Q & A With Tim Roth
Tim Roth, it should come as no surprise, makes a concerted effort not to bring his work home with him. Of course, for a guy who spent three quarters of a movie writhing in blood, whipped out a revolver and held up a diner on a whim, ruled over a planet of monkeys with an iron fist, and bitch-slapped the Hulk up and down the streets of Harlem, it’s less a personal preference and more a survival mechanism. These days, Roth has been introducing himself to American TV audiences as human lie detector Dr. Cal Lightman on the Fox series Lie to Me, the latest stop on a long and bizarre career that has left as much of a mark on his body as it has left on pop culture. Now a family man in his 40s, Roth thinks his days of marking significant events on his flesh may be reaching an end—unless, of course, the next big thing comes along.
INKED: How many tattoos do you have now?
TIM ROTH: Hang on a minute, I dunno. [Counting them:] One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … eight? [Laughs.]
Are you sure?
[Laughs.] I think so. Hang on. Let me look. … They’re all little, so … they’re only little things. Basically what I did was I kept them like a diary, really, as I was going on, of major events. But I never went down the road of someone like Colin Farrell, which is a humongous commitment, you know? I think because of what I do for a living it would have been a nightmare with cover-ups and all that. Although it’s better now—the new makeup and all.
Are any of them tougher to cover than others?
My stuff is really mundane. I wanted a few with my kids’ names in it, stuff like that. Very sort of simplistic. But I remember when I was in San Francisco with my wife—not my wife then, we were engaged at that time—and there was a guy who did the armband I’ve got, which is pretty corny, I suppose, nowadays.
The tribal tattoo?
Yeah. It’s very sort of pedestrian now, but the stuff that he was experimenting with and the drawings he was doing at that time—I’m trying to remember his name. … His girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time, was sort of his canvas and he was doing these big, huge pieces. But the kind of work he was doing, with no outline, just sort of different kinds of drawings, seemed to be the way things were changing. I think the kind of work tattoo artists are coming out with now, it’s so much better than it was. A lot more interesting and varied, and the colors are better.
Do you have any plans to get more?
I don’t really. I’m not sure, I mean. If something else happens. … The last one I did was just get the initials of a film that I directed on my arm. But if something like that comes up, then I might do it again. I think my days are numbered in that department, really. [Laughs.] Mind you, I do like it. I like the sensation. And I like the permanence of it. But I don’t know. We’ll see.
Do you have any regrets about any of them?
No, not at all. Even as kind of bad as some of them are, or whatever—no, I don’t. I like them. I like the statement of them because they mark specific moments in my life. That element of it I really like.
Do you remember what inspired you to get your first one?
I just wanted something. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but the idea of it really intrigued me. I was at art school. I was studying sculpture at art school in London and I just wanted to know what it was like. So I went to a real little sweatbox in South London, in Peckham—a place where the tourists don’t go. I was in a little cubicle in the back of the shop, you know, and I got two little squares with a couple of adjoining lines on them. I thought it was kind of, in my head, about the De Stijl movement and Constructivist art movement from Eastern Europe, but basically all I wanted was to have something. And I quite liked it. I thought it felt rather good. [Laughs.] Maybe that’s me, I don’t know.
So you didn’t need to down a pint or two beforehand?
I didn’t mind the pain at all. It was fascinating to me. Then I played characters with lots of tattoos, so I visited a lot of tattoo artists and stuff to look at what they had. I played a skinhead my first job out and he had a couple of pieces. And we did them very badly—we had to draw them on and such. Back in the early days, before stencils and things. So I ended up meeting a lot of people who do that, tattoo artists, and I’ve always found them fascinating. Even when I came to Hollywood for the first time, there was a tattoo artist up the road who has put a couple of things on me and I used to go in there and take pictures of him working and stuff. It was a place called Purple Panther on Sunset, which was my neighborhood when I first got to town.
So if people watch your skinhead character in Made in Britain closely, they’ll see the drawn-on tats jumping around?
Yeah, yeah—very, very messy. [Laughs.] We had no money and we just had a go, you know? It was funny, really.
Have any of the tricks from Lie to Me—reading people’s faces and mannerisms—rubbed off on you?
Have they started to affect your personal life? You kind of do a bit, but I make a very strong attempt not to learn this stuff. Once you learn it you can’t really get rid of it, so I tend to just do what’s in the script. But you do find yourself watching, especially politicians. You do find yourself watching them and it does make you laugh. Some of the actors really love it—they get themselves very involved in it. But I tend to sort of stay away a little bit. I never like to bring my work home anyway. I think it keeps you more sane, really.
