Tim Roth On Working With Tarantino And Getting His Start In London Pub Theater
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest, actor Tim Roth, may be best known for his roles in Quentin Tarantino films, including "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," where his attempt to rob a diner led to a memorable confrontation with Samuel L. Jackson's character.
Roth is British, and he's appeared in more than 100 movies and TV productions on both sides of the Atlantic. He's currently starring in the Amazon series "Tin Star," and he stars in a new film directed by Francois Girard called "The Song Of Names." Roth plays Martin Simmonds, an Englishman who grew up in the 1930s and the son of a music publisher. On the eve of World War II, the family took in a 9-year-old violin prodigy - a Jewish child from Poland - and nurtured his talent. But he worried about his family back in Poland, which was overrun by the Nazis.
In the 1950s, Martin's father spends a fortune to arrange a coming-out concert for the violinist, by then 21, who mysteriously doesn't show for the concert and disappears. In this scene decades later, Martin has tracked him down. The violinist is played by Clive Owen. They're in the front seat of a minivan, speaking for the first time in 35 years. Roth's character Martin speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SONG OF NAMES")
TIM ROTH: (As Martin) You have no [expletive] idea, do you? Why did you do it?
CLIVE OWEN: (As Dovidl) I'm not sure you'd understand. You know, when I abandoned the Holy One, it took him four years to find me. It's taken you 35 - not bad.
ROTH: (As Martin) Yeah. Well, your God didn't punish you, but maybe I will.
OWEN: (As Dovidl) Oh, so will he, in time. Blessed be his name.
ROTH: (As Martin) My father put everything he had into you, you ungrateful bastard - Hebrew lessons, bar mitzvah, violin. He treated you like a favorite son for 12 [expletive] years, and then you just buggered off without a word. He thought you were dead, Dov. He lost everything that night. And two months later, he dies with your name on his lips.
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Tim Roth, in the new film "The Song Of Names." Tim Roth, welcome to FRESH AIR - good to have you.
ROTH: Thank you.
DAVIES: What appealed you about this role, this project?
ROTH: Well, originally, when they brought it to me, it was about two Jewish families, and my character originally was Jewish. And so it had a quality of being a private conversation in a sense. And I talked to the producer and to the director and - just to give my instant sort of reaction to the script. And I thought that it might be interesting if one side of the equation was not Jewish and so - didn't understand that community and it was a mystery to him. So when he started to explore that and unravel that, we could take the audience along - the audience that weren't of a Jewish religion along with him on that kind of ride and that kind of - that discovery.
And they just - they jumped on that. So I thought, well, these guys, you know, are excited and interesting. And the story was beautiful. It's just a love story from one - in one respect, it's just - it's a love story between these two men, these two boys, over three subsections of their life.
DAVIES: You know, this story is about beautiful music, but it's also very much about the Holocaust because the solution to the mystery of this violinist's disappearance is connected to the Holocaust and the importance of remembering those who perished and honoring them...
DAVIES: ...In this case, with a remarkable piece of music. And, you know, it connects to something that I read about your own father. He changed the family name - didn't he? - from Smith to Roth?
ROTH: Yeah, he did. He was an American immigrant - came over to England and - as a child. And then, I suppose, yeah, it has a similarity in that he - by the time - he had a rough childhood. And by the time he got to 17 years old, the war happened. And so then he joined up - which you shouldn't have been able to, but they took anyone at that point - and he joined the Air Force underage and became a tail gunner in bombers and then survived for the duration - was pretty uneducated but taught himself Italian - was stationed at the end on, you know, V-Day. I know he was in Italy at the time. And that was - you could choose to stay there, and he taught himself to speak Italian. He was fluent. But he thought he better go back and see his parents.
But he'd seen - not that he would talk about it much, but he'd seen awful things. And so he chose - because, you know, wasn't - he didn't have a good relationship with his family - decided to change his name. And he took a Jewish name - I believe a Swiss name in origin. I'm not sure - Swiss-Jewish. I'm not sure. I can't remember the exact origin of it. But yeah, because of what he saw in the war, he came out of that, took a Jewish name. And as a consequence, I get invited to a lot of functions...
