Tim Roth: If you neglect the working class for so long, they will rebel against you

The actor, who plays a serial killer in new BBC drama Rillington Place, talks about the rise of fascism in the US, the abuse he suffered as a child and why he cares only about reviews from the staff in his local supermarket

It is a balmy afternoon in Pasadena, California, with winter sunshine flooding the hotel terrace. Tim Roth exudes a dash of dandy in a kneelength vintage black coat. The illusion dissolves when he chucks it over a chair revealing a wrinkled black Tshirt, old jeans and stained black boots plonks in a chair and orders a beer. He could be an offduty plumber.

He lights up a vape and proceeds to puff minty clouds. Kids got me on to it, years ago,to get me off the fags. It works, but I vapetoo much. The Londoner is 55 and wearsit well: hair swept back, trim beard, relaxed. Over three decades, he has played memorably tormented characters who suffer or inflict suffering; a vicious skinhead in AlanClarkes Made in Britain (1982); an apprentice assassin in Stephen Frears TheHit(1984); a literal abomination in The Incredible Hulk; a psychotic simian general inPlanet of the Apes; bloodied or hapless characters in Quentin Tarantinos Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight. Likewise, heis usually tragic or villainous inindies andTVgigs.

Yet Roth remains an enigma. He lives quietly with his family in Pasadena, a leafy part of Los Angeles. He avoids the celebrity circuit and is wary of the media; he has a reputation as a prickly interviewee. But today he proves gregarious and gracious, even whenhe is raging aboutthepresident-elect.

He has played memorably tormented characters: Tim Roth as Trevor in Alan Clarkes Made in Britain. Photograph: BFI Stills Posters & Designs
I hate Trump. I hate everything that he stands for. He should never be forgotten or forgiven for anything he said on the road to the White House. There should be no concession to him. No Lets give him a chance. None of it, he says. Grab them by the pussy, right? Look at where we are now and who is in charge of this country and, by extension, a good chunk of the world someone with misogynistictendencies.

Roth rooted first for Bernie Sanders, then Hillary Clinton (although, as a non-citizen, hecould not vote). He says he predicted a Trump victory early on. If you neglect the working class for so fucking long they will rebel against you. There was a dire need to stop a rise of fascism in America and we didnttake it seriously enough.

This leads to discussion of Roths journalist father, Ernie Smith. He grew up dirt poor, fought in the war with the RAF, changed the family name to Roth, partly in solidarity with Jews, and joined Britains Communist party. He quit the party in the 1970s, Roth recalls, partly over sex scandals that appalled him. He was anabused kid, my dad, and it was aterrible childhood that he had, and hetookthat shit seriously.

I am startled. When Roth made his directorial debut, The War Zone (1999), based on Alexander Stuarts novel about a father abusing his daughter, he revealed, without much elaboration, that he had been abused asa child. Now he is saying his dad was, too?


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He was an abused kid, my dad … But nobody had the language. Thats why I made it: Lara Belmont and Ray Winstone in The War Zone. Photograph: Allstar/Channel 4 Films

He nods. He was a damaged soul. Iloved him. He was funnier than fuck. He puffs on the vape. He was abused. And I was abused. But I was not abused by him. I was abused byhis abuser.

The same abuser?

Yeah. It was his father. Roths grandfather. His voice drops. He was a fucking rapist. But nobody had the language. Nobody knew what to do. Thats why I made The War Zone.

Roth looks out at the hotel gardens. A few minutes earlier, they were green and sunlit. Asif on cue, rainclouds appear and turn everything grey. In one especially horrifying scene in TheWar Zone, the camera is motionless, an impassive observer, as the father rapes his daughter. Some festival audiences walked out.

Roth closes the subject and our conversation moves on. But clearly the theme still draws him, because he may tackle abuse in his second directorial outing a film about child welfare services set in 1980s New York. He may also direct a Harold Pinter script of King Lear and reprise Trevor the skinhead inasequel to Made in Britain.

He left London in 1991. He fears the UK is heading down a dark path. I like working there, but Im done living there. I fell out of love with it. I think the tabloid sensationalism world of it just became too overwhelming for me. Its here, too, but you dont notice it so much. And now with Brexit … I dont know what to make of it all. Strange thing.


