When I was 16 or 17 a friend and I auditioned for a play in school as a joke, and it wound up backfiring when I got the part. The drama teacher could see that I was a complete mess as a kid and really took me under her wing. I kept doing plays from there, when I was in art school, wherever I could: theaters, churches, pubs. (laughs) I was doing more theater than I was doing art, and they finally sat me down and said “Look, you’re taking the piss. Either get serious about this, or go try and be an actor. We’ll hold your place for you if you decide to come back.” I went to the dole office, and signed on. They said “What are you?” They needed a job description, so I said “Actor.” And I started getting work right away, and never stopped, and never had to go on the dole again.
Roth in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain, his film debut.
The first thing you did was Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain.
Alan was one of the greats, left us far too soon, and that was probably the best time I ever had as an actor, as well. I was selling advertising over the telephone when I got that part, which is something a lot of people in Britain do when they’re trying to subsidize themselves as actors. I had a flat tire, and was looking for a pump, and went into this theater on the west end. They mentioned that there were auditions happening for this TV film, and did I fancy having a go. And I said “Cheers, sure.” I went in and met Alan, who was a real character from Liverpool: a traveler, a joker, a troublemaker, very kind of handsome, and wild with women, and he was a filmmaker on top of all of that. And he was a filmmaker at a time when the BBC and a lot of other companies were allowing you to make these controversial dramas and were willing to take the flack for them. So Alan came up in the company of people like Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, a big group.
All the British neo-realists.
Exactly, they were just fantastic, these guys. Of all of them, I think Alan was the best, and I think Ken would agree.
Look at his eye for talent: he discovered you, Ray Winstone, and Gary Oldman.
Yeah, he did have a great eye, but it was his choice of subjects and how he went about filming them that I loved. When we filmed Made in Britain, he took me out with Chris Menges, who’s an extraordinary cinematographer, and it was the beginnings of SteadiCam, and these sort of flowing shots, which gave you total freedom as an actor, and also total madness. It was my first time in front of a camera, and a great way to enter. I knew nothing about film acting at that point, other than the fact that I wanted to be one, and that I didn’t want to be a stage actor.
Next you worked with Mike Leigh on the TV film Meantime. He’s renowned for his unique process of preparation and filming.
Mike’s got a lot of gusto. We didn’t have the luxury of the long rehearsal and prep process that he’s become renowned for, but we still had about 14 weeks, and for a TV film, that’s bloody good, with about five or six weeks of that to develop character, to live as the character, a more condensed version of what he does now. I’d love to work with him again. He’s got a twinkle in his eye. Pam Ferris, who played my mother in the film, were buying groceries and Mike was behind us, sort of leaning in, watching us, taking notes on this pad he carried with him everywhere, with that great beard of his, and his hat pulled down low over his eyes. (laughs) Real character.
Roth in Stephen Frears' The Hit.
The first film I remember seeing you in was The Hit.
Yeah, Stephen Frears did that, and we actually just did the Criterion audio commentary for that. It was a beautiful little thriller really, an odd little film, but beautiful. It was a great group: Terry Stamp, John Hurt, Bill Hunter, Laura del Sol…for me, and I hadn’t seen the film in years because I never watch my stuff, and I thought Laura’s performance was probably the best in it. We talked about it in the commentary, that each of us was from a very different school of acting: I came up from the Alan Clarke school, John came from RADA, Terry came from the whole ‘60s, working class-boy-makes-good school, and Laura, who came from the streets and was a Flamenco dancer. And here we were, among all these giants, and Laura, who’d never really acted before, gave a performance that was the most modern, in many ways. She’s stunning.
Your character seemed like one of those dim-witted kids that we now see here who watched Scarface too many times as a kid, only your guy had watched Get Carter 150 times, and wore those yellow sunglasses, and wanted so badly to be the movie version of a “hard man.”