ROTH: ...Which is rather pleasing.
DAVIES: And you have to explain that you never had a bar mitzvah.
ROTH: Yeah. But I usually wait until, you know, after the fact for that (laughter) because the food's really good. Yeah.
DAVIES: (Laughter) But that was a conscious choice.
DAVIES: I mean, he didn't convert to Judaism, but he wanted to honor the memory of those?
ROTH: Yes. Yeah, yeah. And he wouldn't - like I say, it's - my father-in-law is the same. And he was in Korea, but he discusses the war very little. And so I had to glean what I could over the years of my childhood with my father. You know, you've got little snippets now and again but very, very few.
ROTH: Yeah, I think it was a deeply distressing time for him.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, for your dad to survive many years in the Royal Air Force was kind of remarkable in it and of itself, wasn't it?
ROTH: Yeah, and a tail gunner, which is not exactly known for survival.
DAVIES: You became well-known in the U.S. when you appeared in Quentin Tarantino's film "Reservoir Dogs" in, I think, 1992.
DAVIES: And then you had an ongoing relationship with him in several other films. And I thought I'd play a clip from "Pulp Fiction," which is maybe...
DAVIES: ...One of the better-known appearances by you. I mean, this is the one that I think of when I think of Tim Roth. This is the scene where you're in a diner with your girlfriend, played by Amanda Plummer. You're criminals. You're a stickup team. And then this conversation - you're talking about, you know, what kind of places to stick up. And you think, why not rob a place like this restaurant? And at the end of the scene, that's what happens. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PULP FICTION")
ROTH: (As Pumpkin) Nobody ever robs restaurants. Why not? Bars, liquor stores, gas stations - you get your head blown off sticking up one of them. Restaurants, on the other hand, you catch with their pants down. They're not expecting to get robbed - not as expecting, anyway.
AMANDA PLUMMER: (As Honey Bunny) I bet you could cut down on the hero factor in a place like this.
ROTH: (As Pumpkin) Correct. Same as banks, these places are insured. Manager, you don't give a [expletive]. You're just trying to get you out the door before you start plugging the diners. Waitresses - forget it. No way they're taking a bullet for the register. Busboy getting paid $1.50 an hour - really give a [expletive] you're stealing from the owner? Customers sitting there with food in their mouths. They don't know what's going on. One minute, they're having a Denver omelet. Next minute, someone's sticking a gun in their face. See, I got the idea. Last liquor store we stuck up, remember all the customers kept coming in?
PLUMMER: (As Honey Bunny) Yeah.
ROTH: (As Pumpkin) You got the idea taking their wallets. Now, that was a good idea.
PLUMMER: (As Honey Bunny) Thank you.
ROTH: (As Pumpkin) Got more from the wallets than we did from the register.
PLUMMER: (As Honey Bunny) Yes, we did.
ROTH: (As Pumpkin) A lot of people come to restaurants.
PLUMMER: (As Honey Bunny) A lot of wallets.
ROTH: (As Pumpkin) Pretty smart, huh?
PLUMMER: (As Honey Bunny) Pretty smart. I'm ready. Let's do it right now, right here. Come on.
ROTH: (As Pumpkin) All right. Same as last time, remember? You're crowd control. I handle employees.
PLUMMER: (As Honey Bunny) I love you, Pumpkin.
ROTH: (As Ringo Pumpkin) I love you, Honey Bunny. (Yelling) Everybody, be cool. This is a robbery.
DAVIES: Crisp Tarantino dialogue, a kiss and a holdup (laughter).
ROTH: Yeah. Right.
DAVIES: That's Tim Roth from "Pulp Fiction." Tell us about getting to know Tarantino and connecting with him originally?
ROTH: Originally, my introduction to America had been through Robert Altman. And I did "Vincent & Theo" with him and then had to come over and do press here. So, you know - and I got an agent during that time and then worked up in New York, went down to LA and was thinking, I've got to get out of here. I'm going. I've got to go home to London. And then they made me stay. My agents made me stay and sit about for a bit. So I started reading scripts. And this one arrived. This one - you know, she plunked them on the table in the flat. And...
