Telling the Truth with Lie to Me's Tim Roth

Tim Roth may look like a seasoned small-screen pro while playing Lie to Me's slick human lie detector, Dr. Cal Lightman. But the truth is, after 30 years in the business, Lie to Me is Roth's first major TV gig. Before landing the show's lead role, Roth was one-half of Pulp Fiction's Pumpkin/Honey-Bunny tag team and the villainous Thade in Planet of the Apes. He also earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy. I spoke to Roth about his adjustment to TV, the show's move to the summer, and Dick Cheney. Obviously. How did the role of Dr. Lightman come about for you?
Tim Roth: It was the guy who came up with the idea of the show, Sam Baum. He was looking around, and he came straight to me. A lot of film actors now are coming into this stuff... because the stigma and snobbery seem to have vanished, which is a good thing. But I passed on it twice. I was unsure, but not because of the character. I was unsure if I was ready to jump into this thing. [Baum] was very persistent and persuaded me that it might be a good idea. And I’m glad he did, because it’s been a very enjoyable experience.

Did you consult Dr. Paul Ekman [the scientist on whom the character of Lightman is loosely based] when you began the role? Do you still talk with him?
He was around at the beginning. I think part of his deal with Sam was that Sam would let him use the science to set up a show only if he could study Sam. So they did that. He [and his group] have been on set a few times... I’ve met with a few of them. They consult on the script, just to keep the science accurate.

What kind of material do you get from his team? How do they help you play the role?
For me, it’s less important, but for the writers, that’s the core. The heart of the show is the science. So as much as we’ve gone into character background stuff, the science is what keeps it all together. When they come up with a scenario, they put it in his direction, and he suggests—I think this is how it goes—he suggests possible avenues to go down with regard to facial expressions and all of that.

Has playing Lightman affected the way you interact with people? Do people expect you to read them?
Yeah, people expect me to, and I have to assure them that I can’t. And I have been very insistent with myself that I don’t learn this stuff. Even as a film actor, I don’t take my work home. So it’s just the same rule as I’ve had. But you still have to convince people because they do assume that you’re watching them in a way that you’re actually not.

Have you ever tried to detect anyone’s lies just for fun?
Only when you’re watching a politician. During the election it was kind of fun. Especially when you have Dick Cheney and people like that coming on, it’s great. But... you don’t need to be a scientist to spot these guys most of the time.

Are there any types of characters that you’d like Lightman to work with?
The thing about this character is that you can go anywhere with it. There are certain things I would like to do. I’d like to do an episode in London, where he goes back and gets in trouble. There was a very good character that we brought in early on in the second season, played by Lennie James, a friend of mine that comes from London. And that character is someone we’d like to bring back, to see what trouble we can get into. And there is one character we’re looking at—you guys won’t have seen this yet—that we’re looking at bringing back as well, this woman who Lightman comes across which could cause all kinds of trouble. The more trouble the merrier, really. Lightman has a real problem with authority, and he’s playing around on the edges of legality and illegality, and I think we've got to go down that road.

I'm generally opposed to the idea of the crossover episode, but I actually think Lightman would interact really well with many different characters on other shows, including Bones' Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), or Castle's Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), or even 30 Rock's Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). Do you see crossovers ever being a possibility?
It came up a lot last season. People were very intrigued with the notion of playing around with it. But I don’t think we’re ready yet. Maybe next season. If we get to a fourth season, it might be a fun time to do that, just to see who’s around and who we can play with. I’m sure that the actors would get a kick out of working with somebody from another show... I’m up for anything, really.

Why do you think Lie to Me can get away with exploring edge-of-your-seat, super-thrilling scenarios, like the hostage situation in "Honey" or the Afghanistan trip in "Secret Santa"?
That’s the thing. We can go anywhere if it’s possible to film it. I actually started to get much more enjoyment out of it when I started to see these scripts rolling in. And that was what Shawn Ryan brought to the show, for the time that he was with us: A level of adrenaline and more of a challenge for the character, but also a look at the human aspects of this guy, how he relates to other people and so on... I really liked the Afghanistan episode very much. Thought it was a very good script. And actually the writer of that one, Alexander Cary, is now a showrunner... Someone else he brought on from New York, a guy named Dave Graziano, the two of them have taken over the writing and the running of the show. I think you’re going to see a lot more stuff like that. I’m very pleased about it.

