“It’s the disposal,” says Tim Roth. “The killing isn’t the problem, it’s the disposal that’s the problem. You run out of space.” The storage issues faced by serial killers aren’t something to which many of us will have devoted much thought. Roth has. Reassuringly, he’s had reason to thanks to his recent sinister role as real-life murderer Reg Christie in BBC drama Rillington Place. “Charming fella” he jokes.
Roth is back on UK television on the other side of the law in new Sky Atlantic drama Tin Star, which has already been renewed for a second series. In it, he plays Jim Worth, ex-pat police chief in the sleepy mountain town of Little Big Bear, the site of a controversial new oil refinery. Worth and his wife have moved their two kids from London to Canada for a quiet life in a rural paradise. A quiet life for the Worth family, it’s fair to say, isn’t on the cards.
I chatted to Roth about his new drama, his taste for risk-taking, early roles, Reservoir Dogs, working with David Lynch, Mike Leigh and first-time directors, and having fun…
It didn’t take many episodes to work out why Tin Star made sense as a Tim Roth project. It’s comic, a bit chaotic, violent, unpredictable…
It was an interesting character to muck about with. We changed it as we were going and we rewrote up until the last day, we improvised and played around. The thing is, I didn’t know what I was going to get, I didn’t know who the actors were going to be. I think I was first and then Christina [Hendricks] came on board, or she may have been first actually, and then I didn’t know who the mum and babbies were, so we met at the read-through.
They had a big old read-through—we were already in Canada—it was about four or five days before we started shooting so we didn’t have any time. We immediately lived in each other’s back pockets and started improvising. Genevieve [O’Reilly, who plays Angela Worth], she’s just incredible. And Abs [Abigail Lawrie, Anna Worth]…
I was just talking about the young two actors in this, they’re seriously good.
They’re great. And they’re game, so we started to muck about because we had to develop a shorthand for the audience of a family that was functioning. We didn’t have much time to do that.
Functioning to begin with, because in this show, nothing ends the same as it started…
It really turns by the end of the first episode and then you’re on that road.
Especially with the part of Jim. Was that part not written for you? Jim Worth/Tim Roth, there seems to be a connection.
No, it wasn’t I don’t think. I read something recently where Rowan [Joffe, Tin Star writer and director] said he really wanted me to do it but he didn’t think I would so they came to me quite late. They sent me three episodes and I read it and thought ‘Oh yeah, I’ll do that. That’s alright’ and the next thing he knew we were in my house, we were already starting rewrites, we were already starting to play.
About that playing, I know you’ve just done some work with Lynch on Twin Peaks: The Return, and I hear he runs a pretty tight ship…
My experience of it is was that it was incredibly gentle on set, it was a very relaxed kind of thing. You’ve got the words and you say the words, whereas with this, it was about ‘What if we said this?’ and ‘What if we did that?’ and what happened I think was that Rowan started to see the family grow in front of him and wrote to that. That’s why the changes took place. It was great.
We just had our season two meeting a few weeks ago I was back over here when I started doing press and we were already starting to go ‘Okay, what’s the next season about? Where do we pick up, how do we progress?’
Can things pivot that much again in a second season?
Yeah. I mean, they kind of can. But now he knows the characters better as well, so he can take off and get cracking with it.
There’s a strong anti-corporate seam in the show. The oil company’s head of security literally has blood on his hands, he’s in scenes with animal carcasses hanging up in the background.
I remember that.
It’s not subtle, but it says what it means doesn’t it?
Yeah, that’s alright. That’s alright.
As a politicised person, was that element a draw for you?
When they came to me it was three episodes I read so I didn’t know how all that was going to pan out and then it was explained to me and I thought ‘ooh’ I just was wary a bit of that kind of potential cliché, but then you go there, and it’s exactly that. It’s exactly that. They modelled the Calgary skyline on Dallas, and it’s oil-centric, and it’s new money as well. It’s an oil-town. And when it gets rough…
That’s the difference between the police station in episode one and the police station in episode six… punch-ups and exploding cars…
Oh yeah [laughs] It’s an odd thing. I met a lot of those cops by the way. I met a few of them.
Yeah. Because it’s the Commonwealth, it’s a deal you can get. They can come from here and go over there and have a quiet life. Though in fact, I did meet some guys that were very busy, there’s more crime over there than they think when they arrive. There are some young guys too, one of the cops that we met in the town that we were filming in—they’d stop, we’d be having a cup of tea and having a chat as the cameras were being set up—and in they came, flak-jackets, guns, the whole nine-yards.
