It’s often hard to remove the fan in you as a writer when you interview someone whose work you’ve admired for a long time. I guess that’s why I’m fond of Jimmy Fallon’s approach on his NBC Late Night show. Fallon’s giddiness and joy burst from him like a supernova, to the point of near embarrassment – like a friend going overboard in showing a girl how into her he is. You want to tell him to calm down, even while you’re smiling at how cool it is that he’s so free and unafraid to let it all hang out.
Anyways, I spoke to the great actor Tim Roth recently. The second half of the second season of Lie To Me, the FOX drama he stars in returns Monday, June 07th at 8 PM ET/7 PM CT. On the show, Roth plays Dr. Cal Lightman, founder of The Lightman Group, a company that assists investigations with the use of applied psychology (facial expressions, body language). Perhaps not the most exciting premise of all time, but Roth insists that the second season is much better than the first and that the character development is greatly improved. Lie To Me has nine episodes airing this summer (FOX’s order brings the second season up to 22 total) and in July, Roth and the cast go back to work on season three. “I don’t know when they would start airing them. They do have a plan, but I can’t remember it,” he says.
From his first film opposite the great John Hurt in The Hit directed by Stephen Frears to his portrayal of Mr. Orange in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to his Oscar-nominated & BAFTA winning role in Rob Roy to his directorial debut of The War Zone to his wicked turn as the ruthless solider, Emil Blonsky, in The Incredible Hulk, Roth has consistently been interesting in his performances and his choice of roles. At times frightening and electrifying, Roth can also disarm onscreen with a smile, giving the audience a look at his real personality. He’s a nice guy in real life – laughs easily, eager to talk about his past work and calming (“Don’t be nervous,” he says to me matter-of-factly when I tell him how daunting the task of speaking to him was). But if life were a film, and if Tim Roth was acting alongside you, I don’t know if I’d trust that smile and I’d wonder what menace lies behind that laugh. Is he just trying to make you relax only to strike you down when you least suspect it? I suppose it depends on what sort of film you’re in opposite him.
As I said, I recently had the chance to speak to Tim Roth and what you’ll find below is most of our conversation. Normally, when I’m doing an interview, my two dogs will begin barking at passersby or the mailman or the wind. But rarely does it happen on the other end of the phone. But this time it did. “The pool man’s here. They love him,” Roth says as his furry creatures go ape in the background. See? He’s got dogs and he doesn’t sick them on the pool man. Maybe that film you’re in with Roth is a bit sunnier than previously thought?
Tim Roth: I like it. I must say initially I really didn’t. It’s a really different job from film. Most film actors, one of their big complaints is that they hang around all day and then they just get to work for a few minutes. With this it’s the opposite. You work all day and you only get to hang around for a few minutes. It’s really time consuming and very…it’s a seven day a week job. At the beginning I didn’t like it so much. I found the scripts really difficult to get on with. And the first season is very much an experiment. And then gradually I came to enjoy it. I must say, when Shawn (Lie To Me‘s former show runner and executive producer Ryan) came on for the second season the writers that he brought on I thought were much more exciting. Especially a couple of them who I really connected with. It was much more character driven. I kind of enjoyed that, it was much more of a challenge. And I am a workaholic so a fourteen hour day is alright with me. If you get tired out at least you feel you achieved something.
So towards the end of the season, this one particular writer brought another guy on board, so the scripts really started to jump off the page. And now those guys have taken over the show for the third season. It should be very interesting.
So you feel that the show is going in a direction you’re really happy with?
Tim Roth: I think that in the second season it got there. There were times when I thought I could see the real potential in it. And what we’ve done is taken those elements and now we’re going to make the third season (even better). I think that it’s about to take another leap and it’s very interesting to me. It’s been a very enjoyable process overall, I must say. I really didn’t think it was gonna to be. I was quite wary of it. Because actors I had spoken to who do this had told me what was involved and sure enough, it’s a toughie. But it really grew on me. I really started to enjoy the process more and more. I think that the more you get involved in it the more enjoyable it becomes.
What prompted you to even consider the idea of being on TV?
