One of the great character actors of his generation, Tim Roth displays such skill and nuance that he’s become a favorite with moviegoers despite playing a vile assortment of killers, creeps and cunningly awful miscreants. In Quentin Tarantino’s latest gorefest, The Hateful Eight, he plays a hangman who, conveniently, can also handle a gun quite well. Here, the 54-year-old discusses why it’s important— and a hell of a lot of fun—to creatively explore the dark corners of life.
THE RED BULLETIN: I found a photo gallery online of your performances. In 80 percent of them, you’re holding either a gun or a sword. What attracts you to being the bad guy?
TIM ROTH: The first thing I played was a Nazi skinhead. I was the bullied kid at school. I was always on the run. I knew how to play the bullies from watching them. Those characters tend to stand out. They have an impact, as compared to something very, very quiet that you do.
What does it say about us as a society that we remember the bad guy instead of the contemplative character?
It depends what you’re going to the cinema for. That kind of scenery-chewing stuff, if it’s done well, it’s such fun to sit in the audience and watch. As Quentin says, you’re going to the movies, it’s not public television.
I always enjoy the dark humor in Tarantino’s work. You grimace, then you laugh. Does that make it less intense?
It’s not creepy on set— actually, most of the time, you’re laughing your ass off … The Hateful Eight [set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War] is funny, and incredibly timely. When we were doing the read-through, that’s when the Baltimore protests were going down.
It was completely apropos of the moment. It was quite shocking, honestly. As the campaign for the GOP nomination goes forward, the racism is just astounding. They’re not hiding it; they’re trying to outdo each other. It just makes [the movie] more poignant.
It seems like a way to double the impact: playing the memorable bad guy in a movie with a message. Is it important to you to seek out roles that have a broader social commentary?
It’s better if they do. But then sometimes you’re just doing crap. [Laughs.] The next film I’m doing [for the BBC] does have relevance—it’s about a man, Reg Keys, whose son was a military police officer in Iraq. He was due back in a few days and he was killed. And then the father starts to question what happened and sees a link to the Chilcot Inquiry [into the Iraq war]. And the father opens his son’s coffin and he sees what happened, and he wants his questions answered. [Prime Minister Tony] Blair wouldn’t answer him. So he ran against him in the election and got to confront him onstage in front of the cameras. He took on the government in a very elegant and quiet way.
That’s incredibly wrenching. Do you ever take the roles home with you?
My wife sometimes goes “Oh God, you look spooky right now.” That’s happened a few times. There was one time— when I was working with [director] Michael Haneke and we were doing [home invasion hostage drama] Funny Games. It was shot in sequence, so you start the day, and you get distressed. You pick it up the next day, you get more distressed. All the way through the film, for five or six weeks. That one beat us up. Oh boy, that was a tough one. It was very depressing. When I read it, I didn’t want to do it. I watched the German- language version and I was like, “Oh shit.”
How did you disassociate afterward?
I got a plane and went away. Next!
What character have you not played that you would like to?
I always liked Iago.
That’s another bad guy.
He’s a great guy! He’s a good soldier! [Laughs.]