(laughs) Yeah, right. I don’t think he’d ever held a gun before and suddenly they give him a thousand pounds and tell him he’s going to be the driver for these gangsters and he was like “Yeah! Cool!” and he just didn’t know what the fuck he was doing. When that yellow sunglass lens was blown out, I almost lost my bloody eye. That was my idea, actually. I had wanted him to get shot through the teeth, but that wasn’t possible to pull off, so they put this little charge on the inside of the glasses that was directed outward, and covered up my eye, but it still hurt like hell. I was young, and it was a bit dodgy, looking back. Shouldn’t have done that. (laughs)
You got to work with the great Robert Altman on what many feel is one of his greatest films, Vincent and Theo.
The full cut, which was only shown on TV in Europe, runs over four hours and almost goes by quicker than the version which was released theatrically here and cut in half. I’ve never seen that cut, and I’m desperate to. So if there’s anyone out there who’s reading this…(laughs) I was working on a film with Peter Greenaway at the time, and I got a call saying that Altman wanted to meet with me. I said “Is that the MASH fellow? He’s great!” (laughs) I didn’t know too much about film at that time. So I go to his hotel, and he wouldn’t let me see the script until he decided whether I was going to do it or not. I thought that I was too young, and too young-looking. I looked much younger than my years for a long time, which is useful in some respects, but bloody annoying in others. So I was actually talking myself out of a job, stupidly. But the more we talked, the more I talked myself into it. We talked about the man, and I talked about my father with him a bit. Altman said, “Just listen to your dad. Read the letters (between Vincent and Theo) and talk to your dad. Forget about everything else.” So he hired me on, and we had the most extraordinary time. Being abroad, being someone I deeply admired, being with someone I deeply admired, was just extraordinary. We spent three months together, just sort of knocking around Holland and France.
Roth as Vincent Van Gough in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo.
He was renowned for giving his actors a great deal of latitude.
Yeah, Bob gave us the script and allowed us to rewrite it. I remember coming in one morning and he said “Where do you want the camera?” (laughs) You never felt that you were overstepping your mark. You always felt that he wanted you to do that. It was “Okay, we’re doing a scene about color. Why don’t you go in the kitchen and make a salad?” That was our way of dealing with what he wanted and dealing with what he wanted. He was happiest when we were sort of wild and took over. He encouraged it. We didn’t realize how much we were being directed at the time, and therein lies the art.
Left to right: Michael Madsen, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Tim Roth, and Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs.
Which brings us to Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs. Did you realize at the time that it was revolutionary, or was it just another job?
I thought it was a bloody great script. I thought it was hilarious, and brutal…it was just the writing that got me. I was halfway through the script, and got on the phone and said that I wanted to do it. But it didn’t come easy. Quentin wanted me to play one of two other characters, but I wanted to play Mr. Orange, because he was the actor, right? There were lots of battles trying to get me to read, which I don’t like doing because I’m not very good at it. I think The Hit was the last time I did a formal audition for something. So it was a bit of a battle on that front, but eventually he gave it to me, and it was madness. Controlled madness, but madness, with all those actors, and all those egos (laughs), and we found ourselves all getting along really well when all was said and done. Although Lawrence (Tierney) was really crazy. (laughs)
Everyone I’ve met who worked on that film has a great Lawrence Tierney story. What’s yours?
Lawrence really didn’t like me, I don’t think—actually he didn’t like most people—at least in the beginning, but then he decided he did. I ended up in bars with him, and he’d introduce me to all these characters, like the guy who invented the yo-yo that would light up. I had this very lovely, tall black girlfriend at the time, and all sorts of offensive things would come out of his mouth when I brought her along that I won’t bother repeating. (laughs) She wanted to pop him. He was a bizarre fellow. Then he decided suddenly that he didn’t like me again. (laughs) So he was mad, but great. Back in the day, the cops really, literally threw him across the state line of California because they were so sick of busting up fights that he’d start in bars, and so on. So he went up to New York, and he hated New York, he was so bored. So to liven things up, he’d be in a bar, and call the cops, saying “Get the hell down here, there’s a huge fight goin’ on!” So the cops would arrive, and he’d beat the cops up. (laughs)
They don’t make guys like that anymore.
