Tim Roth knows his way around beautiful piece of dialogue. But in “Chronic,” he’s largely silent. In fact, he spends most of the film doing menial labor. In the latest from austere Mexican director Michel Franco (“After Lucia”), the esteemed actor, 55, plays David, a quiet caretaker often viewed in long takes tending to his sickly patients, one of whom (played by “American Horror Story”’s Robin Bartlett) wishes to die. Slowly, though, it becomes apparent that David has far more going on that he doesn’t like to talk about. Roth talks to us about loving to act in long takes, dying with dignity and one of his older best films.
When I watch movies like this, where there are very long takes, often showing very mundane activity, I wonder what that’s like for the actors.
We find it very invigorating, to be honest. It has a theatrical feeling. It feels like it’s for the actors, where usually film is a director’s medium. We establish the performance in rehearsal, then [the director] decides where he wants the frame to be. And we continue the performance sometimes on-screen, sometimes off-screen. It’s very liberating.
You’re also conveying the character through action, and not always through dialogue. That’s a cliche: that an actor’s performance is judged through how he or she delivers dialogue. On one hand, that means less lines to learn.
Oh, I don’t mind homework. I’m looking at homework right now. The homework was fine. A lot of work, though, was done before filming. I worked with two nurses, met their patients and was trained in certain things you see in the film. We had two nurses on set with us as well. That was all difficult. The filming of it, though, was wonderful, because we could put all of that work onto the screen. It was for me — weirdly [laughs] — one of the most enjoyable films I’ve been involved in.
It’s interesting to watch the movie slowly take shape. At first it seems like a character study of a lonely man. Then we slowly learn little bits about him, and it becomes much more complicated, even disturbing to watch him. And we gradually realize this is a film about death.
Comparison is not a good game to play, but I think [Franco] has something of Ken Loach about him. The way he shoots stuff is not the same. But his subjects are big. Death is one of the last taboos. It’s something we don’t handle well. We try to avoid discussing it. And it hits absolutely everyone. He’s taking on this huge issue, but in a quiet way.
Euthanasia comes up, and without prodding us, it forces us to think about it. The character Robin Bartlett plays is very adamant about taking her life, because she finds existence to be physically excruciating.
It’s a big conversation within the medical community. It’s absolutely legal in many countries, unfortunately not here. There’s dignity one can have in death. A friend of mine said to me after she saw this that when her father died, they knew it was coming. But they were in control of it. They said the six months of that, with the palliative care worker — who was preparing her for her father’s death as well — were some of the best times she had with her dad. If we get to have our choice, it can be a very positive thing for everyone concerned. We’re just not allowed that here for some reason. We’ve been denied that human right. Sad.
I wanted to do the interviewer thing of asking about an old film of yours that I greatly admire, and I decided not enough people ask you about “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” Peter Greenaway’s film from 1989.
I think it’s one of Peter’s best, to be honest. Maybe I’m just biased. But it was an incredibly enjoyable time making that. Getting to watch Michael Gambon work and being close to him was probably worth more than any drama school can ever give you. Going back to actors learning lines: he just doesn’t. He would have them written everywhere: on napkins, on his sleeve, on the back of a bottle. It’s beyond him; he just gave up doing it. It was really funny watching him pull that off.
The musician Ian Dury is in there, too. He seemed like quite a character.
I worked with Ian before I did that, in a four-part miniseries in Britain called “King of the Ghetto.” So I knew him. There’s also a guy who sat at that big table who we called “The Sulphate Strangler,” who was Ian’s personal assistant, because Ian needed that for his polio. But I’d socialized with Ian as well at that time. I knew my way around Ian.
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