Tim Roth Reveals Secret to Playing Great Marvel and Quentin Tarantino Villains

Tim Roth returns in sinister fashion in the new psychological horror film Resurrection and tells us the secrets to playing a great villain.

Tim Roth
Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Getty

Tim Roth was on his way to the Cannes Film Festival a couple of years ago when a script came through from his agent. It was for a movie called Resurrection.

“I had taken my boy with me, my youngest,” Roth tells Den of Geek. “And I sat down and I read it, and I was kind of shellshocked afterwards. So my son was like, ‘What is that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how you would describe it. It’s a psychological horror movie, but it’s a new thing to me.’ So he said, ‘Give it to me.’ He read it and he went, ‘Okay, you’re doing it.’”

In Resurrection, written and directed by Andrew Semans (whose debut feature was the 2012 dark comedy Nancy, Please), Rebecca Hall plays Margaret, a successful career woman and single mother who is getting ready to send her daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) to college.

Margaret tightly controls every aspect of her and Abbie’s lives, to an almost pathological degree. But her illusion of control is shattered by the reappearance of David (Roth), a sadistic ex-lover from 22 years ago who was horrifically abusive to her. He not only wants to reactivate their relationship but claims to have something that Margaret wants, which has haunted her ever since she escaped David’s toxic grasp.

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What David says he has, and how he has it, takes Resurrection from the realm of psychological thriller into surrealist horror, a tricky transition that Semans pulls off with remarkable confidence. He’s aided in no small way by fantastic performances from Hall (following up her harrowing turn in The Night House). In Resurrection, Hall’s Margaret is an unreliable narrator, making us question much of what we see even before the movie takes its bizarre turn–and Roth, whose eerie calm makes his evil that much more malignant.

After his younger son put his stamp of approval on it, Roth found a second opinion from another trusted source, which sealed the deal for the actor. “I got on the phone, called [the agent] back, and said, ‘Yep, I’m doing it. Apparently,’” he recalls. “My other son, who lives in California, read it as well, and he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. 100 percent.’ So it was out of my hands, really.”

Once that was settled, Roth’s next conversation was with Semans, to figure out how to play the difficult role of David.

“There were a couple of ways that you could go,” Roth explains. “One would be to just play him as he was on the page and see what happens, see what the audience makes of that.”

But Roth had another proposal. “My idea, which [Semans] was interested in, was: okay, he’s a really nice guy. He’s a good person trying to help, trying to understand this woman, trying to bring her some potentially very good news, and trying to help her in very difficult times. So to bring that element to it and then see how that expanded and how Rebecca’s character will react to that and so on, it was a little bit different from what was on the page. I mean, the story was the same. It was just bringing this guy to life in a very sort of odd way.”

Indeed, the most chilling aspect of Roth’s portrayal, and the character himself, is the almost reasonable, even-keeled way in which he again slowly infects Margaret with his toxicity while also quietly steering their interaction in an increasingly bizarre direction.

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Playing a villain is nothing new for Roth, with the British actor portraying unsavory characters going all the way back to his feature debut, The Hit (1984), as well as high-profile turns in Rob Roy (1995), Planet of the Apes (2001), The Incredible Hulk (2008)–from which his Emil Blonsky returns later this month in the Marvel series She-Hulk–and his fourth collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight (2015).

The trick to playing a bad guy, says Roth, is to focus on the character’s humanity no matter what the scenario.

“I like that notion, because that’s what we all are,” the actor contends. “I think there’s also a habit that we have to be very careful with. You see actors fall into a bit of a trap, the whispering bad guy acting. It’s not my cup of tea, to put it that way. Everyone is human. As inhuman as they can be, we have to bring some sense of humanity to it, because that’s more interesting. Then it becomes intriguing.”

Careful to avoid spoilers, Roth adds that he and director Semans wanted to maintain a consistency for the character of David even as the plot heads into even more unsettling, somewhat mind-bending territory.

“We work it out before we do it,” Roth says. “Me and the director, we worked on that, and I think Rebecca did too… the audience, looking through the camera’s lens, make their own decisions about it, but as the actors in the mechanics of it, it’s 100 percent real. This world is real.”

A director himself, Roth says he got along quite well with Semans–directing his second feature and first in a decade—and notes that working with first-time or relatively new filmmakers comes down to knowing what to look for in the relationship between actor and director.

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“Quentin was a first-time director when I worked with him,” Roth says, reminding us about his role in QT’s first feature, Reservoir Dogs. “You’re looking for that new vision, you’re looking for that energy. But really, with any director, you’re like, how do they deal with actors? How do they get their vision across? You’re getting to know them in the beginning before you start shooting. Can you have any kind of rapport with them?”

Roth adds that he’s worked with directors with whom he’s had “no rapport at all” and achieved successful results, but that this wasn’t the case with Semans. Nor did the director appear unsure of what he was doing. “What was interesting about Andrew, and with quite a few of the new directors that I’ve worked with, is that you never felt it,” Roth recalls. “You never felt that he was naïve about what he could do on set, you never felt he was new. It felt like he’s a filmmaker. He had no budget. There was no money. So you also are looking at how they’re going to pull this off. A lot of that comes down to producers. But we never felt that there was any naivety or that he was fresh out of the box.”

Resurrection is in theaters and on video on demand now.