Tim Roth understands victims and victimizers alike. As a child, he was abused by someone he won't name, except to say it wasn't either of his parents. Throughout his career, he has played both brutal victimizers (in his Academy Award-nominated turn as Rob Roy's villain, for example,) and the horribly victimized (most notably as a cop in Reservoir Dogs and a home-invasion victim in Funny Games).
Roth has a strange gift for making both extremes empathetic: Is there a more Rothian character than Pulp Fiction's would-be stickup man, Pumpkin? At first he earns our revulsion, but by the end of the film, as he looks down the barrel of Samuel L. Jackson's gun, we fear for his life.
The actor's exploration of victims and victimizers continues in his first television series, Lie to Me, which airs its penultimate episode Wednesday (9 pm/ET, Fox) and concludes its first season next week. The show offers an alternative to 24's violent interrogation scenes and those of other more standard crime procedurals. Roth plays Cal Lightman, an expert at reading emotions who gets suspects to confess to even the worst crimes without laying a hand on them.
"We're led to believe that it's all we've got, that we have to smash someone's fingers because otherwise the world's gonna blow up," Roth told TVGuide.com. "And we bought all this crap."
Lightman's techniques, based on those of lie-detection expert Paul Ekman, envision a more humane brand of crime-fighting, in which intellect trumps physical force. Ekman works with real-life interrogators to help his techniques gain traction.
"I would imagine, for example, with a police force, if they learned to read some fairly simple things that I know Ekman works with them on, people could be safer, there could be less people hurt," Roth says.
Roth's idea that brute force only leads to more brute force is most thoroughly explored in his 1998 directorial debut, The War Zone, in which a family takes revenge on an abusive parent. Roth says he took the job on Lie to Me in part so he could continue to make similarly dark, complex films.
"The kinds of films I want to direct you don't get paid for — they're obviously not commercial ventures necessarily," he says. "By the time I was through with [The War Zone], it was time to go back and make some money. Critically received is one thing, but a film about child abuse is not for everybody."
The actor doesn't see a link between his early abuse and his career's focus on victimization. But he does feel enough distance from it to draw an unusual comparison between directors and abusers.
"An abuser is a great director. You've got to keep your actors in line. If your actors break away and start improvising, you're ending up in jail. Because as soon as they start to speak — as soon as they figure out that they can speak for themselves and that you can't pull the strings — you're done. It's a very dangerous game," he said. "They have to manipulate their victim in such a way that the victims will keep a secret."
Asked if he feels a certain satisfaction in playing someone on Lie to Me who lives to expose secrets, he laughs for the first time during our interview.
"Yeah," he says. "Absolutely."
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