Well, there are guys like that out in the acting community now, but with Lawrence I think he felt he never really got his due from this town, and I have to say I think he was right. It’s tougher now if you’ve got one of those oversized personalities because the business is so different today. It’s all these giant conglomerates and corporations who don’t give a fuck about anybody unless they’re making money, but for us, and anybody who had an interest in film history, we thought Lawrence, and those like him, were really remarkable guys. And Eddie Bunker, too, and those guys. You paid attention when you were around these guys. Eddie was a literary man, and told me some incredible stories about his life as a criminal. But there’s no room for them in today’s climate. The powers that be seem to like a sameness in their big name actors. I remember one night we had a dinner out at Harvey Keitel’s place by the beach, right before we started shooting. I was the only Englishman there, and was really nervous that I wouldn’t fit in. And Mike Madsen was so cool to me, and started talking about poetry and painting, things like that, and he was the first one sized up and thought “Oh Christ, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to deal with him.” (laughs) But he really took me under his wing, and was incredibly warm and articulate and we would end up with bars, with Chris Penn, talking about poetry and about art. It was wonderful. Mike is one of those very rare, special human beings. So they do make guys like that still, but it’s rare, and it’s hard for them to get their just desserts in this town.
Tell us about Tarantino.
It’s hit the ground running. If you’ve ever seen an interview with Quentin, that’s what he’s really like. It’s full speed ahead and you don’t stop until they say it’s a wrap. I don’t know what he’s like with the new films. We were trying to get together on Inglorious Basterds, but my schedule was too screwy. But, I found it to be a very creative and high speed process. He was all about the actor. I found him to be really articulate about the process, particularly considering it was his first effort. I remember Harvey Keitel turning to me on the set at one point saying “I think this is going to be quite good. But let’s not jinx it!” (laughs)
Roth as the evil Archibald Cunningham, his Oscar-nominated role in Rob Roy.
This brings us to my favorite role you’ve ever done: Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy, who has to be one of the greatest screen villains in history.
(laughs) My wife drives me crazy about this, because I thought I was going to get fired, since it was so over-the-top. A lot of the credit has to go to the director (Michael Caton-Jones), because I love physical acting and there’s not many people that do anymore. A lot of acting now is behavior, where your range is about being as normal as possible. And I don’t like that particularly. I always think of Charles Laughton’s quote: “Method actors give you a photograph, real actors give you an oil painting.” And my feel is that you go at it. So Michael encouraged me to go down this road, and we did it emphasizing the grandness of his behavior, and I thought ‘When the studios see the dailies I’m fucked. I’m going to get fired for sure.’ So I called my agent and told him to find me another job. (laughs) Then I heard that the powers that be were liking it, so I kept going in that direction. My whole aim was: underneath the powdered wig, and foppish exterior, is a skinhead. Underneath the wig is a psychopath, and all the rest is dress-up. My wife was showing me books with portraits of these 18th century guys, who just looked like the worst transvestites, almost comical. But these guys were also deadly with a sword, and they used it, and they enjoyed it. They were slave owners, up in Scotland. The aim was to get to the place where the wig comes off, and his character changes, and you reveal the real guy.
Roth and Liam Neeson's climactic sword fight in Rob Roy.
That final sword fight between you and Liam Neeson is probably the greatest screen swordplay since Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Bill Hobbs, who choreographed the fight, is one of the all-time masters of sword fighting. His philosophy was “Don’t learn to sword fight. It’s about your character. How does your character fight. You fight as an extension of yourself.” So he studied our performances, and then came up with a style that was in keeping with our characters. It was a very complicated fight. In reality, Liam would have been dead in a second, because it was brute strength versus finesse.
That film was written by one of the great screenwriters, Alan Sharp.
Alan was fucking amazing! Great writer and as a human being, I just love him. He wrote this amazing, definitive script about Christopher Marlowe, that I’m dying to do, but it’s just too damn long. It’s either a TV thing, or it’s two films. He gave it to me at that time with the idea of me playing Marlowe, but now I’m too old for it. Not only does he understand the history and the underbelly of what we were doing, but he gets what actors need to come out of their mouths, and really knows how to write for the cinema.
