Interview: Tim Roth on reuniting with Quentin Tarantino
Oh god, that was terrible,” says Tim Roth as he strides into a room in London’s Soho Hotel at the end of a long day of press for Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight. He’s apologising for the och-aye-style Scottish accent he’s just tried out to say hello. Or “hullo” as it came out.
“I’ve just been working with a Scot,” he grins, back to his more familiar South London brogue. “A guy called David Blair. I just did this fantastic little thing for the BBC about a guy whose son was killed in Iraq, who demanded an apology from Tony Blair, didn’t get it, so ran against him in Sedgefield.”
He’s referring to Reg Keys, who ran against Blair as an independent candidate on an anti-war platform in the 2005 general election (Roth plays Keys in the forthcoming production, currently titled Reg). “He’s a fascinating guy,” he continues, still pacing around the room. “It was Jimmy McGovern wrote it and the director was David Blair. It’s blinding.”
He parks himself on the sofa and starts rifling around his in his pocket, whipping out an e-cigarette and fiddling with the contraption until it’s screwed together. “Sorry about this,” he says. “I’m mucking about. I’m going to vape as I’m not on telly any more. Right,” he says, looking at me finally. “Knock yourself out.”
Since we’re here to talk about The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s eighth full movie as director – his fourth collaboration with Roth and their first project together since the patchy anthology movie Four Rooms 21 years ago – we start with the script leak that almost sabotaged their reunion.
To quickly summarise: Tarantino sent the first draft of The Hateful Eight out to Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern in early 2014. It ended up in the hands of someone’s agent and promptly spread through Hollywood and straight on to the internet. An angry Tarantino made his displeasure very public and promptly announced he was shelving the film – though not before making it clear Roth had nothing to do with the leak.
“Yeah, he said that,” laughs Roth, “but I was on telly with him the other night and he said, ‘Well, obviously the person I said didn’t do it, must have done it,’ so I was like, ‘OK, it was me.’” He’s kidding, of course. “It never left my kitchen table actually. My kids weren’t even allowed to read it and they really wanted to read it. I’m quite loyal like that. But I got really pissed off – because to work with Quentin again after all those fucking years… I was like, ‘No!’”
He was serious about not doing it, then?
“Oh that was real. The thing about Quentin is he’s genuine about stuff like that. He said, ‘I’m done.’ And I was like, ‘Don’t do that. What an awful thing to let someone else dictate what you’re gonna make.’ Then he re-wrote it. But it’s a really good script that first one. We did it as a play.”
He’s talking about the live script reading that took place in Los Angeles a few months later. Roth and much of the film’s subsequent cast – including Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and Madsen and Dern – took to the stage of the Theatre at the Ace Hotel to do a one-off performance, with Tarantino directing from the sidelines. Though Roth isn’t sure of the sequence of events that subsequently convinced Tarantino to change his mind about making the film, he reckons the work they all put into that live performance was a big factor: “He probably thought, ‘Oh this is good. I can do this.’”
The live reading proved instructive for Roth too in terms of figuring out his character. Set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and featuring Tarantino’s most contained setting since Reservoir Dogs, the film is like a blood-drenched, Western spin on an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Roth plays the local hangman – an upper crust Brit called Oswaldo Mowbray. It’s a performance that’s deliberately over the top.
“He writes so f*****g beautifully for his actors and he’d written it with me in mind,” says Roth. “And because he knows my reaction to the upper classes and that world – I have a kind of a healthy loathing – he wrote that kind of noise for me, so when we got together to rehearse I just went for it with that kind of theatricality and he hit the deck. He was crying with laughter. And I was like, ‘Really? That big?’ And he went: ‘Oh yeah.’ So we went Terry Thomas. We went Edward Fox in A Bridge Too Far. We went Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist.”
As a performance it actually has more in common with his Oscar-nominated turn as the villainous Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy than either Reservoir Dog’s blood-soaked Mr Orange or the restaurant-robbing Pumpkin from Pulp Fiction. “Yeah,” nods Roth, acknowledging the parallel. “Again, I would say to Mike [Michael Caton-Jones, the director of Rob Roy]: ‘Am I going too far here?’ And he’d go: ‘Oh no, you’re fine.’ Because what you realise at the end of that film is that it’s all been a performance, all the way through, so there is no going too far. I couldn’t get out of a room without bowing 25 times by the end of it.’”
Roth’s Academy Award nod for Rob Roy was, of course, somewhat overshadowed by Braveheart’s dominance at the Oscars that year. He’s not bitter about it, though. “Luck of the draw,” he shrugs. Besides, Brian Cox (who was in both) maintains that the Rob Roy script by the late, great Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharpe was better. “It probably was,” nods Roth. “He wrote a fantastic film about Christopher Marlowe that I was in the running for at one point, but I don’t think it will ever get made. He was an incredible writer. And we had a great time making that film.”
We talk more about Tarantino. I ask if he’d noticed much of a change in the director in the 25 years since he first stood on the Reservoir Dogs set with him. He thinks for a moment. “His set is different, but the energy is the same. The knowledge and ability is different; he’s honed his craft and is cleverer with the camera. That being said: Reservoir Dogs was shot in five weeks and you’ve gotta be damn good to pull that off.”
When did it become clear to him that Reservoir Dogs was going to be something special?
“You knew that while we were making it. It was special when you read it. And then when we were on set I remember me and Harvey [Keitel] walking away from the warehouse where we were shooting and we were just going to the make-up trailer – to get hosed down probably – and I remember Harvey saying to me: ‘What do you think?’ And I remember saying to Harvey: ‘I think this is real; I think this is one of those ones.’ And it was a game changer.”
Roth credits the film with making him in the States. Though he’d scored a lot of critical acclaim in the UK, working with the likes of Alan Clarke (Made in Britain), Mike Leigh (Meantime), Stephen Frears (The Hit) and Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), Hollywood seemed like an impossible dream and he didn’t even get an American agent until doing a press tour there for his role as Vincent Van Gogh in Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo.
Reservoir Dogs was the first thing he did subsequently and he just never came home. “Now you trip over the British, but then it was just us,” he says, referring to him and Gary Oldman, who had moved out there a year earlier to work with Sean Penn. “We were playing Americans intentionally because the audience didn’t know we weren’t American. I just did it to get more work.”
In recent years he’s done everything from blockbusters such as The Incredible Hulk and mainstream US TV such as Lie to Me, to politically-minded dramas such as Selma and the odd howlers like Grace of Monaco. Though his only regret is never getting to be one of Ken Loach’s actors (save for a cameo in Bread and Roses), he’s happy these days to go where the good writing is, be it television or film.
“As much as I can,” he says, qualifying it. “You do the s**t jobs for money to make sure you’re OK, but I don’t really care what the format is otherwise”
Aside from reteaming with Tarantino he seems most fired up about the new wave of Mexican film-makers he’s been working with of late. “For me they’re like the French New Wave,” he says of Gabriel Ripstein’s festival favourite 600 Miles and Michel Franco’s soon-to-be-released Chronic. “They’re doing their own thing, but they’re film nuts. They have that wild obsession that Quentin has.”
Time’s up and Roth has to get ready for The Hateful Eight’s European premiere.
“Right,” he says, standing up, shaking my hand. “I’m off to throw a suit on.”
l The Hateful Eight is released in cinemas on 8 January