DAVIES: That's "Reservoir Dogs," right?
ROTH: Yeah. Oh. Sorry - "Reservoir Dogs."
ROTH: So that happened. And then within 20 pages, I was reaching for the phones, saying, I've got to do this. I have to meet this guy. And then I went in. And I notoriously didn't read for stuff because I'm not very good at it. And so he managed to persuade me through various sort of beers to do that late at my flat and after a long day. And, you know, we all - we read everything. We had the best time. And he gave me the job. And that was the beginning of my relationship. That's a shorthand version of what it was. And it was the beginning of my relationship.
And it's extraordinary when you play that that clip there from "Pulp Fiction." The one thing that is remarkable about Quentin's dialogue is he's - he has done all of your improvising for you. He's already jumped the gun on that. Your - it arrives. And it just falls out of you. Sometimes, you have to ask him, you know, what his musical rhythm is for a particular sentence. And, you know - and he will read it out for you. He'll say it. And you go, oh, I get it. I get it. But, you know, a lot of the work that you - to make things seem natural and also not natural, which is - you know, it's not realism necessarily. But, you know, it's a mixture of of a few different worlds. He's already done that work for you in his writings - an absolutely remarkable writer. So yeah. We ended up having quite a good relationship, me and Quentin, from "Reservoir Dogs" through to "Pulp Fiction" through to "Hateful Eight."
DAVIES: You know, the interesting thing - you said that you didn't want to audition. You didn't want to read for the part because you don't do that well or didn't do that well.
ROTH: No, no, no. I'm just crap at it. I mean, I had to...
DAVIES: Well, how do you - so how do you convince people to give you a role without doing that? I mean...
ROTH: Well, I figured you lose 50% of the jobs by not reading and then, you know, 50% of the jobs you get. And I don't know. I don't know what the balance was, my reasoning was. But I was so bad at it that I had - I'd lost enough jobs in Britain by being really awful in auditions that I just - after I got enough films under my belt, I just said, if you want to see if I can act or - you know, go and look at those films. If you don't like them, don't hire me. And so, you know, when I met with Quentin, he wanted me to read. And Harvey Keitel was there. And it was very - for the "Reservoir Dogs" thing. It was very important to Harvey that I read. And I wouldn't do it.
And then we went out to a diner. And we sat. And I still wouldn't do it. And then I took Quentin to this pub that I used to go to, close to where I was living at the time, a little flat that I had. And we had a few beers. And we went to the 7-Eleven. We went back to my flat. We read everything. But that's kind of - that's the - that, I think, is probably the last time I've ever done that.
DAVIES: You know, this role in "Pulp Fiction" that we just heard is the one that kind of put you on my - in the map in my head as an actor. And it's - there's - that's followed by this very memorable back-and-forth you have with Samuel L. Jackson.
ROTH: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DAVIES: But, you know, it's interesting. When I heard you were in "Reservoir Dogs," I thought, really? What was Tim Roth in "Reservoir Dogs?" And I realized the difference was you were an American undercover cop in that film.
ROTH: That's right. Yeah.
DAVIES: It's a completely different persona.
DAVIES: And I kind of just didn't recognize you as the same guy. And I wonder if that's ever been an issue for you just in establishing kind of a public presence that - I mean, if you're good at this, you might - people may not recognize you from one film to another.
ROTH: Well, that's fine. I like doing the grocery shopping. So it helps in that respect. I suppose what I did was - without necessarily thinking it through but thinking about it afterwards, I - when I first came to the States and actually got employed, which was extraordinary in itself, I did Jeff Stanzler's movie - character from the Bronx. Then I did - I went and did an episode of "Tales From The Crypt" - Tales Out Of The Crypt?
DAVIES: Right - "Tales From The Crypt." Yeah.
ROTH: Which was hilarious - but then I did "Reservoir Dogs" and played an American. James Gray's movie "Little Odessa" I did, played an American - so kind of felt that it was a good idea. And I discussed it a little bit with Gary Oldman when he came over to do "State Of Grace" that it would be good because they wouldn't know who we were. It'd be good to play Americans. And then after - if you got a couple of shots at that, then let them discover that you were English.