Roth in Francis Coppola's Youth Without Youth.
More recently, you worked with Francis Coppola on his first feature in ten years, Youth Without Youth.
I think it’s one of those films that will have some kind of life, although many people found it a bit esoteric. I always felt that it was, at heart, a film about what Francis was feeling about his life at that time, about his successes and failures, about what it felt like for him to be growing older, and if you look at it from that perspective, it’s pretty great. We spent six months in Romania shooting it, most of the crew were under 30, so it was exciting to be working with all these young people that were really passionate about film and filmmaking. With Francis, you couldn’t touch the dialogue, which for me was difficult, because it was the translation of a book that was, by itself, quite difficult. So, you have that…(laughs) As sophisticated as the story and the concept were, I felt that the dialogue was not always so sophisticated. It was difficult to actually speak, and that was the hardest thing to get by Francis, so you had to let go on that. The film is a triumph, however, of color and texture and mood, and he was very open to that and very spontaneous towards ideas for different shots. So visually, it was a remarkable experience to be a part of, whereas the dialogue side, a bit of a pain in the ass. I really got stressed out over it, when Francis said I shouldn’t and looking back, I should’ve listened to him. (laughs) I really love Francis. He’s a conundrum. He was also the first person on the set and the last one off. So as much as we actors like to bitch about how tough we have it, all you have to do is look at the bloody crew, who are working much harder than you are. So I’d say the experience of working with Francis was one of the best I’ve ever had, even though aspects of it were awful. I look back on it overall with great fondness.
You made your directing debut in 1999 with The War Zone. What was it like stepping behind the camera?
For me, that’s the best job in the world. That’s part of why I’m doing the TV thing: it’ll hopefully give me enough financial clout to take some time off and do some more directing. I never want to direct myself in anything, but I have two things I want to do. One of them is an adaptation Harold Pinter wrote of King Lear for me to direct.
Ray Winstone and Lara Belmont in The War Zone, Roth's directing debut.
What is it that fills you up about directing?
Everything I’ve acted in I’ve done for someone else. Every performance is what a director wants. Film is really a director’s medium, not an actor’s medium. You serve the director’s vision. You can create. You can be of independent mind, and put your mark on it, but the director has something in mind, and your aim to straddle both your world and his world, and leave him with something that’s as close as possible to what was in his mind. That’s the deal. That’s the gig. When I came around to the directing side of it, I got to talk wallpaper, paint color, lenses, make-up…I had a finger in every department. It was wonderful. It’s a completely megalomaniacal, but sod it, it’s my turn! (laughs) And for the first time ever, I got to make a film that was about me. It had my imprint on it. As an actor, you don’t do that. They give you the Oscar at the end, but it’s really the director’s gig. Theater is the actor’s gig.
And the writer’s.
Yes, and the writer. Same with television. They gave the writer the power in television, and look where it got them, because there’s no balance.
How did you prepare? Did you study the films of directors that you’d admired?
No, I remembered all the mistakes directors made who I’d worked with in the past. The bad directors I’d worked with were the most influential.
We started talking about television, so why don’t we end on the same note: many actors I’ve talked with who have made the transition from features to TV say they really enjoy the job security that television offers. Is there always that fear, even at this stage of your career, that every job might be your last?
Absolutely! The idea of unemployment is a great motivator for most actors, I think. It fills up all your time, and at the same time frees you up. The plug can be pulled tomorrow, and it’s not my jurisdiction to say whether we’ll stick around or not. There are a lot of things I don’t like about working within the TV system, and I really want to slap it around sometimes. It shoots itself in the foot constantly. It could be so much more powerful than it is, but they keep moving toward the middle. Those kinds of fights are exhausting, but doing the performance and fleshing out this character, I really do enjoy that. And the cast are all really brilliant too, and lovely people, which makes it much easier to go to work every day. (laughs) I wouldn’t have been able to get through those first eight episodes without them.