Tim Roth on lying, acting, and not being a "pretty boy."
Posted Dec 03, 2009
Tim Roth has a knack for playing the villain. An English film actor with no formal training, his breakout role was playing a skinhead in Made in Britain. He went on to play an assassin in The Hit, a bloodthirsty nobleman in Rob Roy, and an evil commando in The Incredible Hulk.
But Roth is perhaps best known for his starring roles in three Quentin Tarantino classics—as an undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs, a bank robber in Pulp Fiction, and a hapless hotel bellhop in Four Rooms. He currently stars on the Fox television show Lie to Me, in which he plays a deception expert—based on real-life psychologist Paul Ekman—who can spot lies by observing people's body language, facial expressions, and words.
Jay Dixit: Well it's very odd for me to talking to Tim Roth! I've been a huge fan of yours ever since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
TR: That was fun, that one.
JD: How did you prepare for your role as Dr. Cal Lightman on Lie to Me?
TR: I was very wary of it. I met Paul Ekman, and he talked me through what he does. It occurred to me fairly early on: It's a dangerous science on a personal level. As a civilian, do I really want to know that much? If there's deceit going on, if there are thoughts people are trying to hide, which everyone does daily, do I really want to know? I quickly came to the conclusion that I didn't. That's not something I can particularly handle.
So I backed off it. I just let the writers lay the science in, then I perform it in the show. After that, I drop it and move on, because I don't want to take it home with me.
Once you learn it you can't switch it off. That is an issue and has been an issue in Paul Ekman's life. You can't unlearn it. It's there. It's all around you all the time. You have to learn how to deal with that.
JD: How close is the real Paul Ekman in his abilities to your character Cal Lightman?
TR: Oh, Ekman's way way beyond any of that. On a physical level, he and his team can run you through every microexpression while they're just sitting in front of you. It's quite shocking to see. It's something I don't think I could ever do—they can move their faces so fast and the expressions move across your face in a fraction of a second. Normally they're involuntary, but they've studied them so they can recreate them.
JD: So not only can they spot those microexpressions on people's faces but they can actually do them themselves that fast.
TR: Which when you think about it is kind of what actors do without the science. If you're any good as an actor, you can perform emotion. Without trying, those expressions or physical manifestations of the emotion will come to the fore. That's why an actor is convincing or unconvincing in any given role. In a way, you're doing what they're doing—without study.
JD: So has learning about microexpressions and working with Paul Ekman affected your acting?
TR: Some actors do study his stuff. Comedians study his stuff so they can read the audience. I know that takes place. I asked him, "How do you feel about yourself? Does it make you self-conscious?" He said, "No, no, you have to remember, I'm not on stage—everyone else around me is."
That's the best piece of advice I got from him. I can be relaxed; I can be tense if I want to give off tension; I can be playing games constantly. But really I'm not the performer—everyone around the character is, and they're under scrutiny by him.
When he was on set, it made me a bit nervous because I felt like my performance was being watched in a different way. But he's not a judgmental guy. He's very calm and gentle.
JD: It's interesting to think about what he must see when he's watching somebody act, because it's not the same as experiencing those emotions in real life.
TR: Yeah! But I think he tends to get swept up in story. He could say, "That wasn't a particularly convincing performance," because this didn't come out or that didn't come out. His experiences of actors or when he's watching a movie does have an added layer to it. He's very much at peace with what he does.
TR: It's the natural progression in building on the character. I've always linked more to the physical side of acting, which is not the tradition of American acting, which is internalizing. I like a bit of both. I like a bit of physical bravado and I like to take risks. With that you can fall flat on your face, but the journey is worth it. I like to take risks physically with a character.
JD: You must have a different perspective on physicality—and on acting in general—since you never trained formally as an actor.
TR: I suppose I trained on the job. I learned from those around me—the directors, actors, and cinematographers. I have worked a lot and didn't really think about it—I just leapt in. And it seemed to be having a good effect, so I just carried on down that road. Going on my instincts has generally been successful for me.
JD: How has your acting changed or evolved over the years?
TR: I don't know. I tend not to watch stuff I'm in. I started not watching about 10 to 15 years ago.
JD: Why? What goes through your mind? What do you feel when you watch yourself onscreen?
TR: Sometimes I cringe. Sometimes it's, "Oh, that's pretty good!" Mostly I think, "I remember that day, that was a bad day," or, "When we were doing that scene, we were all hung over."
I try not to overanalyze performances. If I like what I did in a performance I might end up getting rid of a lot of stuff. Then I end up doing a one-note performance because I liked the way I delivered one particular aspect of the character. Then the character becomes two-dimensional. The failures you have as an actor to deliver in one particular character can be as useful and interesting as your successes. That's the warts-and-all version of the character.
JD: What else do you do to avoid a one-note performance? Do you make the performance different every time—make it new?
TR: When you're going from take to take, I play around with different ideas that pop into my head. I come to the table with an idea of how a scene should be, but quite often I'm wrong. And if someone's got a better idea, I'll take it. Otherwise, I'll have something to fall back on. And then just start playing around, which is what keeps it interesting and fresh.
JD: You've played a lot of villains—a lot of sinister types. And you seem to me like an actor who's particularly unvain, unafraid to show the ugly side of himself.
TR: I look the way I look. There's nothing I can do about that short of getting the knife out. I remember talking to Gary Oldman—we came up together years ago. We agreed we were basically a couple of pasty-faced Londoners, but if we got our foot in the door, we'd probably last longer than the pretty boys. So far I think that's paid off.
The fact that I don't look like the poster boy can actually have a good value in this world. There's a ton of us out there. But as far as getting my ego stroked, I get enough of that. There's plenty of that out there.