Tim Roth: “Retrain? I suggest Boris Johnson does the fucking same”

Despite almost 30 years in Hollywood, the 'Reservoir Dogs' star hasn't forgotten his south London origins. He takes us back to where it all began: 1976, and the arrival of punk

Tim Roth is angry. The news that the government suggested everyone in the arts should retrain to get through the recession has rattled him. “They said what?! I don’t know which of us has the worst of it at the moment,” he shakes his head, sipping tea in front of a webcam in his sunny LA living room, days before the American election. “We’ve both got the coronavirus. We’ve got Trump, but you’ve got Boris. I think we outclass you in idiocy, but not by much. Retrain?! I suggest he does the fucking same.”

Roth hasn’t lived in Britain for almost 30 years now – going to LA to shoot Reservoir Dogs in 1991 and never coming home again – but he’s still the same south London punk he was when he started out. Full of twitchy teenage angst beneath the calm of middle age, he’s deliberately made his career in Hollywood “as messy as possible”. Picking projects that keep him moving, Roth has done everything from arthouse indies to Marvel blockbusters, playing skinheads, bank robbers, gunslingers and serial killers alongside classical painters, Shakespearian heroes, French marquises and Spanish kings.

“I’ve deliberately made my career as messy as possible”

“Sometimes it was shit, but sometimes it was good,” he shrugs, still sounding more Peckham than Pasadena. “Sometimes you thought it was good when you went into it, and then when it was cut together it didn’t work, and vice versa. Win some, lose some.”

Now returning with the third season of 2017’s Western revenger Tin Star, Roth decided to move the whole production to Liverpool just because he liked the place.

“It was purely selfish”, he laughs. “I did a thing there called Reg, [Jimmy McGovern’s 2016 TV drama about anti-war activist Reg Keyes], and loved it. I loved the people, and I really had a great time working there, so I thought… why not?”

Tim Roth
Credit: Sky

Always intended to be the final chapter of the story, season three picks up Roth’s renegade on-screen family as they bring some Rocky Mountain justice back home – deciding to take on the same British mob they crossed the Atlantic to escape from in the first place. “Season two was mostly improvised,” he says. “Early on I was in my trailer working out what the hell we were going to say, and [cast member] Genevieve [O’Reilly] said it’s a shame that these characters are always on the defence. So I came up with the notion of taking them home and putting them on the attack. I wanted to see them taking care of business before the final hurrah.”

Investing more into this role than any other in his career (shooting less episodes than 2009’s psychological detective show, Lie To Me, but spending far longer making them), Tin Star will leave a big gap in Roth’s life when it ends. Not that you’d know it to talk to him. “I think it’s the British attitude,” he laughs, already putting the show behind him. “It’s that idea of, ‘where’s the next job? I’ll take it’. That’s how I’ve always worked. I have no plan. That’s the plan.”

Tim Roth
Credit: Sky

Back in the late ’70s, and back in south London, teenaged Roth wasn’t much different. Starting out on the fringes of the punk movement after growing up with artsy parents in middle-class Dulwich, he was always looking for the next wave to ride until he settled into drama. “The punk thing hit me in ’76 but I thought it was over already by then,” he laughs. “I was a purist, so within a year it had finished. But then I did the art school thing, where we were all into [abstract Dutch art movement] De Stijl and Bauhaus weirdness instead. After that acting became my thing – I just tried to keep working.”

Getting his first break in Alan Clarke’s hard-hitting 1982 TV drama, Made In Britain, Roth shaved his head to play a white supremacist in one of the only contemporary films to tackle the rawness of British racism. “The character I played was loosely based on a guy I worked in Tesco with,” remembers Roth. “He wasn’t a skinhead, but we were always getting beaten up by the skinheads. They wrecked the football world. Then we had the rise of the [National] Front – arm in arm with the police. There was a lot going on…”

“When I was young, we were always getting beaten up by skinheads”

Rising up the ranks of Britain’s indie scene during the ‘80s, Roth worked with Stephen Frears (The Hit) and Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) before being labelled part of the ‘Brit Pack’ – joining the likes of Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis as one of Britain’s most promising young stars.

“They called us that but for me it felt I was just part of something that I’d always loved,” he shrugs. “It goes back to the punk thing for me. There was an energy. There was a difference between us and what came before. It was an acceptance of difficult subject matter, shot in a new way, with a fresh outlook. It was older white men doing younger white work. For me, it felt like it was Alan Clarke and then it was Quentin Tarantino, they were the two phases of my life.”

Tim Roth
Roth during a photo shoot in 1995. Credit: Getty

Turning 30 the year he went to America, Roth was far from ready to settle into a Hollywood career at the time – preferring to keep moving under the radar as much as possible. “I was only here for a month and I wanted to go home,” he laughs. “I was offered a film in New York and I came over to do it, but then I was on my way. That’s when I got the Reservoir Dogs script. I read it. I did it. And it changed my life forever.”

Cast as Mr Orange in what became one of the most influential indies ever made, Roth found a kindred spirit in Tarantino – a man with the same punk energy as him. “He writes such beautiful music,” says Roth, leaning back in his chair. “I haven’t watched the film since – I never watch my stuff – but that was the start of that whole relationship”. Going on to star in three other Tarantino films, Roth’s career exploded as soon as he met him – suddenly finding himself pinned up on every dorm room wall in the world as the poster for Reservoir Dogs kickstarted a cult sensation in the ’90s.