ROTH: The public or the press, that is. And so that's kind of what happened.
DAVIES: Tim Roth stars in "The Song Of Names." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with actor Tim Roth. He stars in the new film "The Song Of Names."
You didn't go to drama school, right? You weren't trained as an actor, really, right? How did you get into it?
ROTH: Well, I actually - I went - which was common in my family - my dad could draw. My mother was a painter, but she became a teacher. She was a primary school teacher. My dad was a - became a journalist, in fact. And I - but in our family, it was drawing and painting. So I went to art college. I went to art school. But before I did that, before I was due to go there, a friend of mine at school - but just - but high school, we - me and him became obsessed with Samuel Beckett. And we would just annoy people with our behavior. I don't know what that was.
But there was a - as a result of that, me and this friend of mine went to audition for a school play. It backfired completely. We did it as a joke, and it backfired completely, and I got the part. And so I had to do an all-singing, all-dancing performance of "Dracula." It was called "Dracula Spectacula." It was far from spectacular. But I had to do it in front of all the school bullies, you know - everyone's a critic kind of situation. But I loved it.
There was this extraordinary woman who ran a drama department, who I was not - you know, I met her just through that, this joke that backfired. And she took me in. And so I fell in love with it. And I started - even before I went to art school, I started auditioning for, you know, little community theaters and pub theaters. And she showed me what that - what auditioning was. She showed me how to find out about them. She sent me to these community theaters. And I just quietly fell in love with it. And - but I did go on to art school. But at the - within - about a year and a half in, they sat me down and said, you're taking the piss, so you should go off and see if you can become an actor.
ROTH: In the meantime, we'll keep this place open for you, and you can come back if it doesn't work out. And it worked out.
DAVIES: You're taking a piss - that's a way of saying you're not putting yourself into this?
ROTH: You know, you're not investing in...
ROTH: I mean, you know, there's plenty of people out there who would die for a place at - it was Camberwell art school in London, in South London. It's one of the best fine arts schools you can get into, and I was wasting the space. There was plenty of other people that could have used it and needed to be there. But my eye was on something else. My - you know, as soon as I - I became besotted with this bizarre job of acting.
ROTH: And as soon as - I'd sort of determined, yeah.
DAVIES: Right. And I learned, from reading about you, that there was this phenomena of pubs that had little theaters upstairs.
DAVIES: And you were doing a lot of that.
ROTH: Yeah. I did three play - a trilogy of plays in a pub theater, and that got me going. And then I would do these community theaters in London and - yeah. But the pub theater was interesting, and there's still - I think it still is quite the thing in London and around England - yeah, pub theaters.
DAVIES: All right. Then there's your first role in front of a camera. This is pretty remarkable.
DAVIES: How did you get this part?
ROTH: Well, I was doing what out-of-work actors do is - one of those things that is available to out-of-work actors or was at that point, which was selling advertising to people who couldn't afford it and didn't want it over the phone.
ROTH: So you would be sitting in these booths in this office, and you would just be given a list of - I was a - what do they call them now, where you...
DAVIES: Call centers, right?
ROTH: Yeah. And it's such a scam. Anyway, so you would - you had a script, and you would say - when you got someone on the phone, you would try and persuade them to part with their money. Terrible thing. And so I was cycling back at night across London, and I got a flat tire on my bike. And I called into this little community theater that I'd worked at. And they didn't have a tire repair kit, but they told me about this audition for this television film that was being made, which was called "Made In Britain." And I went up for it. And three time - three shots at it. I ended up getting it. Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. And it was the lead role.
ROTH: It was the lead role. So I went - the third callback that I got, I went early, about an hour early to the offices. And I'd been, you know, twice there before, so I knew that it looked over this park, this little park in Soho, so - in London. So I went, and they said, oh, no, you're early; you're supposed to be here at 12:00. I said, oh, don't worry about it; I'll go and wait in the park across the road, and then I'll come back in. And I knew that they'd be watching me through the window. So I went into character a bit and got stopped by the police. And then a mate of mine who was a punk at the time came through. We got into a bit of trouble. And then, you know, an hour later, I went in for the audition and got the job. And I - but my real audition, I think, was in the park...