You once attributed your aversion to doing TV to “snobbery.” Is it safe to assume that’s changed?
That’s true. And I think a lot of actors used to be that way. What happened, I think, is that American television completely stepped up. American television in general really elevated itself to the point where film actors just wanted to do it because that’s where a lot of the good drama was being made. So, yeah, I had a ridiculous kind of snobbery in regards to television that has completely vanished. I used to think: On one hand it’s good for the employment, but on the other it’s not really as good as the other stuff. And I think it’s changed now. If you get a shot at doing something that’s fun, quite dramatic—and it’s like you get to do a little film every eight days or 10 days. Although it’s much harder work than film, I think it’s as valid and I think it’s as satisfying—if not, at times, a lot more.
One of the issues with episodic TV is that there’s a chance you could miss out on other opportunities. Has that been the case?
Yeah, it has happened, and it’s the price you pay. It was something I was worried about when I went into this, but it’s just the price you pay. I’m reconciled with it. But I have a window where I can do stuff and I try and plug a film in there. And if we get cancelled then it’s back to square one. [Laughs.] My take on it is just to do the best you can possibly do with what you’ve got. So if you can come away from it and hold your head up, you’re all right. Do you think you would have felt that way at the start of your career?
Yeah, you’re right. I’ve got 25, 30 years in now, being an actor. I wonder if I would have panicked if this had come earlier. But my feeling is that it wouldn’t have come earlier. If you look around at the kinds of guys who are stepping into TV shows, there tends to be someone in the cast around my age. And they go after you at this point. They wanted a film actor. Sam Baum, the creator of the show, said, “Let’s get somebody in who’s a film actor. Sod it, let’s go after him.” And they did. They came after me like gangbusters. Took them a while to get me. [Laughs.] I didn’t know if I was ready. But as soon as I made the decision, I went in 100 percent—which you have to do. You can’t be half-assed about it.
You named two of your sons after your favorite authors, Hunter S. Thompson and Cormac McCarthy. Would that make you resistant to being in a Cormac McCarthy adaptation if one came up?
Maybe it would ruin his allure? I’ve love to do it. Love to. There’s one I’d actually like to direct—I would love to direct Blood Meridian. I was given that by Brian Dennehy years ago when I worked with him. He said, “You should have a look at this.” That’s what got me started on Cormac McCarthy, actually. There’s another one, Suttree, which I think would make a great film too, but I think they’ve all been snapped up now, obviously, since the Coens got in there. They do a fantastic job of rendering his stuff. So I don’t know what the possibilities of that would be. I’d love to act in one too, but I don’t know where I’d fit in, really.
Do you remember the last time someone shouted a line from Reservoir Dogs at you?
It happens quite a lot. [Laughs.] Usually “I’m fucking dying here—I’m fucking dying” is the one. I get that and I get stuff from Pulp Fiction too. It’s still going.
Do you remember the first time you saw it?
The first time I saw Reservoir Dogs—Quentin [Tarantino] gave me a tape, a VHS, of it and I got some mates over and we watched it in my bedroom. I had this little apartment on Sunset and they all came over and we sat and watched it. With the time code on the bottom and all that stuff.
Did you have any idea it would blow up the way it did?
No, we didn’t. I mean, we all thought we were making something that was quite good, but we didn’t want to jinx it, you know? So we didn’t talk about it that much. But on viewing of it, even on a small screen, you could tell something was coming. And they were very clever the way they marketed it, and Quentin’s personality was a very marketable thing. We hit the ground running. We went all over the world, every festival we could get our hands on. We worked very hard to get it out and get it to an audience. And it kicked in.
Has there been any talk of you returning in another Hulk movie?
That got kind of misquoted in the press. Basically when I signed on to do the first one, they sign you on for three—if they want them. It’s only if they want to keep coming back. The only rumors that I’ve heard is that they might bring The Abomination back within a different framework later on down the line, which I like the idea of. It was such fun for me, playing around with that guy. I had a very good time making that film. But it’s really up to Marvel, so who knows? I love the Marvel films, I really do. I love Iron Man and all that. Absolutely terrific stuff.
What is it that you like about them?
I think they have a darkness to them now as well as the comedic aspects. There’s a darkness to them that I think is really appealing. They’re much more multilayered. It’s quite intriguing. They’re good little adventure stories.
So will we have to plan a follow-up interview when you finally decide to get a huge Abomination tattoo across your back?
A whole back piece, yeah! [Laughs.] And sleeves. Big muscles and all …