Tim Roth: Well I wasn’t looking for it, to be honest with you. They came to me with it. I passed a couple of times. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea or not. And then with the recession kicking in and the way it hit the film industry. I think that’s the time when they approach actors. When you’ve got kids that need to go to school and you’ve got to think about college and all that. It’s a big bill trying to do that off of independent films and the occasional foray into studios. I think more and more film actors, it seems to me, are considering a career in television. I thought, well, why the hell not? If it doesn’t work I can always go back to making films. But you can’t enter into it lightly. It’s a huge commitment to your family as well. I’m filming in Los Angeles and I live in California. I’m going home after work but I see my kids on the weekend, mostly. But I thought, well I’ll give it a shot. And then it kinda stuck. I just think it was the right time for me to see if I can make this work.
When did you officially move to the states to live?
Tim Roth: I’ve been here for almost twenty years now. I came to do a film called Jumpin’ At the Boneyard and then I came to LA to do the meetings and stuff before I was going to head back to London and they just kept employing me. Which was rather nice.
I remember seeing Jumpin’ At the Boneyard first on Laserdisc…
Tim Roth: That’s right! I’ve still got one. I’ve kept my player. They’re great those things. When I went to Sundance with that, I was also there with Reservoir Dogs. So they came close.
Another great film you did was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with you and Gary Oldman, which was a lot of fun. Was that as much fun to do as it comes across?
Tim Roth: Oh yeah, it was fantastic fun. There’s an odd story attached to that. I got a call to meet with Tom Stoppard, who was directing. And the reason he was directing it, actually, was because he was the only one who would cut the material. I think that (Martin) Scorsese was interested in doing it, I think that (Robert) Altman was. But everyone was very respectful of the material and he felt too respectful. So he thought well, a, I’m cheaper, and b, I can fool around with it. So he called me in to meet with him and I went to his flat in London and Gary opened the door. I’d worked with Gary on a Mike Leigh film years before called Mean Times, it’s a very good film. So it was good to see him again – I hadn’t seen him in awhile. He loved the idea of us playing it. But, he gave me a lift to the station to get my train back home and he said, look I gotta tell you, I have to offer this, because of the money people, I have to go offer it to Danny Day-Lewis, but I think you’d be really terrific in it. He left me at the station and he went off to see Danny and Danny kind of imploded on stage, he was playing Hamlet, and had to take a lot of time off. As a consequence of him imploding I got the job. I really owe Danny one. I loved doing that film. For the two of us, me and Gary, it was a huge amount of fun. Even when we’d completed scenes we’d carry on doing the lines with each other. We really, really enjoyed the dialogue. It was a good experience. Very good experience.
In my head I align you two together.
Tim Roth: A lot of people do. In some way they align me and Steve Buscemi, too.
Specifically because of you working together, your on screen intensity and the two films you each directed shared a similarity thematically. Have you had any desire to direct again?
Tim Roth: Yeah, very much so. I would love to. In fact I remember I saw Gary, I presented him with an award in London, shortly after. In fact, I think I was in post-production at the time. He whispered in my ear up on the stage, I bet you don’t want to act anymore. And at that time I didn’t. And neither did he. We were very much just wanting to direct. I have two scripts that I want to do, but when you direct, especially when you direct things that are not necessarily in the commercial vain, that are more personal stories or journeys you want to go on, you’re not going to get any money for that. So you really have to find the time where you can afford to take two years off unpaid. And that stopped happening with the decline of the independent film and the rise of the big studio movie. So I found it very hard to get the space to do that. This television thing, it’s quite possible that I will have the time to do that because they pay you very well in television.
Is it because people don’t want to finance challenging material anymore?
Tim Roth: It’s very complicated raising money for an independent film. In Europe, quite often you’ve got about fifteen or twenty different sources of finance which you have to keep in place. The budgets have dropped greatly with regard to independent film. But, that being said, the technology makes it much easier for you to do your work. For me, now it’s just a question of, I’ve got kids to put through college. That’s my priority. But if it came to the point where I could afford to do both, I would do it. I would do it in a heartbeat. I’ve got two scripts ready to go right now. Very interesting and very different kinds of stories. And if I could, I suppose in the end, what I would do is direct more than that. And just come back and do the occasional bit of acting.