They’re not just fighting grizzlies then?
No. You’ve got a workforce that suddenly descends upon a small town and you have to police it. That’s something that they don’t think about until they’re presented by it.
The duality of your character in this seems to be a thread through a lot of your roles. Wasn’t that what made you want Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs, rather than the parts that had been ear-marked for you?
They weren’t earmarked by anybody else—I talked to Quentin [Tarantino] about this the other day—it was my agents. I’d just arrived in LA, I didn’t know anything. And they’d just scribbled in pencil on the front of the script ‘Look at Pink. Look at Blonde’, because they thought that I would be interested in those and I went ‘No, I want the liar’. He’s the good guy! I liked the idea of an English actor pretending to be American—whether that works or not didn’t matter, I mean, you try—playing a guy who’s pretending to be another guy, the levels of it I thought were really fun.
The last thing I saw you in, which explains the little bit of shiver I got when you walked in, was the [serial killer] John Christie drama Rillington Place.
[Laughs] Charming fella!
Talk about having one face for outside and another for inside…
Yeah, he was quite welcome at people’s dinner tables on the street. They had no idea. I mean, he just ran out of space. That’s always the problem. It was the same with [Dennis] Nilson another guy that was over here. It’s the disposal. The killing isn’t the problem, it’s the disposal that’s the problem. You run out of space.
That’s a scary thing to say.
It’s true. [Laughs] But that was an odd character. I enjoyed the idea of playing him and then playing him was… you just have to separate yourself from the guy. I couldn’t de-creepy him! He just is. And I kept struggling with that because he had manufactured a personality for himself that people quite liked, he was the little old fella on the road.
Craig Viveiros, the director on that, we snagged him and took him onto Tin Star for an episode. He did number nine.
With the Christie character, you did it really sparingly.
It felt like an exercise in restraint.
Restraint isn’t always the way you go though?
No. Actors quite often spend all of their time whispering through their careers and I am not of that ilk. I think sometimes you’ve got to risk it and chew up the scenery and sometimes you fail and sometimes…
…you get an Oscar nomination? [for Rob Roy, Best Supporting Actor]
Yeah, that, exactly! So you shouldn’t be afraid of putting yourself out there I think.
You don’t mind risk, do you? You’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors.
Oh yeah. What am I doing next? Next I’m doing a comedy but then after that I’m going to do a film I think with some very new filmmakers, a couple of them who are directing it so I think I’ll nip off and do that before we have to go back and do this again.
What is it about first-timers then?
I think it’s fun. Also, it’s the same kind of thing as with [Tin Star]. I never had been part of the idea of it being online and the audience getting the whole show in one, I think that’s kind of great – they become the critic. They watch it how they want to watch it, it gives the audience an independence and that’s new for me.
When you’re working with new directors, that’s the same feeling, it’s fun and even if it’s a mess, doesn’t matter! Keep moving forward.
You say ‘fun’ a lot. Reading past interviews, it’s a word that comes up again and again, and from the outside looking in, it feels a bit counter-intuitive. Something like Made In Britain, for instance…
That was such fun! [Laughs]
But I’m watching it thinking, fun?
The fun is that you’re there. You’re just there. I was invited to that party. That was a crazy party! We had Sean Chapman, we had Geoff Hutchings, we had Eric Richard, we had all these people. Errol [Dupray], who was my partner in crime in Made In Britain was an electrician, he wanted to be an electrician, he didn’t want to be an actor and he bunked off during filming, which I thought was really funny!
Little bit of wiring on the side?
Yeah, we had to go and find him. Stuff like that!
I’ve been acting for almost forty years. When it stops being fun, that’s going to be tricky. You show up and it’s a laugh. I’ve done stuff that was crap and I’ve been in bad things, most people have.
Most people don’t admit it [Roth famously did with Fifa film United Passions]
Well they don’t, but they should. They should feel free to. It’s alright, you made your mistakes, or you make intentional ones and it doesn’t matter to me.
Have you got to a point in your career when you feel you can afford to tell the truth about stuff like that?
No, you never know. I really do have that fear of unemployment thing [laughs]. You never know what’s going to happen, but you can’t just… It’s not our business once we’ve done it, it’s yours. It’s over to you guys, it’s got nothing to do with me! [Laughs]
Was this fun, Tin Star?