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A psychotic simian general: Roth as Thade in Planet of the Apes. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Pressed, he continues. Its been taken over. Its The X Factor, Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Tony Blair nature of it all. He fancies Jeremy Corbyn, who may peel off his usual vote for the Greens, but he plans to remain inthe US, even though he cannot vote here. Ican handle this a bit better, weirdly. There are a lot more lefties out here.

LA has not dented his use of south London idioms, nor induced airs about acting. The methodists? Not interested in any of it. I dont take acting as seriously as people expect me to. I used to think I should. I thought you weresupposed to live and breathe it.

This approach probably helps when playingpsychos (he was once slated toplay ayoung Hannibal Lecter). It used to be that Id have all the [research] detritus lying around the house and my wife would freak out. Now, its all on computer, so I can just close it and it all goes away. It doesnt affect me. I dont carry my work around with me at all. When youre preparing is when its difficult. But once you start its easy to switchit all off. And once filming wraps? Have a good shower, move on.

He is currently appearing on TV playing areal monster: John Christie, the seemingly meek serial killer who strangled at least eight women and hid the bodies in his house and garden in London between 1943 and 1953.

Roth studied the archives. A lot was tabloid sensationalism. But there were also police records, interviews with people who knew him, from local prostitutes to familymembers.

Christie was from the Midlands and spokein a whisper, prompting Roth and a dialect coach to cast around for a particular accent and tone to help channel the sociopath. Step forward son of Leeds Alan Bennett. It was oneof the voices we found that really helped,says Roth.

He tilts his head, adopts a strange smile and does the voice. His very quiet voice, very comforting, very sweet, here, have a cup of tea. The effect is deeply creepy, not least because Bennett is a beloved playwright and arguably the least menacing man in Britain.

He played a gentle, old, quite respectable fellow. That was the character. But it was not him: Tim Roth and Samantha Morton as John and Ethel Christie. Photograph: Des Willie/BBC
You can see the results in
10 Rillington Place, a three-part BBC drama in which Roth is almost unrecognisable: bald, stooped and shuffly, a manipulator who fools victims, neighbours and police. Before eventually catching Christie, the authorities hanged an innocent man, Timothy Evans, for one of the murders, contributing to Britains abolition ofcapital punishment.

We shot a lot more than they showed in terms of what he did, what he liked, what he did to women. Whats interesting is that the neighbours liked him and the local kids liked him. He played a gentle, old, quite respectable fellow. That was thecharacter. But it wasnothim.

Roth zig-zagged to Hollywood. He studied sculpting at Camberwell College of Arts before switching to acting, a decision emboldened byRay Winstones depiction of a borstal tough in Scum (1979). I watched it again and again, back to back, and thought: If he can do that, Ican do that. When you see a performance like that coming from a background like that, it makes itpossible for you.

Roth felt part of a working-class wave Winstone, Kathy Burke, Gary Oldman, Phil Davis and Steve Sweeney, among others crashing through Britains thespian portals. It was an extraordinary thing … none weretoffs.

They thrived, but the gates seemed to shutbehind them. The wealthy and middle class now dominate Britains creative industries. Rich people have a safety net … so they can afford to fail, they can afford to be unemployed, which is most of what you are when youre an actor, says Roth. Im notsure its about the toffs so much as cost. Youre in debt for fucking life if you want to goto drama school. The government isnt going to support you any more; thats all over.There are no grants.


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Roth got his big break as Mr Orange in Quentin Tarantinos Reservoir Dogs. Photograph: Allstar/Rank Film

That said, the eldest of his three sons, Jack, the product of a relationship with writer and producer Lori Baker, works as an actor in London. He makes his own way, pays his own way. But its hard, says Roth. He groans and laughs when asked about Jacks choice of career. Please dont do that, oh God. Its kind of funny, really all my boys are in the arts. Nikki Butler, a fashion designer whom Roth married in 1993, is the mother of his other sons.

He bears no grudges against toffs, singling out Rupert Everett as hugely delightful. He shoots down the internet rumour that he would like to name a hippo Colin as a riposte to Colin Firth bagging leading roles. Colin is one of my favourite names to name dogs, he says, wryly. Flinty political statements aside, Roth says he can respect and work with anyone. My father-in-law is a Republican. Hes one of the most decent men Ive ever met. Hes a good human being. I work with Scientologists; it doesnt matter to me. I work with Catholics; Jesus, figure that one out. If people are good, theyre good. If they have different political convictions, its irrelevant, unless theyre harmful. If they can bend a bit … Ithink youre all right.

