“My career is bonkers. It is all over the place. And I like it that way.”
Tim Roth is in London. He’s 56 now, and has been resident in Los Angeles for more than two decades. But he’s feeling right at home. And the actor is delighted and surprised to feel chirpy and jetlag free.
With Tin Star currently on Sky Atlantic and Twin Peaks just finished, to wild acclaim from those of us who stuck with David Lynch’s vision – by turns dazzling, demented and downright doolally – Roth is in reflective mood as he ponders his career’s unexpected longevity.
My career is bonkers… I didn’t think I would last – then interesting stuff started happening again
“I didn’t think I would last,” he says. “Maybe it was just cynicism, but I did think that around the time I turned 50 it would just fade out. And I thought I might lose interest. But it didn’t. And I didn’t. And then interesting stuff started happening again.”
In truth, the interesting stuff never stopped for Roth. His career was fascinating from the moment he began, as a cocky South Londoner in fringe theatre.
“We were in that noise,” he says. “Enjoying ourselves, doing plays at the Oval House, community theatre at the Cockpit, pub theatre – I don’t know if that still exists.
“I would go in the Old Red Lion, have a pint and watch Perry Fenwick, Steve Sweeney, a bit of Ray Winstone, Phil Daniels, Phil Davis and Kathy Burke. Oh, I miss Kathy on screen. She is so good. But I was a bit scared of them. They were proper. Anyone from South London was middle class to them. It was fun, but then Made In Britain happened and from that point, I just wanted to be with cameras.”
Roth’s visceral performance as snarling, racist skinhead Trevor (below) kick-started what he modestly calls “a string of good luck that landed me with three of the great British directors of the time.”
The way Roth tells it, Alan Clarke, after directing the young tyro in Made In Britain, tipped off Mike Leigh. “Even from his deathbed he was recommending me for jobs. Alan was the man. I loved him.”
And after filming Meantime for Leigh, “Joe Strummer was about to do a film called The Hit and he had to deal with some band issues. So he dropped out and said: ‘Get that skinhead in!’
“So I met with Stephen Frears and that is how I got that job. That was my starting point, that was my Rada, that was my training.”
Once Roth went to the US with Vincent & Theo he stayed. And then came Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs.
“Quentin is so openly obsessed and in love with the film-making process. It is extraordinary. I love it. We all do,” grins Roth. “We talk about it all the time. The actors he picks remain very connected. Quentin is the one who vanishes from the circle, to go off and do his thing.”
These days, young British actors breaking into Hollywood and high-end US television often emerge from Eton and Harrow (“You can spit and hit one these days,” he says), rather than tiny theatres above pubs. It’s a trend Roth follows with interest. He credits his old pal Gary Oldman with the British invasion.
We thought there was a good market for ugly, pasty-faced English guys!
“We’d done Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with Tom [Stoppard] and Gary told me he was going to go off and play Americans,” says Roth. “We thought there was a good market for ugly, pasty-faced English guys!
“Everyone else was wanting to be a beauty but there are tonnes of jobs for the others. So in we went and nicked them all. I have been incredibly lucky. I don’t have a plan. Some of it is shit. Some of it is good. And that is okay with me.”
In 1999, Roth made a splash with his directorial debut, The War Zone. Not only did he grace the cover of The Big Issue (below) – “I knew I was on the front cover, I couldn’t remember what it was for” – but he caused quite the controversy with an uncompromising depiction of incest and abuse.
“Almost two decades later, he plans to return to directing. “I have one kid left with two years of college. Then I start thinking about it proper,” he says.
In Tin Star he plays a troubled London cop who has relocated to Canada. It can be read as one of the first post-Trump dramas, depicting a small town being destroyed by the very people – in this case the oil industry – claiming to be saving it.
“I wasn’t looking for a television show. But they sent me three scripts and I could see the anarchy and the madness kicking in,” he says.
“I wanted to know more about this guy. We had a rabbit about it, and I thought I would have a go. The oil thing is extraordinary. There are these idyllic towns that just haven’t got any money. So they send in the face of it – in our show, Christina Hendricks – and they promise you schools, hospitals, all of this stuff.
“You do the deal. Then your town is suddenly infested with pollution, crime and cheap, almost enforced labour. All bought and paid for. Then suddenly the hospital closes down.”
The critique of aggressive global capitalism is writ large in a small-town crime caper – in which Roth’s character heads to Canada for a quieter life of breaking up bar-room brawls and dealing with moose on the road but becomes embroiled in something much bigger.
“Where we filmed in Calgary it is oil country,” says Roth. “It is beautiful. But the skyline in the town is like Dallas. It is so strange. Alberta is the right-wing part of Canada, it is more Trump-pro.”
Roth, unsurprisingly, is not. “His attack on transgender people in the military is extraordinary. So is his attack on poor people and their healthcare, which is also happening here with Jeremy Hunt. There are definite parallels,” he says, explaining why he is not tempted to return to the UK.
“I live in California. And California has suddenly become much cooler. If I came back here it would be Brexit, it would be intolerance. The collection of Jeremy Hunt, Theresa May, Boris, Nigel Farage and UKIP – that is Trump, if you put all that together. It is the same. Running on racism and fear. In the end it’s just big business fucking with the masses.”
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
London has changed since Roth last lived here. The new buildings and gentrification have not escaped his notice. Nor has the rise in street homelessness.
“I was saying to my wife: You see all the new facades? Now look in the doorways,” he says. “And the spikes in those doorways to stop people sleeping there are an outrage.”
The mixture of nationalities in London is wonderful. Where would Trump even start here?
A California tan, then. But still a Londoner at heart.
“The mixture of nationalities is so evident here and it is rather wonderful,” he says, throwing his arms out wide. “It actually makes you breathe a sigh of relief. I have no fear of it. I think it is one of the most wonderful things. We come back to London a lot.
“We laugh about it – where would Trump even start here?”
Tin Star airs Thursday nights on Sky Atlantic