This one? Yeah. They’re my… mob. I love the family. I love them. There’s actors like Genevieve and Abs and Olly [Oliver Coopersmith], Olly and me had a certain amount together but he was always around with us and then the peeps like Ian [Puleston-Davies], Tobi [Bamtefa]… and then there’s Leanne Best who comes in in nine, and another little boy that comes in and they were fantastic too. I just got surrounded by people who just show up for work proper. I miss them when I’m away from them.
You’ll get back to them next series.
Yeah, there’ll be a little reunion.
There must be stuff that’s fun while you’re making it and then not so much fun when you watch it.
I don’t watch ‘em. But yeah, you can be in something and it’s not good, but you’re having a great time doing it [laughs] and then you can be in something where you think ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work’ and then it works! There’s no rule. You only can do what you can do, which is why I don’t have a career plan at all, I just keep going, I don’t know what’s coming next.
Have you ever had a career plan?
No. The only plan is to try and keep working.
You once said that Four Rooms was really fun to make but less so when you saw it.
Yeah. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. That’s alright. It was a weird concept, the idea of a tag-team of directors, but in the end…
Do you know, people love that film. When they do I generally think that they must be stoners. It’s one of those movies that people watch when they’re high and I think that’s absolutely appropriate! [laughs] Whenever I sign something for Four Rooms I go ‘Stoner?’ and they go ‘Oh yeah’ [laughs]. It is one of those.
You did a great interview with Steve Buscemi [for whom Roth’s role in Four Rooms was originally intended] once. That was a really enjoyable read.
Do you know what was good about that interview? He forgot to turn the microphone on! We had to do it again. Oh Steve. I saw Steve recently.
Ever the professional!
Completely crap, both of us [laughs].
In it, you said that Little Odessa  was the film you were most proud of at that time.
It was one of them.
What’s joined it now?
I’ve been just extraordinarily fortunate. Most actors have one or two in their lives that they go ‘Oh I loved that one, that’s the one’. I’ve had lots of good experiences.
That one I held up. I think the reason why I’m proud of that is because of James [Gray, director] I think James is a super, super, super-talented chap and it was difficult, it was a brutal shoot. We had ups and downs on it. We were on the run. We managed to get Vanessa Redgrave to show up! That was genius. It was a struggle. It was a first-time director, it was that thing, and it was Brooklyn in the snow but we all kind of did our job quite well. I’m still proud of that one. That one goes in my back pocket.
What’s in there with it?
Vincent & Theo. Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Made In Britain. Meantime. The Hit. I’ve got a lot [laughs]
You have got a lot. There should be some Oscars in that back pocket with them!
No no no no no no no! No gold on your hat. Sod that!
I heard that you’d instructed your agent in the 90s not to turn away independent scripts?
Oh yes, you have to be very clear so that all of that stuff is available.
I met with, well, I’d call him a second-time director, in the hotel lobby the day before yesterday, he’s a young filmmaker, he just wanted to have a chat. He’s about to make his feature film and we had a long chat. He’s brand new, I think he’s twenty-two, but it doesn’t matter.
How did he approach you?
He got in touch with my agent and asked would I sit and have a chat with him and I said yeah and it just so happened I was coming here.
So your agents don’t put up that sort of protective barrier that a lot of actors would say they’re for?
No. No. Somebody said to me the other day, an Australian journalist was talking to me and said ‘Why don’t you come to Australia to make a film?’ I said ‘Well, you haven’t sent me any!’ [laughs] That would be why.
Having that rule about independent scripts then…
It means you work with new and vibrant people. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not but it’s worth a shot.
And then you get to give a leg up as well?
If you can, yeah, yeah. You do what you can.
Do you like working with obsessive people?
It’s not that I go looking for them but it seems to be quite a characteristic of people who are in this game. So you’re not searching it out. They find me. I’ve never… I can’t choose the directors; the directors have to choose me.
On the subject of obsessive people, I read an anecdote about the recent Twin Peaks set when Jim Belushi improvised a line…
Yeah. And Lynch stopped everything.
With the megaphone.
With the megaphone. He said ‘Mr Belushi, am I going to have to send you to the Principal’s Office?’
Yeah, he’s like that [laughs]
And Belushi said ‘No, sir’ and did the line as written.