ROTH: ...Was them watching. And they told me that at the end of shooting.
DAVIES: Right. And your character was a teenage skinhead. So (laughter)...
ROTH: Was a Nazi skinhead, yeah...
ROTH: ...In the school system and then into the juvenile prison system. Yeah.
DAVIES: Tim Roth stars in the new film "The Song Of Names." After a break, he'll talk about the one film he directed, which deals with incest, and about drawing on his own family experience in shaping the story. Also, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the first solo album from southern rock and blues artist Marcus King. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU")
STEALERS WHEEL: (Singing) Well, I don't know why I came here tonight. I got the feeling that something ain't right. I'm so scared in case I fall off my chair, and I'm wondering how I'll get down the stairs. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right - here I am, stuck in the middle with you. Yes, I'm stuck in the middle with you, and I'm wondering what it is I should do. It's so hard to keep this smile from my face. Losing control - yeah, I'm all over the place. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right - here I am, stuck in the middle with you. Well, you started off with nothing, and you're proud that you're a self-made man. And your friends, they all come crawling, slap you on the back and say, please, please.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with British actor Tim Roth, who has appeared in more than 100 TV shows and films, including Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Hateful Eight." He stars in a new film directed by Francois Girard called "The Song Of Names." When we left off, we were talking about his first on-camera role playing a Nazi skinhead in the 1982 TV movie "Made In Britain."
I want to play a clip from this. This is...
DAVIES: As we said, you're kind of a Nazi skinhead. You have a small swastika tattooed on your forehead, kind of between your eyes. And this is a scene where you've been arrested for stealing and committing various acts of violence and vandalism.
DAVIES: And you're with a couple of youth counselors who are trying to get you to change your thinking.
ROTH: Oh, I know - I remember this scene, yeah.
DAVIES: Right. So one of the counselors speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MADE IN BRITAIN")
SEAN CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) You can walk out of this room now.
ROTH: (As Trevor) Where to?
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) But you must behave responsibly.
ROTH: (As Trevor) Grow up.
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) No more violence - right? - and you start using some of the intelligence you're supposed to have.
BILL STEWART: (As Peter Clive) That's right.
ROTH: (As Trevor) Bollocks. Piss off. I ain't going to [expletive], the pair of you. I hate you.
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) I don't really know you, Trevor. You don't know me. So how can you hate me?
ROTH: (As Trevor) For putting me in here.
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) You put yourself in here.
STEWART: (As Peter Clive) Trevor, look. Sorry. You were kicking doors down, breaking the place up.
ROTH: (As Trevor) I'm British.
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) So?
ROTH: (As Trevor) But you know what that means, do you?
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) I think so, yes.
ROTH: (As Trevor) You're proud to be British, are you?
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) What do you mean, Trevor?
ROTH: (As Trevor) Don't you know? I'm proud.
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) I don't really think about it like that, Trevor.
ROTH: (As Trevor) That's because you spend too much time locked up in here with all these [expletive].
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) Oh, I see. British bulldog - one, two, three.
ROTH: (As Trevor) I'm more British than you are. You hate the blacks as much as I do, only you don't admit it. You hate the blacks more than I do because they frighten you. That's why you lock them up.
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) Watch your tongue.
ROTH: (As Trevor) You lock up anything that frightens you.
CHAPMAN: (As Barry Giller) The only thing that frightens me, Trevor, are the people who put sick ideas like that into children's heads.
STEWART: (As Peter Clive) Trevor, you're not in prison. This is not a prison.
ROTH: (As Trevor) In here it's just the same as school. Do what we tell you. Think what we tell you. Say what we tell you. I hate you for putting me in here. You swallow your own bollocks. You expect me to swallow it, too. Blacks in here as thick [expletive] with no brains. You know it. Admit it.
DAVIES: And that is our guest Tim Roth...
DAVIES: ...As a skinhead in "Made In Britain," 1982. What do you think of the acting now that you hear it after all this time?
