Tim’s star

Since his memorable performance in Reservoir Dogs Tim Roth has been a Hollywood fixture. Now he’s taking a chance on working with emerging new directorial talent

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Tim Roth is a man without a plan. Over the past three decades, he’s played a colourful array of self-confident and often cocky characters, and worked with a who’s who of Hollywood’s finest directing talent in the process – from Quentin Tarantino to David Lynch. But when we sit down with him for a quick Zoom call to chat about the return of
his crime thriller series Tin Star, he’s quick to assure us that any success he’s experienced has been a bit of a happy accident.

“I don’t have a game plan – and I mean that quite sincerely,” beams the 59-year-old star from the cosy confines of a laptop screen. “My game plan was employment and I think that comes from a childhood fear. Unemployment drives us all. I don’t know what’s around the corner.”

“I had a great start with Alan Clarke, quickly followed by Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears.”

Despite reappearing on the small screen for the Liverpool-set closer of shock-a-minute serial Tin Star – in which he plays Jim Worth, a former undercover cop and tortured patriarch who, along with his wife and daughter, is forced to confront a dark past – Roth currently finds himself on the other side of the world. As we start unpicking his career, he’s sat in a cushy trailer in New Zealand about to begin production on Punch, a boxing drama inspired by real events and the debut feature of newcomer writer-director Welby Ings.

For some, this gamble on untested talent might be considered a bit risky, but Roth’s used to throwing caution to the wind. Born in Dulwich in 1961, he chose acting over an artistic career as a sculptor and made his screen debut as a racist skinhead in director Alan Clarke’s gritty 1982 TV movie Made in Britain. The role turned heads and collaborations with more of England’s indie filmmaking heavyweights followed. There was the Mike Leigh comedy Meantime in 1983, Stephen Frears’ road movie The Hit in 1984 and Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo in 1990, in which Roth played his father’s artistic hero, Vincent Van Gogh. However it was a trip to the States and a chance encounter with a fast-talking but then unknown screenwriter that changed his life forever.

“I pretty much had a 10-year solid run in Britain and was happy doing that,” he tells Big Issue North, recalling his fortuitous early career. “I had a great start with Alan Clarke, quickly followed by Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears. It also coincided with a time where Ken Loach was the prize, and the world of film had evolved from being a predominantly upper-class notion. The idea that you could come from a less well-off circumstance and be an actor was actually being accepted at that time, and films were being made about those predicaments with actors that weren’t necessarily from Eton – and I was a big part of that, in my mind.”

Roth’s mother was a teacher and his father a journalist – and both were painters. His plucky, seat-of-his-pants attitude was enough to help him get a foot in the door. “I got Made in Britain because I got a flat tyre on my bicycle and stopped to get a pump in the middle of the night from the Oval House Theatre,” he laughs. “One thing leads to another and I get to work with Alan.” Arriving in America in the early 1990s, he had no major ambitions of sticking around. “I wasn’t intending to go to America at all. I was working with Robert Altman doing Vincent and Theo and went to America to do publicity for that. I got myself an agent, then came back to England. Then I got the script for Reservoir Dogs and everything changed again.”

Wearing a black suit and adopting a seamless American accent, Roth’s appearance as undercover cop Mr Orange in Quentin Tarantino’s cooler than cool 1992 debut about a jewel heist gone awry cemented Roth’s status as a movie star on both sides of the pond.

“What was happening in America was similar to what had happened 10 years earlier in Britain. There were all these new, young and interesting filmmakers that were being given a shot. I got a script where someone had jotted ‘Look at Mr Pink or Mr Blonde or whatever’ on it and I didn’t know what that meant,” he says, recalling his first encounter with Tarantino’s work. “I read it and thought, this is amazing. It was his first film and everyone just jumped on board. You knew good writing when you saw it – and that was pure happenstance. Alan Clarke and Quentin Tarantino are the two people who changed my universe.”