When he moved to California, he discovered a niche. Everyone had to be pretty; in movies, that was the deal. That was why they were boring. I thought: Theres a hole in the market for proper character actors again. Directors such as Tarantino, James Gray and Steven Soderbergh concurred. They employed me. Itwas unbelievable. You didnt have to look like a matinee idol, you could actually be human.

Roth has to get his kit off in an upcoming project, he confides, bemused why anyone would want to look at a 55-year-old geezer, but he feels it is almost a duty to show his flaws on screen. You want to have real men, not fake men … none of that gym culture. He pities hostages to six-pack tyranny. If beauty is your worth, or that version of beauty is what youre paid for, you have to keep that fucking up. Ryan Gosling, for one, is too savvy to be trapped, he says. Hes used it welland will absolutely escape that nonsense. Fortunately, I make a living not out of that.

On cue, a waiter brings another beer. But Roth, let it be noted, has no hint of a gut.


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I loved working with Nicole Kidman, but I just dont like looking at myself: Roth as Prince Rainier III in Grace of Monaco. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

A Zelig-type arc through US film saw him co-star with Tupac Shakur in the comedy drama Gridlockd, filmed not long before the rappers murder in 1996. I loved him, he says. He was an actor, firstly, before he was a rapper. He nicknamed Tupac New Money for his flashy lifestyle. His nickname for me was Free Shit, because Id take anything that was free T-shirts, anything that was going.

That impulse has ebbed, but Roth still frets about paying bills. Fear of unemployment drives actors. If I couldnt make the payments on the house, Id be in trouble. He did a commercial in Japan before A-listers bagged those gigs. I was a genie, I came out of the instant coffee. All I had to do was stand in a studio in front of a green screen. Sam Jackson has that tied down now. George Clooney, too. There are jobs you do for yourself and there are jobs that you do for money. The ones you do for yourself and your creative needs generally are the ones that dont pay. So you have to balance it out.

Which brings us to United Passions, last years critically reviled paean to Fifa A disgrace … excrement, said the Guardian inwhich Roth played Sepp Blatter, since ousted in a corruption scandal.

Roth takes a long puff and sighs. The Fifa thing was school fees, college fees, all of that. That was: Fuck it, man, you know what, Ive got to do this, got to pay the rent and got to look after the boys. So, thats what that was. Im sure I was soundly criticised for it, as I should have been.


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That was: Ive got to do this, got to pay the rent and got to look after the boys: Roth as Sepp Blatter in United Passions. Photograph: Allstar/Screen Media Films

He paid penance during the World Cup in Brazil, he says, by shunning Fifa-supplied VIP tickets. For every match. Every one. And it was just too embarrassing to go. He laughs. How fucked up was that? Thats the price forplaying a guy like that.

Roth says he does not read his own press, nor watch his own films. I stopped reading reviews 15 years ago. Its kind of great. And often I dont see the things Im in. I just move forward. Except for that time at Cannes whena red-carpet scrum swept him into a screening of <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/may/14/grace-of-monaco-cannes-review-nicole-kidman” title=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Grace of Monaco, in which he played Prince Rainier III.

It was received quite well by the audience, but the reviews were already out and we got slaughtered. But I couldnt get out of it. I normally turn up, say hi and fuck off. I got stuck. It was the most disturbing night. Not because the film was particularly bad or anything, and I loved working with Nicole [Kidman], but I just dont like looking at myself. Whats the point? Film is a directors medium.

He shrugs off accusations of occasional hamming up. I get criticised for that, but I dont fucking care. The audience can either switch of or engage. Its up to them. Its for theaudience. Im not the audience. But Im sure I get slagged a bit. Maybe I should.

The only critics he cares about, besides his wife and children, are staff at his local supermarket. I was there yesterday, did a major shop. I love doing the shopping. All the guys there know me. I get my reviews from them. Theyre quite honest.

Killers, skinheads, gangsters, princes whatever the gig, he tries to nail it for them. I derive great satisfaction from their pleasure if I get my job right. Theres nothing like entertaining folk. Most unRothian statements. He shrugs and laughs. It sounds so corny, but thats all right, because I wont read it anyway.

Episode two of Rillington Place is on BBC1 on Tuesday at 9pm

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/dec/04/tim-roth-if-you-neglect-working-class-for-so-long-they-will-rebel-against-you

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