I didn’t have that with him, because you do it as written, fine, but one of the things I did have with David was that me and Jen were working on it, Jennifer Jason Leigh—he cast us, by the way, purely coincidentally, I don’t think he’d seen The Hateful Eight, he didn’t know we were in it together—but we were coming to the point where we were done and I was texting with David and Sabrina [Sutherland], who’s his lovely producer, every night after work. We’d sit and text and get on the phone and I said, ‘We’re kind of pissed off, we want more’, so we turned up the next day and he’d written a whole new scene! [laughs] He’s like that. And we shot it and it was great. I think that was the last thing we shot.
Tell me then, does David Lynch use emoticons when he texts?
Him? No. He uses Sabrina to do it all! If you remember, he’s one of the specialists on transcendental meditation, he’s written books about it, so it’s a very calm set, a very easy place.
How does that compare to something like working with Mike Leigh [on 1984’s Meantime], where improvisation is key?
Well Mike… because I didn’t train and I’d only done one film which was with Alan Clarke and that was all Steadicam shooting, that’s how I thought it was done. We were doing whatever film the magazine held at that time. So when I got to Mike’s that was more the normal process of film-making so I was like ‘Why is it taking so long? What’s wrong with these people?!’ [laughs] I was a bit like that.
And then of course the improvisation thing, I didn’t know any of that. I was just making it up as I went along as an actor and for me, that was like going to drama school. It was like I had a crash course in acting from Mike Leigh, who’s pretty masterful at that stuff.
Not having been to drama school, do you think you avoided any pitfalls that can create, or did it make it harder?
No, it didn’t make it harder. It didn’t make it harder. I talked to Gary Oldman, for example, and Gary went to, I think, Central? I think it was Central, I can’t remember where he went. [Rose Bruford College – Ed]. And he liked it, he had a great time. He enjoyed it, I remember him telling me this years ago and I went ‘Aw, maybe I missed out on some fun or some experimentation’.
I did apply, I kept applying and sending the bloody cheque and then getting a job, so I just took the job instead. It kept happening and after a while, I gave up.
It’s not the sort of thing you’d go back and do now, is it, in this line of work?
No. I went to RADA. Me and John Lynch, the actor, he went to RADA and I was sitting with him in London one time and he said, ‘You never went to drama school?’ and I said ‘No’, and he said ‘Do you want to go?’ I said ‘Yeah’, so we bunked into RADA! We went and knocked on a door up on the rehearsal room, which is up on the roof and Alan Bennett answered the door and he said ‘Come in, lads!’ and we came in and sat and watched what they were doing [laughs].
What were they rehearsing?
They were doing [Bennett play] Habeas Corpus, and we sat with Alan until we’d had enough!
Is that where you picked up your Alan Bennett voice for Reg in Rillington Place?
No. I stole that from him because I wanted something comforting. And there’s nothing more comforting than Alan’s voice. David Hockney too, has a very comforting voice but Alan has a very… I mean, apart from that story I don’t know him but there’s a warmth and a comfort and that’s what I was looking for and it’s the same area.
Did they kick you out eventually, of RADA?
No, we left voluntarily, went back to the pub! [Laughs]
Finally then, I remember hearing that Quentin Tarantino watched Deliverance when he was seven years old, and I know you brought your eldest son Jack [also an actor now] up around your films. What was your film education as a child?
We didn’t have a TV until quite late really, but I remember things… I do remember Ken’s stuff.
You’ve never worked with Ken Loach have you?
I have. I was an extra in one of his films once.
Bread And Roses , one he did in LA. But I remember Cathy Come Home and stuff like that. That was, to me… oh and Scum, that was a bit later but all of that I do remember very vividly. They were part of the reason I became an actor.
With my boys, they sneak behind your back to watch stuff but I’ve tried to keep things like Reservoir Dogs away from them. The trouble is, they go to school and all their mates are watching it and it was a bit uncool that [laughs] they hadn’t seen it and their dad’s in it.
It’s different them watching it to having say, Jack on the set, where he must have seen all the artifice, I suppose?
He was there when we did Reservoir Dogs, Jack and his mum. He was in a scene in it and that scene was cut, but I think it’s in the extras.
What was he doing in it?
There was a female cop character that didn’t make it into the film, so when me and her were having scenes, he was in the back for one where we were eating burgers. It’s usually eating burgers isn’t it?
Tim Roth, thank you very much!
All 10 episodes of Tin Star are available to stream on Sky now.