In the ’00s you were a bit under the radar, unlike in the ’90s. There’s a distinct difference, you seemed to be doing a lot of smaller films, was that by choice?
Tim Roth: That was by choice. Quite honestly, the studios never came in my direction. Very rarely. But I would find myself in odd and interesting films around the world. There was a time when a lot of independent stuff was being made in the states. It was the center of that world. America is the center of cinema, I mean, up to a point. The independent thing really took off here. Pulp Fiction would have been where the big money started to move in on the independent stuff and they figured they could make money out of it. That was probably the beginning of the end, in a way. But I was in Little Odessa, Gridlock’d those kinds of films. They were actually being made. I don’t know if you could make them now.
There’s a whole new mob out there. A very interesting group. I still get scripts. Now, if I have the time…it’s dependent on the television show as to whether I have time to do something. And then if we get picked up, because they own you for a certain amount of time, if you get picked up, in your spare time do you want to do a movie?
Can you talk a little bit about what was it like being nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar and winning the BAFTA for Rob Roy? Did you get a lot of heat after that from studios?
Tim Roth: I can’t remember what I did. I just went off and made an indie movie. I probably didn’t exploit it as much as actors would nowadays. I just thought, that’s great, moving on. It did open doors probably in that world and I did get studio scripts and so on, but I…no, I just thought it was a good thing to do. I enjoyed making it. It was complicated to make because of the sword fighting and those kinds of things. I’d never played a role like that. It was just fascinating to me, really, that time and that world. And working with Brian Cox and John Hurt…I had worked with John Hurt on a film called The Hit which Stephen Frears had done years before, so that was nice to get back with him. And then Jessica Lange I got on very, very well with. It was really about working with the actors more than anything, and Liam (Neeson), of course.
I read somewhere that you were supposed to be in Inglourious Basterds, but that fell through.
Tim Roth: I couldn’t do it because of the show. I had just signed on. I was supposed to do it. It was something that we had been talking about, me and Quentin (Tarantino), for years. Even since Pulp Fiction. It was just at the time that I had signed on to do this, Lie To Me. FOX, I think, were willing to release me to do it, which was really nice of them. The schedule was just impossible. The two scenes that he wanted me to do, were floating scenes. They were his weather cover. So he would have needed me there for a long time. And also they were predominantly in German, that would have been tricky. We just had to part ways on it. Which is a shame. But hopefully we’ll get to do something again somewhere down the line.
Did he end up casting the role?
Tim Roth: Yeah, yeah. The role’s in there. The English guy, Archie Hickox.
Oh yeah! Michael Fassbender, correct?
Tim Roth: It’s a fun role. But again, it seems to me that the film is what it should be. I always think that if you can’t do something there’s usually a good reason for it.
He was very good in it. Did you see him in Hunger?
Tim Roth: Yeah, he’s terrific. There’s a lot of good stuff floating around in that film. I hope I’ll work with him again. I do love working with him, he’s such fun.
I hope he doesn’t stop making films like he’s threatened to do in interviews.
Tim Roth: He’s a man of his word. He may. But I got a feeling he’ll be tempted back. Also, he’s a good producer and distributor of films, so that’s somewhere that he could be involved. It’s a big deal for him making a film. When I work with him, you hit the ground running with that guy. It’s full on.
How did you get approached for the role of Emil Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk and what was it like doing that role?
Tim Roth: I just thought it would be an extraordinary amount of fun. And I’d never done anything like that before. And I loved Hulk when I was a kid. My boys were insistent that I do it. I really enjoyed myself. I love that character. I thought it was really interesting. It could have been a lot weirder. We talked up a storm with the Marvel guys. They really enjoyed that character, too. What they do is they sign you for three movies, so if they ever wanted to bring the character back, in whatever form they could. Whether I’d be there to do it if they wanted me to do it, I’d do it. If they wanted to move on, I guess they could if they just wanted the monster version. There was a very interesting idea that they came up with Blonsky which they could put in a movie at any point. I liked the guy. I think we could have gone a lot deeper with him, so there’s room for maneuver there.