think you have to look at the age group that they [television shows and their casting directors] go for: it’s guys who have got kids. After a while you think, 'You know what, I wouldn’t mind a pay cheque and to take a break from that fear of unemployment for a while.'"
All of these factors have contributed to Roth’s next move – he’s taken the lead in Lie to Me, an American police procedural in which he plays a brilliant psychologist who can read minute facial movements and tell whether a subject is lying. Like Skellig it’ll be shown on Sky1, starting in May.
"It’s based on this real guy, Dr Paul Ekman," he says. "During the Sixties he studied body language and he figured out that things go across your face, expressions that are completely involuntary. You have no idea that they’re there and they’re the same in every culture."
Ekman devised a facial coding system that equates specific tics with specific emotions. "Concealed scorn," Roth says by way of example, "is one where your top lip comes up, your nostrils flare and your mouth opens and goes down. Then you freeze-frame [George W] Bush or something – and there it is!"
Roth met Ekman before filming. "He’s a very charming, very sweet guy," says Roth. "I didn’t want to know too much of this stuff, but the one thing he did say was this: I asked him, 'Can you switch it off?' and he said, 'No.' Once you know the stuff you can never get rid of what you know. And that has consequences in relationships, with your children... because you can tell if they’re lying."
So does that mean that Roth can use his new powers to determine when a member of the public has, say, pranged his car and not admitted it?
"In those kinds of situations it gets more interesting when they recognise you from the television show – they’re more likely to tell you the truth!" he says. "And the 'dog ate my homework' syndrome with the kids doesn’t play very well now."
Because they know he can tell if they’re lying?
"No, but they think I can," he says. "And, believe me, I don’t disabuse them of the notion."