How does the show manage to deviate so seamlessly from the "procedural" format?
Actually, if you look at the Afghanistan episode as an example, it’s straightforward procedural. A guy shows up in my office and hires me to do a job. But it’s a very strange job and takes us into all kinds of dangerous areas. So it’s having your cake and eating it, basically. You do a procedural but you twist it. You put a spin on it, and I think it makes it more exciting for the audience. The heart of it really is the Lightman character—he is very wonky. He’s off-kilter and he dances around the edges of what’s legal and he operates in the grey area. He’s anti-authority. As soon as you put that guy in a procedural situation... you can mix it up. One day we’re in Afghanistan and the next day we’re in a courtroom.

What’s going to happen between Lightman and Foster (Kelli Williams) during the rest of Season 2?
[Laughs] Well, we did an episode where we looked at how they met. And there are episodes where she has a boyfriend, and that gets a bit messy. Obviously [Lightman] loves her. It’s the question of when they could actually tolerate each other in any other aspect that we are examining. It comes out and we touch on it. [We're] in the planning stages of the third season, so we’ll see where it goes.

And what about Lightman's family life? Will the show explore his relationship with his daughter Emily (Hayley McFarland) and ex-wife Jenny?
Yeah, there’s more stuff with Jenny, which really does get quite crazy. And a lot more with Emily, who’s such a good little actress. She’s something, that kid. Everyone just fell in love with her. We do a lot of improvisation, and she’s right there with me... She’s only just turned 18, so she’s very young, but she’s got something I think. We very much intend to write to that and explore that. There’s a good episode coming up that quite heavily involves a boyfriend and Lightman’s reaction to him.

Lightman would probably be the most difficult father for a teenage boy to face!
Yes. He hung in there! He did well. [Laughs]

What do you think of the show’s move to summer, scheduling-wise?
We’re doing a bit of both, which is kind of weird. All of that stuff is mysterious to me and really isn’t my business. But it seems to me that summer is a market that the networks are looking at very seriously because it’s an untapped commodity. And what with the way that people watch TV nowadays in many different ways with the DVR stuff, TiVo, Direct TV, and also online and all of that, there is a market out there and they’ve thrown some drama at it to see what they can do. The idea that they’ve been talking to us about, anyway, is that we do some filming in July. They would take the remainder of the episodes from Season 2 into the summer, and then play straight through into the autumn as well. So we may take a little break, but we may also just push right through. By then we’ll have a ton of episodes in the bank, so they can pretty much do what they want with them.

You've mentioned that you were hesitant about being on TV. What made you decide to switch over from acting in films to playing the same character every week?
Well, I’ve never done it before. I’ve been acting for 30 odd years now. What you try to do is keep it fresh. I was nervous about it. That’s why I paused before I said yes. It was long conversations with myself and my family and all of that... I looked at it from this perspective: We do a season, it gets canceled, you just move on and go back to whatever you do. But they have kept us around, which is good, but it’s quite surprising. Now it’s almost like doing a really long run of a play. You’re playing the same guy, but you just keep tweaking the character back and forth and you get to hit the character fresh every episode. For me it was an acting challenge, really. Actually, it came at a good time because the recession was right around the corner. So that helped... And I’ve been back to film since, which I find very relaxing.

What was the biggest thing you had to adjust to going to television?
Hours. And I am a workaholic. I love to work. Mostly what you complain about on film is that, even if you’re central to the film, you’re hanging around a lot doing nothing during the day while they set stuff up and organize shots and all of that. And then you get to do a little bit of work during that day. Sometimes minutes. Whereas in television, you’ll only get about five minutes to hang around in the day, and the rest of the time you are working at a constant pace. It’s between 12- and 14-hour days, and it’s five days a week. Then I have to work on weekends to get the next script ready as best I can, you know, line-learning and preparation. It’s like doing about a 10-month shoot. When you come out at the end of it you are exhausted, if you’re doing 22 episodes. So it’s a challenge, but it’s a good one. Hopefully there’s an audience out there for it. As long as the audience is having fun, they’ll stick around, and hopefully we can build on it a bit so we don’t end up in what they call that bubble area.

Are you working on any other projects?
I have one. I did a little indie movie [Pete Smalls is Dead] with Steve Buscemi and a director, Alexandre Rockwell, who I worked with on Four Rooms years ago. I did that between Season 1 and Season 2. It’s very low budget, and very funny indeed. And then there’s something I probably will go to in between [Seasons 2 and 3] or if we get cancelled, after the next 13 or whatever. I’ll probably just go straight into a movie in Europe that I have lined up.

Lie to Me returns tonight at 8pm on Fox.

Follow writer Stefanie Lee on Twitter: @StefAtTVDotCom

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