Seeing a genuinely great character onscreen nowadays is a rarity. Fantastic fathers, especially, are even harder to come by, but with director Rufus Norris‘s coming-of-age tale, Broken, Tim Roth plays just that: an honorable, loving dad.
Archie’s neighbor in the film is the polar opposite. He’s a yelling, unhinged presence who, most actors of Roth’s pedigree, would probably feel more drawn to. Instead, Roth opted for Archie, taking the chance to play a genuinely good man.
We spoke with the actor about the different dads he’s played, and the way he approaches every set he gets to work on.
You’ve discussed before how Funny Games could be an emotionally grueling movie to make. Would you say the same for some of the tougher moments in Broken?
It was less grueling, because the thing about Funny Games was it just went from stress to higher stress to higher stress for my character [Laughs]. That’s a character just held back, whereas this was more traditional. Half of what I had to do was establish to an audience the character I was playing and his relationship with the daughter, being both a friend and father.
A lot of that was a good time, but there are obviously some distressing elements in the film. Actually, I was talking to Michael Haneke about it recently. It was just the most stressing job to work on that film. [Laughs] You can have a bad day, but that movie had a lot of bad days.
[Laughs] The scene with Archie in the hospital is full of a lot of emotion. What kind of space do you need to play a scene like that?
Normally I find scenes where you’re broken down, with the exception of Funny Games, tough to get into. I was quite amazed with this one because it was the easiest thing in the world. I think it came from the relationship I developed with the lead, Eloise [Laurence]. We loved hanging out with each other. There’s something delightful about that girl. The spark within her is on the screen there, but that’s not to say it’s not a performance, because she carefully crafted it. We were coming to the end of our shoot when we did that, so it was easy for me.
You always hear from directors and actors different methods of working with young actors. Some manipulate, while others treat them like any other actor. For you and Norris, what was the collaboration process like?
She was the last person we looked at. He had a couple of kids in mind, but the woman who plays the mother of the Boo Radley type across the street is an actress Rufus has worked with before on stage. She has a daughter who had never acted before, wasn’t interested, and is a very good singer and artist.
She came in and knocked everyone’s socks off, but then you have to find a way to get a performance. We watched her figure out the acting thing. She knew what to do, hitting every single point. If she wants to carry on, she’d be okay. We created a quiet atmosphere on set and just did the scenes.
Do you prefer a quiet atmosphere for the work or does it depend on the project?
I take the work seriously. I’m there to do the job, but it’s good to mess around on the set. Once you know what you’re doing, you should relax. When you’re doing your scenes, everyone gets quiet, you create an atmosphere, build it backup, and then start filming. It depends on what we’re doing, though. If we’re blowing people up or jumping off buildings, it’s a whole different world. The house we shot it in we made the house of that family. The kind of dad he was we made the house. We wanted an informality.
Building the relationship with Eloise, can you sense on set if it’ll play onscreen?
You get a sense of it. There’s two sort of versions of it, because you definitely know when it’s not there. That’s tough, because it’s a tougher acting job creating that relationship. If you have good chemistry off the set, it’s pretty much going to make the job of selling that relationship to an audience. It’s tougher when you don’t get on with a person…
How do you work if the chemistry isn’t there?
You fake it. I’ve worked with people I couldn’t stand, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s all sleight of hand. It’s just so much nicer when you get on with someone.
I imagine it helped here that Norris, as you’ve said before, understands actors in a way some directors don’t.
Yeah, he has an innate respect for the business of acting. You really feel you’re in the room with someone who has a great intellect at work. There’s a literary and artistic knowledge with Rufus. He’s a quiet, short communicator, which is fairly unusual with people in general. When he gives suggestions or notes, I take them very seriously.
What do you usually want out of a director?
I don’t know if I could encapsulate it, but it depends on what you’re working on. I do think it requires some basic intelligence [Laughs].
[Laughs] That’s a good start.
Yeah, that helps! When I was directing, I was a different director to each actor, and I found out very quickly that’s what you need to do. Maybe what I got from Rufus was one thing while what Cillian [Murphy] got was something else.
Having directed yourself, did that at all change your relationship with directors, having been in their shoes?
Well, I think they watch me watching. That’s always been the case with me, though. I’ve always found what camera is doing fascinating and the director’s decisions intriguing. Even before I was an actor I always wanted to know why they did something over another way. I notice more and more — and not just because I’ve directed — that I need to calm the waters on a set. I come with a lot of baggage in their minds. I’m not really interested in that, and I have to make sure they understand that because I’m interested in what they have to offer.
There’s a ton of films they’ve grown up with. Young directors, you know? Older directors are not necessarily an issue. I shouldn’t say younger, but newer to the game. They have preconceived notions of what I am, and I’m hardly any of them.
I do specifically watch the film crew, who they are, and how they do their jobs. I’m just interested, you know?
Am I wrong or didn’t you first intend on directing?
I thought if acting didn’t workout, it’d be interesting to be a DP. That’s something I would’ve loved to have gotten involved in, but I was lucky enough for acting to happen. I thought making the look of the film, what you can do with lenses, what you can do with movement, and how you grab the audience is intriguing. The directing thing came from being taught by directors. Finally, I found a years to have enough in the bank to finally go do it.
You’ve worked with two of the best filmmakers out there, Haneke and Francis Ford Coppola. Both films, Funny Games and Youth Without Youth, were similar in how divisive they were. When a movie is met with that kind of reaction, does it impact your view on the work?
Actually, I kind of expect it. I don’t expect a clean read on anything, but I don’t read reviews or interviews I’ve done. I can only imagine the response to Funny Games would be completely divided, and not just on a subject matter, story level, or whether they like the performances or not. Michael had made this film already, so questions were made and it was going to be compared.
Why don’t you read reviews?
I’ve stopped. It can really poison you, and I’m not just talking about the bad ones. It’s the same in the way I don’t watch dailies while I’m filming, because it can get in the way. If I read something and think, “Oh, really? We tried so hard to end up making it that.” If you stop reading bad reviews, you have to stop reading all of them; it’s incredibly liberating stopping with that stuff.
Was there a specific incident that made you stop?
When I directed The War Zone, I was really asking for it. As an actor, that’s fair enough, really. The movie was very positively received, but there was one critic in England — and critics in England are notoriously awful — that attended a prescreening. I don’t know if you’re involved in this, but the production people get quotes from those screenings, with posters or the teaser stuff. Anyway he was a very powerful critic and he left the theater giving an absolute rave to the producers. They put his quotes on the poster, but when he put his review out, he killed it. He would never take our phone calls. That was the point I went, “These people aren’t worth it.” You can’t invest your emotion in it.
For an audience, it’s a great idea. Criticism has a noble history, actually. I think it’s a little trickier because it’s a whole new world now, which I find fascinating. After a certain point, you have go, “Enough already.” It also depends on what you get out of it, as an actor. If they’re good, what do you do, tell your mates? [Laughs] I don’t think the reviews are for us, but for the audience.
Broken is now in limited release and on VOD.