Roth’s partnership with Tarantino led to a fast friendship, and he has reappeared in a number of the director’s films, including 1994’s Pulp Fiction, 2015’s The Hateful Eight and a since-cut cameo in 2019’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It also opened up a whole new world of roles – most notably, as Americans. This aspect of Roth’s career is perhaps the only thing he didn’t leave to chance. Instead, it was inspired by his friend and colleague Gary Oldman.

“Me and Gary have had very different trajectories but what he did was become American – which I thought was smart because it opened up more doors to him as an actor as far as casting directors were concerned. It gave him more roles to choose from. I tried to just play Americans and there was only me and Gary out there at that point. It took a while for casting directors to realise that I was English – so I just kept getting roles.”

Straddling behemoths like Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes and Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk in 2008, and small indies like the 2007 remake of Michael Haneke’s unflinching Funny Games, Roth’s freewheeling career has led him all over the industry.

It’s not pinned him to cinemas either. In 2009, he embarked on a three year stint on Fox’s TV drama Lie To Me before returning to TV for director Roland Joffé’s Tin Star, which has just returned to Sky Atlantic. Swapping the Canadian Rockies for Liverpool’s urban city-scape, this final slew of episodes pits Roth’s on-screen family against a group of violent criminals, led by underground boss Michael, played by Liverpudlian Ian Hart.

“It was sad. We’ve really been through it together. It was a tough shoot and we really poured ourselves into it,” says Roth on saying goodbye to his TV wife Genevieve O’Reilly and daughter Abigail Lawrie, after three years on the action-heavy show. “We’re taking the fight to them,” he continues, teasing the series’ final climactic storyline. “It’s a good way to go out.”

With Tin Star disappearing into the rear view mirror, Roth is ready to focus on new projects – whatever they might be. In 1999, he helmed his own feature film The War Zone, an adaptation of Alexander Stuart’s eponymous novel about sexual violence in an English home. It was another leftfield career choice that ultimately led to Roth disclosing his own experiences with family abuse – but he hasn’t ruled out a return to the directing chair.

“Talking about being abused as a kid was never a conversation that frightened me. As soon as my dad mentioned it’d happened to him and that we had an abuser in common, it opened up a door for me to talk about it. It was purely by chance that I ended up directing that too. I thought, well, I probably know the subject better than most, so it might be smart for me to direct it.”

As for what kind of story he’d like to direct next? “[Harold] Pinter did an adaptation of King Lear for me to direct and I’d like to do that one day. I’m not making plans – but I’d like to do it again. The only thing that I’d be nervous about doing would be theatre because I’ve got stage fright. Whether it’s movies, TV or streaming. I’ll go anywhere. I’m game.”

Tin Star: Liverpool is on Sky Atlantic and Now TV and all episodes are available as a box-set

Live and directed

Made In Britain, Alan Clarke, 1983
Director Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain first introduced us to the talents of Tim Roth, presenting him as a 16-year-old racist skinhead whose disdain for authority sets him on a collision course for self-destruction. Shocking and memorable, it offers a stark critique of the troubled working class.

Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino, 1992
Quentin Tarantino was so impressed with Roth’s performance in Tom Stoppard’s 1990 film Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (in which he starred alongside pal Gary Oldman), he cast him as the lead in his debut feature. As undercover cop Mr Orange, he offers a painful ground-level view of the world’s worst jewel heist, where everything that can go wrong does.

Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton, 2001
Proving that his performance chops can’t be easily hidden under extensive prosthetics, Roth provided suitable venom to the big bad of Tim Burton’s divisive 2001 Planet of the Apes adaptation. As the power-hungry humanoid chimp Thade, the star gave Mark Wahlberg’s lost hero Captain Leo Davidson a run for his money.

Twin Peaks, David Lynch, 2017
Fans were overjoyed when David Lynch announced a return to the surreal world of Twin Peaks. The show’s unexpected revival included Roth as Gary “Hutch” Hutchens, joining series lead Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in a new mystery set 25 years after the dark events of the original series.

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