ROTH: It's not - I think there were some jumps in there with the speech. But the - I found it to be - when I - it was the first time I'd ever seen myself on camera, and it was - there were questions asked about it in Parliament. There was - there were, you know, swear word counts that were printed in the tabloids. It was all a bit - it took me by surprise. I got chased by skinheads down, you know, the road in London.
DAVIES: Wow. So this was a well-known and controversial.
ROTH: Yeah. I was on the - I was on - at that point, I was on - I do - I believe I was a oi man of the year of the skinhead mob.
ROTH: And I was on the cover of Gay News at the same time, when that came out, which was quite extraordinary (laughter). But it was truly shocking to me. But also, it was a door that opened. And Alan Clarke was a remarkable director. He did a film called "Scum," about the juvenile prison system, with Ray Winstone and Phil Daniels. He - and he nurtured young talent, and he helped me get on to the next job I did with Mike Leigh, which came directly after that.
But what do I think of it? It makes me cringe, but it - and it was the beginning of - what was interesting about that sequence, if you see the whole thing, is that it was the beginning of Steadicam. And that was the - I think it was one of the early times that it was used. This extraordinary cinematographer, Chris Menges, was the operator. And it was a new piece of equipment at - you know, hardly ever used. But it - and it meant that they could light in, you know, 360 degrees, and we could perform that entire sequence, which is, I think, about 20 minutes long, you know, almost in one, constantly.
ROTH: It was - and I thought that's how films were made. I didn't realize until I went onto the next job that things would now be broken down into pieces. And I was - I couldn't understand why it was taking so long.
DAVIES: You know, and it's amazing that you're an inexperienced actor and you are in every scene, I think. You just have tons and tons of lines.
DAVIES: Were you intimidated by it or just, like, too naive to even (laughter)...
ROTH: No. I was - you know, we went into rehearsal. We rehearsed everything in great detail. But the director was - had such a way about him - and sadly, gone - died quite young. But he had such a way about him, I felt no nerves at all. I was just - by the time we finished - we had a couple of weeks of rehearsal, I think - I was desperate to jump into it, you know, and to see what it felt like.
DAVIES: Did you base the character on people you knew or...
ROTH: Yeah. There was one guy who busted me on it, actually, afterwards. It was a guy that had a - during the punk time, I was working in a supermarket. I was at a place called Tesco in England, filling shelves and stuff. And he was one of the guys that was working with me. And he was a punk, and I was a punk, and so we became kind of friends. But he had a taste for violence. And he was incredibly smart, which Trevor, the character that I play in "Made In Britain" is as well.
But he had that gleam in his eye, and then we got into all kinds of trouble. We got arrested. We got, you know, running battles and all kinds of things. And so there was an element of him that I brought to it, although he wasn't a skinhead. We used to get beaten to crap by skinheads. But yeah, there was a little bit of him in it. And he tapped me on the shoulder years later in a club in London and said, that was me, wasn't it?
ROTH: And I said, it kind of was, yeah.
DAVIES: What did you get arrested for?
ROTH: Violence (laughter). I was with this guy, and we were chased - a group of punks. We were chased by a group of skinheads. I think it was a group of skinheads. Yeah, it usually was. And a fight ensued, and I wasn't a great fighter at all. I was, like, you know, just getting thumped. And we got arrested by some officers. It was in - just by Trafalgar Square. And we spent the night in the cells there. And that was when - you know, that and a couple of other incidents where I thought, you know, it's time to get out of this. So I grew my hair and got out of that.
DAVIES: Well, I mean, I guess, in part, because this film was such a phenomenon and got such attention. I mean, you then had several years where you worked with some terrific, you know, British actors - you know, John Hurt, Terence Stamp, Gary Oldman - and great directors like Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh.
DAVIES: Must have been like going to school.
ROTH: Yeah. I mean - at the end of "Made In Britain," the director asked me, what do you want to do? And I said, I want to be an actor. And he said, well, you know, in what way? Any way - but I'd said, I've heard about this director, Mike Leigh. And, you know - and he said he's auditioning. So he picked up the phone. We were on set. We were on - in the last week of filming. And he got in touch with him. And I went and met with Mike and then ended up doing his film.