“‘Reservoir Dogs’ changed my life forever”

“Yeah but the British poster was the best one,” he laughs [remembering the iconic black, white and red blood splatters against the boring brown American version]. “We all admitted it. We all got copies because we were all on different bus stops. It was very cool. I’d flirted with fame before that, but this was definitely different. But y’know, you keep your head down and keep walking. That was always my feeling. It sort of takes away your ability to be a pedestrian, but it also gets you work, so I’ll take that.”

Cramming in as much as possible, Roth pushed further into the American indie scene with Little Odessa and Pulp Fiction before changing tack in 1995 – sinking his teeth into the panto-camp of Rob Roy’s villain, Archibald Cunningham, and picking up an Oscar nomination in the process.

Reservoir Dogs
Tim Roth alongside Harvey Keitel in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Credit: Alamy

“Yeah… it was weird,” he laughs, running his fingers through his hair as he tries to remember the details. “None of that changes me or anything. All I thought at the time was, ‘There it goes. Moving on. What’s next?’ That’s always been my attitude, big or small.”

Whatever Hollywood had in mind for Roth, he basically did the opposite – picking projects that looked and sounded nothing like each other. “I like not knowing what the next thing is going to be,” he says, remembering the titles of some of his films for the first time in years. “When Lie To Me came along I literally just went, ‘Yep, I’ll take that’. That was at a time when American film actors wouldn’t go on television. It was beneath them. But I was like, ‘Fuck you. Why not’. I’ll have a bit of that and see if I can handle it.”

Pulp Fiction
In ‘Pulp Fiction’, Tarantino’s follow-up to ‘Reservoir Dogs’. Credit: Alamy

The same went for bigger CV curios like Planet Of The Apes and The Incredible Hulk. “They were both for the kids,” he laughs. “Mine were the right age at the time and they got to see a bit of the merchandise – the t-shirts and whatever. But Planet Of The Apes wasn’t the film that Tim [Burton] wanted to make. He wanted to do a dark and twisted version and they wouldn’t let him. And The Hulk was pretty interesting up until the final explosions”.

Looming larger over Roth’s pick’n’mix career though is his one directing credit, adapting Alexander Stuart’s novel about incest and sexual abuse into 1999’s powerhouse British drama, The War Zone.

Tim Roth
Credit: Sky

“It was a subject that was a little too close to home,” he says, laughing nervously. “I definitely wasn’t looking to go anywhere near it at the time.” Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, Roth admitted that his grandfather had sexually abused his father as a child, and then Roth himself many years later (“He was a fucking rapist. But nobody had the language”) – a history of violence and trauma that both drew him to the book and pushed him away. “I read it and I was like, ‘Fuck. I know this. I can do this. I can try and get it right’.”

Picking up an armful of awards, The War Zone proved that Roth was an exceptionally capable director – and that he had a unique place behind the camera as well as in front of it. Unfortunately, though, it’s still the only time he’s tried.

The War Zone
Tim Roth on the set of 1999’s ‘The War Zone’. Credit: Alamy

“I do have a script of King Lear that I’d like to do, but it feels like it’s been done,” he says. “[Harold] Pinter wrote an adaptation for me. It’s still there… But there’s no money for it unless you’re Kenneth Branagh or somebody like that. It got tricky, and I moved on, but it’s something that I keep dipping back to. But I’d also like to be an open book about it again too. I want to just be able to say, ‘I’m ready. What you got?’. I like that randomness.”

Back to the randomness, and back to the same weird mix of punk anarchy and British work ethic that once saw him make a rom-com (Mr. Right), a Russian FPS actioner (Hardcore Henry) and a Mexican AIDS drama (Chronic) in the same year. After Tin Star: Liverpool he’s making a film with French auteur Mia Hansen-Løve (Bergman Island) and he might even get to see his cut cameo in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood restored in the extended cut that’s rumoured to hit Netflix (“No one tells me anything. Quentin showed me the film at his house right after telling me I was cut. I was fine about it, y’know. It is what it is. On to the next one…”)

“We’ve got overpowering racism [in America]… it’s hard to put the lid back on that bottle”

Now more worried about the wider future than he is about his next gig, Roth is staying cautiously optimistic. “I worry about the election. I worry about the voting process. I think COVID exacerbated things here, particularly Trump’s reaction to the masking situation and his encouragement of The Proud Boys. We’ve got guns on the streets, a white militia, a load of overpowering rabble-rousing racism. These are all hard-learned lessons from history that we really need to remember, and it’s hard to put the lid back on that bottle.”

“But then again what am I doing now? I’m going to New Zealand which is the safest place on the planet right now – probably because they have a woman in charge – and I’m making an independent movie there. Then I’m coming back to do some streaming stuff which might become movie stuff, then I’m going to the UK to do a movie. Then I’ll hopefully be in Africa making a movie… and then a TV series that’s taking place all around Europe. It is happening, but the question is then obviously going to be how you see all this stuff without any cinemas. That’s the scary part. The trick is to keep moving…”

‘Tin Star: Liverpool’ premieres at 9pm on December 10 on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV – all episodes will be available available as a box-set