NEW YORK -- Tim Roth can't stay out of trouble. Since his first screen appearance in 1982's "Made in Britain" as a skinhead with a swastika tattoo on his forehead, or in 1994's "Pulp Fiction" as a petty crook holding up a coffee shop with his girlfriend, Roth has made an art of playing villains, whack jobs and wastrels - or, at least, someone having a very bad day.
Now Roth fans can delight in two new roles that add to his canon of discord.
In Amazon Prime's 10-episode mystery thriller "Tin Star," Roth stars alongside Christina Hendricks ("Mad Men") as a small-town police chief with a fearsome alter ego.
And in the three-episode miniseries "Rillington Place," premiering Thursday on AMC Networks' premium streaming service Sundance Now, Roth transforms himself into a sotto-voce sicko whose shy, retiring manner conceals his habit of killing young women in his section of downtrodden London.
"Rillington Place" is a masterpiece of pent-up tension and dread, with Roth virtually unrecognizable as John Christie, a real-life serial killer notorious for the carnage he committed in the 1940s and '50s under everyone's noses - including his abused wife (portrayed magnificently by Samantha Morton).
"They lived in a very poor area of London, where he was everybody's best friend and neighbor," Roth says. "And he started to kill." Christie would stash the bodies behind the walls or under the floorboards of his tumble-down flat. "The problem was, he ran out of space. Otherwise he would have killed more and more. Disposal was the problem, not the killing." Roth erupts with a how-sick-is-that? guffaw.
Christie even murdered the winsome young woman and her baby who lived upstairs, then framed her husband for the atrocities.
"It was very hard to play," says Roth, whose voice as Christie rarely rises above a murmur. "You couldn't de-creepy him: 'Would you like a cup of tea?' Even THAT was creepy."
It's a fine example of less-is-more in acting by the 56-year-old Brit who, on-screen and off-, is typically bristling with energy. But Roth says, "I quite like physicality in characters, and I found him very physical.
"It took me a long time to get my neck back," he adds, indicating the literal pain-in-the-neck from effecting Christie's old-bloke stoop.
Roth delivers quite a different performance in "Tin Star."
Set in the Canadian Rockies, the series focuses on a former British detective who uproots his family and moves them to the tiny town of Little Big Bear for a presumably quieter life where he can serve as its parking-ticket-issuing police chief.
But Little Big Bear is about to go big-time with a disruptive new oil refinery, which is fronted by a smooth-talking corporate liaison (Hendricks).
"And then something horrendous happens," Roth teases. "And it turns into a revenge-driven thriller."
Meanwhile, the police chief wrestles with his personal demons.
"He comes to the town as an alcoholic battling the bottle," Roth says. "He's a blackout drunk, which means that anything he does when he's drinking he has no recollection of. So it's a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation. Through the 10 episodes you see one person taking over from the other - being INVITED to take over. So to play it was fun! I had to have a little bit of a rulebook, a little map in my head, as to where I was and WHO I was at any given moment."
"Tin Star" is Roth's first series since "Lie to Me," a Fox crime drama that aired from 2009 to 2011 in which he played a "deception expert" who could suss out when his subjects were lying.
He was drawn to "Tin Star," he says, by its pilot script, which he found "tumultuous and quite devastating. I was hooked. And it made sense to me that if I was, then hopefully the audience would be, too. And THEN I got to the end of the script and I thought, '(Expletive)! THAT'S bold!'" (Bold indeed. But no spoilers here.)
While Roth acknowledges he's played a lot of wicked or unhinged chaps, he's mixed things up along the way.
"I tell you one good guy that I played, in a film you probably haven't seen: a lovely little (2012) film called 'Broken,'" he says. "But quite often, the good guy is not the interesting character. Or, to make him interesting, you have to find the dark in him. You're always looking for balance.
"Conversely, if you're playing somebody like John Christie you have to find SOME good to fold in, otherwise it becomes one-note." A little roll of Roth's eyes. "That was very hard with HIM!"
EDITOR'S NOTE - Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com