It - actually, a couple of things came from "Made In Britain." That happened - a film called "Meantime" with Mike, which is improvised film. It's a very interesting way of working. And then the film with John Hurt and Terence Stamp, with Stephen Frears directing, was supposed to be Joe Strummer from The Clash playing my role. But he was having trouble with the band of some kind. So he said get that skinhead in, and that's how I ended up getting that job.
ROTH: So I had one, two, three, you know, great directors. And that was - for me, that was college. You know, I - working with those three was that kind of - that was my - you know, it's like getting your degree, really.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tim Roth. He stars in the new film "The Song Of Names." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIG LAZY SONG, "CURB URCHIN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with actor Tim Roth. He stars in the new film "The Song Of Names."
You directed one film, "The War Zone," which is based on a novel by Alexander Stuart. He also wrote the screenplay. A terrific cast here - Ray Winstone, Tilda Swinton and two great younger actors. It's about a family in which the boy of the family discovers that the father is sexually abusing his daughter. It's very powerful. I know that you revealed in past interviews that you had been abused by your paternal grandfather when you were a kid.
DAVIES: I don't know how much you want to say about this. But I'm wondering...
ROTH: I'm all right.
DAVIES: Was that one of the things that drew you to this book and this project?
ROTH: No. I actually - that was - I was not - I was looking for anything but that. And then this extraordinary - there was this producer, Sarah Radclyffe. They had worked on this. They'd been trying to get this book done as a film for quite some time. I had said to my agent, OK, I'm going to direct, you know, because so many directors had said to me, just go off and do it and stay out of my business (laughter). So I said, OK. So I was looking, I was officially looking. It was after "Rob Roy." And I had a bit of money in the bank. So I went, OK. And this was the first thing that came at me.
And it was given to me by the producer's assistant at the time or co-producer at the time, Dixie Linder, who I've worked with since as a producer, and she's still a friend of mine. But this book landed. And it was the absolute last thing that I wanted to turn into a film. And then I read it, and I realized that the person who had written the book, Alex, had - Alexander Stuart had - while he had got quite a lot of it right, I could tell he - it wasn't his subject, necessarily. He'd written it for other reasons.
And so I met with him, and he told me, yeah, his son unfortunately had passed away, and he wanted to write something about the fragility of childhood. And so that was the way that he chose to do it. And so I said, well, this is my subject. I've got this. So I can help you out and fix this up for you and - where it needs to be.
DAVIES: So what did he not get right that you knew from your experience?
ROTH: Well, you know, I knew it from, you know, looking outwards. And there are certain - there were certain elements of it that he just didn't know. It wasn't in his bailiwick, you could say - if you can say that. But...
DAVIES: Can you share what you mean by these elements? I don't know how far I want to push you on this, but...
ROTH: No. I mean, he just didn't - no. He was making guesses at what it felt like to be, you know, living in an abusive relationship or in an abusive household. And all of that was well and good, and he did a very good job on it. But I said, well, let me give you the insider's perspective, you know.
It's weird because I didn't know that my father had been abused until way, way late. But - and I was in my mid-20s at the time when he first brought that subject up. And that - what that did was let me talk about it, you know. It gave me the - gave me a voice, which was, you know, an incredible thing. But yeah. It's - you know, it wasn't a film that I was looking to make, but I ended up making it anyway. And, you know, I enjoyed the directing process.
DAVIES: Right. And the stuff that you brought to this - was it dialogue? Was it a feeling?
ROTH: I think it was stripping it away, to be honest. One of the first things that we talked about, me and him, was - the book is set in the summertime in a tourist-heavy part of the world. And there were a lot of characters and a lot of - you know, lots of friends about, lots of distractions, and so we flipped it. I think it was his idea, but it was one that I kind of was very keen to do, which was we set it in the winter with no one else around. I think there are nine actors involved in that film...
DAVIES: But the family's pretty isolated. And...
ROTH: Yeah. That's - in the book, that wasn't the case 'cause they were living...
DAVIES: Right - so that loneliness amidst the pain.
ROTH: Yeah. Yeah - so you could focus on it.
