Tim Roth didn't know what to expect when he sat down to read the script for Punch for the first time.
The feature debut of New Zealand writer-director Welby Ings, the coming-of-age drama centers on Jim (Jordan Oosterhof), a promising young boxer, as he struggles to deal with the demands of his alcoholic father, Stan (Roth). Jim's life is further complicated when he finds himself falling for Whetu (Conan Hayes), a gay outcast in their small, closed-minded town. Together, they see a future for themselves as far away from their hometown as possible.
Punch is, in other words, a far cry from much of the work Roth is known for. In recent years alone, the actor has bounced from the meditative drama Bergman Island to the psychological thriller Resurrection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reprising his role as Abomination first in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and then in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. For Roth, it's been uniquely rewarding to get to participate in such a wide variety of projects.
"My world and career are so chaotic and crazy that I think people feel like they can send me any kind of film. I think that's very evident in the stuff that I've done," he tells A.frame. "Filmmakers have seen that I'm open to anything, and that's been my intention as an actor ever since the very beginning of my career."
Though the projects couldn't be more different from one another, for Roth, it always begins with the script. That's how Punch won him over. "I get lots of very intriguing, and strange, and wonderful stories sent my way," he explains. "And if I can do them, I do. This was one of those projects."
A.frame: When you're approached to star in projects now, what usually convinces you to sign on? Is it the director's pitch, the director themselves, or is it always the script?
Well, there are two different lanes that I'm on all the time. One is about keeping the lights on, you know? So, there are films that you do that aren't necessarily things you'd normally choose to be in. Sometimes, those projects can be the most enjoyable, though, because you'll show up and just say, "Okay, what am I doing?" But then there are the films that you do for love, for yourself, and for your sanity. One type usually pays for the other, in fact, which I think is probably right.
What was it about Punch that made you say yes?
It came to me because the film's team got in touch with my crazy agent gang in England, who I've had since almost the beginning of my career. I didn't have an agent when I did [my first film] Made in Britain, but I got one afterward. My team said, "Tim, we think you should take a look at this project." And I read the script and I said, "Okay, let’s do it." Those kinds of projects do come along, too. I read them quite often, in fact. I get lots of very intriguing, and strange, and wonderful stories sent my way. And if I can do them, I do. This was one of those projects.
I found it to be very beautiful, and it's not only a first-time feature director, but both of the young leads in it [Oosterhof and Hayes] had never done a film before. This film was their first ever, so I got to be a part of that process of introducing them to this world, which was a lot of fun to see and experience... In general, I think it's really important for actors who have some experience to remember when they didn't, and also to be open to learning from the people who don't. I think that can be an incredible experience.
There's obviously something to be gained from working on sets with directors who are cinematic masters. But is there something particularly rewarding about working on a director's feature debut?
It's wonderful. It's absolutely wonderful, because you're seeing their talent and watching them figure out how to express it. After I read the script and said, "Oh, yeah, I definitely want to do this," that's when Welby and I really started to have discussions about the film and began talking about the script together. We were all very, very close throughout the making of the film, which was great. With the actors, it's fantastic, too. Jordan and Conan had never been in front of the camera before. This was it for them — except for their auditions, I guess.
Given that it was their first film, how closely did you work with Jordan and Conan during production?
Very closely. Every time we filmed a scene together, I'd watch Jordan and he'd make suggestions like, "Maybe I need to be a bit bigger here, or maybe I should do this differently." I'd have to tell him, "Don't worry about anything, because they'll find it. And, if they don't find it, then they've buggered up their job." He and Conan both had the feeling still that they needed to earn their living in a way. I'd say, "Just suppress that while you're actually filming these scenes," and it was so lovely watching them figure that out.
I would say to them, "Okay, what’s the conversation we're actually having right now? What's the scene about?" We'd get the crew to leave the room, and everyone would bugger off to go have a cup of tea for a bit. Welby would be there and we'd figure the scenes out. We'd say, "Try it this way. Okay, now try it again." Eventually, we'd finish rehearsing, and then, the crew would come back in. It was great. I didn't get to work with Conan very much, but I got to be on set one day and watch him do his thing, and it was remarkable. He had a very instinctive feel for his character's inner journey, and I loved seeing that.
Your character, Stan, has a very complicated relationship with his son in the film. How did you find your way into his psyche?
I focused, obviously, on the fact that the man is self-medicating, and that his drug of choice is alcohol, which he sees as a socially acceptable drug of choice. So, it became about the emotions of the character. What is he trying to suppress so that he can get through life? Those are some of the questions that Welby and I talked about when we were discussing the role. Also, my father was an alcoholic. He was in the Second World War and he saw extraordinarily horrible things. PTSD would be a polite form of calling what he came back with from that, and he'd had a pretty brutal childhood already, so he self-medicated.
In regards to Punch, one of the things that my father always talked to me about was who was put in the concentration camps of the Second World War. In addition to the Jewish population, the trade unionists, the Romani community and homosexuals were put in those camps. He told me to always, always, always remember that. That was something he drilled into me when I was a kid, and homophobia was flagrant when I was growing up. It wasn't hidden behind anything. It was open, and normal, and bruising, and brutal. It was just the way of life at the time. My gay friends who felt like they could talk to me and be open with me were still hiding in the same way that my character's son is in Punch. He's trying to survive within that environment, get through school, and get away from it all, which I think is an important and interesting aspect of the film.
With a smaller film like Punch, how do you personally measure its success? Do you consider how many people will see it, or do you care more about your work and the quality of the final film itself?
I haven't seen it yet. I tend not to watch my stuff, so it's very much about the audience. That said, a successful film — in my mind — doesn't come down to figures. I don't think it can, honestly. It's very difficult for these kinds of films to reach an audience, but the fact that they can is really great. For me, it's the audience's response that’s important. Having a bunch of strangers sit in a room together, watch a film, and hopefully, come away feeling differently about their lives, I think that's what determines the success or failure of a film right there. It's all about how you feel when it ends and you sit and reflect on it. Hopefully, what you've done has managed to move people.
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