After memorably bringing to life a rogue's gallery of knaves, villains, scamps and ne'er-do-wells in films such as 1982's "Made in Britain," Quentin Tarantino's 1994 "Pulp Fiction," 1995's "Rob Roy," for which he earned an Oscar nomination, and 2008's "The Incredible Hulk," it's bit of a shock to discover Tim Roth is just a softie.
On a recent hot summer's day, Roth, 52, is enjoying a glass of water at an outside table at his favorite British pub in Pasadena, where he lives out of the glare of Hollywood with his wife and two teenage sons. Roth's characters may be intense and mercurial, but the actor himself is very low-key-friendly without being gregarious. He's contemplative and speaks softly — very much like his character in "Broken," which opened Friday.
In the British coming-of-age drama, which is reminiscent of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Roth plays Archie, a solicitor who is a single parent to a teenage son (Bill Milner) and 11-year-old daughter, Skunk (Eloise Laurence).
Archie has a special, strong bond with his diabetic daughter, treasuring the chats they have before she goes to bed. But their lives change dramatically when Skunk witnesses a vicious neighbor beat up a troubled boy who lives next door.
"Broken" won top prize in December at the British Independent Film Awards.
Roth was eager to embrace his inner-Atticus Finch in "Broken," his first British film in more than two decades. "He's very sort of gentle and a good man," said Roth of Archie.
The film's producer, Dixie Linder, had also produced Roth's 1999 feature film directorial debut, "The War Zone." As the two chatted, Roth asked her what she was working on. "I wanted to know what she was up to and she sent me the script. I wasn't reading it for any role."
Besides, Roth added, another actor was attached to play Archie. The script eventually made its way back to him, this time with an offer attached to play the cruel neighbor. But Roth wasn't interested.
"I said if there's anything I want to play it would be the father, so if it ever comes open," said Roth, "and it actually did for some reason."
"Broken" director Rufus Norris was a little taken aback when Linder suggested Roth for the role of Archie. "But she was quick to say this part is much closer to him than a lot of the roles we are used to him being in," Norris said.
Norris, a theater director making his feature debut, said that he treated Roth "like the very intelligent and very experienced actor that he is and we got along great. One of the first things he said to me was, 'I will come and do a few days' rehearsal for you, but I have to have one day alone with Eloise and Bill. We are going to have a family day out.' By the time they came back, they were thick as thieves."
And Roth and Laurence became "best friends," Roth said warmly. "We had such fun shooting the scenes together. We loved each other."
The actor returns in November, when he can be seen in the high-profile "Grace of Monaco" as Prince Rainier opposite Nicole Kidman's Grace Kelly. "It's a period in the [early 1960s] when the French are about to reclaim Monaco," said Roth.
"Their relationship is in a complicated place," he said of Rainier and Grace. "She went from being a woman in control of her own destiny to being someone who was walking around the palace and nobody was talking to her."
Ironically, he said, there wasn't a lot of footage of Rainier talking. "We found a really interesting interview with him for a British television company," Roth said. "It's just him talking to a very upper-crust journalist, which we used for a semblance of his voice."
Roth recently returned from Alberta, Canada, where he was filming "Klondike," the Discovery Channel's first scripted miniseries, set to air in 2014 and based on Charlotte Gray's book "Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike." In it, Roth returns to the dark side as the Count, a man of power and influence in 1897 Alaska who locks horns with a man of faith, played by Sam Shepard.
Executive producer Dolores Gavin said that Roth was the perfect embodiment of the Count. "We thought it would just be a home run for us if we could get him," Gavin said.
And Roth didn't disappoint.
"Do you know what was great about Tim?" Gavin asked. "Not only is he an incredibly prepared actor, but he came with a whole back story to the character. It was fascinating to watch him work. He had very specific ideas about the twists and turns his character would make."
"Klondike" also was a reunion for Roth and Shepard. "I had done a play [in 2004] of his, 'The God of Hell,' in New York." Roth said. "I hadn't done a play for 20 years before that."
Truth be told, said Roth, he's always suffered from stage fright even when he was making a name for himself in the London theater more than 30 years ago. "On film there is no problem," he noted. "As soon as I started getting more film work, I thought I'm done with [stage]."
But working with Shepard again may have inspired him to push through his fear. "I think I am probably going back to the theater to do a play," he said.