DAVIES: You know, I've read that you don't like to watch your work. I mean, like, even a movie when you've filmed it - if there's a premiere, you'd just as soon hang out in the lobby. Is this true?
ROTH: Yeah, I tend to slide. I started doing that, say, about 10, 15 years ago. I started to just go, you know what? I - it's not - once I'm done with it, in a certain sense, it's not for me anymore. And I just decided I'm not a critic.
DAVIES: That's what strikes me about it is that - I mean, when you're on the set, I mean, you're not seeing the movie, right? You're seeing what's happening...
DAVIES: ...On the set. You're experiencing it and then, so much...
ROTH: I don't even watch - like, no. There was - when I worked with Altman, every - at the end of every - I'd say at the end of every filming week, he'd show the dailies - you know, what we'd shot during the week or the week before - to the crew. And it became a party, and it was a thing that we did. And when I did "The War Zone," I adopted that, and I would show the crew or anyone who wanted to come - they could come and sit and have a beer. And we actually built a screening room above a pub - so there you go, that kind of thing.
But I never watched rushes as an actor, and I never watch a monitor on set or any of that stuff. I don't do any of that. But I remember having this conversation with Quentin when we were doing "Reservoir Dogs." And I don't watch stuff, and I find it distracts. And I think sometimes, for me, just on a personal level, you know, you start - I start overthinking stuff. I like to just work from the gut.
But Steve Buscemi, for example, uses - watching dailies, checking his performance and then tweaking it. And that's how he works. That's how he structures a performance. And Quentin was pretty much rigid - I don't want anyone seeing it. You know, I - this is how I want to work. And I remember arguing for Steve's side of it, even though it wasn't my side of it.
ROTH: You know, I was like, well, that's how he works, though. So maybe you could do a private thing for him. I don't know.
ROTH: Anyway, but I don't - I tend not to watch now. I think I've seen enough. My opinion of it is not, in a sense, relevant. It's over to you guys; it's over to the audience.
DAVIES: Someone asked you - something that I read - if you plan to do a lot of more theater, and you said that you have stage fright.
ROTH: I have really bad stage fright.
DAVIES: Really? Wow.
ROTH: Yeah. Yeah.
DAVIES: Did you have stage fright...
ROTH: While I...
DAVIES: ...Way back when you were doing stuff in pubs?
ROTH: Yeah. And I did a couple of big theaters. I did a adaptation of "Metamorphosis" that Berkoff had done, which we did in virtually the West End, I suppose, a big house. I - you know, I did a Sam Shepard play up in New York. That was the last time I did it. At the Actor's Studio - we did it there. But, yeah, I walk miles and miles backstage before I can get out on stage. It terrifies me.
DAVIES: And you have it every night, doesn't matter if it's the first week or the third week?
ROTH: No, it doesn't - I mean, it does get a little less. But yeah. It's - yeah. And it's a shame because I really wish I could do it. I really would - I'd like that. I've been offered a lot of plays, you know, over the years. Still do, still get offered them. But it does scare me. But maybe one day I'll get tempted back.
DAVIES: You know, I mean, look at your - you've done, like, 80 films and movies or whatever the number is. I don't know. Does this make sense to you, that you still feel...
ROTH: I don't know. They still - I mean, I think you're - you know, in Britain - I don't know what you call - yeah, British people.
ROTH: Right now it's a bit tricky. But there was - you were driven by a fear of unemployment. That was your main drive. And certainly, as actors, you're mostly unemployed or, you know, you should be. It seems - that seems to be the common occurrence. I just got employed. And then when I came to America, they employed me even more. And so I stuck about. But that's - you know, that's the sort of driving force, really. And also, I mean, it's not - I don't, still don't, really consider it a proper job, you know.
DAVIES: Acting, you mean?
DAVIES: (Laughter) You're getting paid to pretend?
ROTH: Yes. I mean, what a gig, really. I mean, it's an extraordinary privilege.
DAVIES: Well, Tim Roth, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
ROTH: My pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Tim Roth stars in the new film "The Song Of Names." Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the first solo album from southern rock and blues artist Marcus King. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.