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On Lie to Me, Dr. Cal Lightman, played by Tim Roth, is considered an expert and consultant in deception. However, Cal does not have the same unexplained fantastical “mind reading” abilities seen on other forensic psychology shows. Instead, the main character is based on the world’s most respected expert in lie detection, Paul Ekman.

Dr. Cal Lightman is the center focal point of the entire show. As a scientist, he has a high level of expertise at interpreting and detecting tiny “micro” expressions. It is these minute involuntary expressions on the face that last just milliseconds that give away usually hidden aspects of whether the person is telling the truth or not. It is Lightman’s abilities through his useful skills that can accurately detect when the person is telling the truth or not.


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A Team of Specialists

Lightman’s team of specialists offers their consulting abilities to the federal government and others. Based in Washington DC, he and his supporting associates solve challenging mysteries for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the police department and nearly any other individual that is willing to pay for lie detection.

It is the clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman that Tim Roth plays as Lightman’s character. In real life, the Oakland-based scientist – author of Unmasking the Face, Emotions Revealed and Telling Lies – that is an actual expert in lie detecting. His amazing skills have offered advice to a variety of federal agencies including the Department of Defense and the Secret Service. In fact, he has also worked with Pixar in helping to read and analyze facial expressions.

Universal Facial Expressions

It is Ekman that reveals, through Tim Roth’s character Cal Lightman, that humans use the same facial muscles all around the world in every language to express surprise, anger, despair and happiness. Originally, Darwin hypothesized against the belief of scientists for 100 years, that facial expressions are not determined by culture.

What makes the show so intriguing is that Ekman himself has been involved in the development of every episode of Lie to Me. To begin with, the writers of the show go over the arc of ideas with Ekman before writing an episode. When done, they send the script for review. It is Ekman who indicates if anything is out of place or wrong before shooting begins.1

The Past Life of Cal Lightman

In the show, Cal Lightman indicates that when he was a child his mother had been shuttled away to a mental hospital to be treated for an unknown disorder. She was finally able to convince the hospital doctors that she was well enough to enjoy a weekend pass away from the facility to spend with her husband and children. It was then that she committed suicide. Lightman was able to review the doctors’ sessions with his mother on video and studied her facial expressions. He could see that she appeared to be happy on camera, when obviously she was anything but.

Lightman became compulsive at studying her facial expressions to determine exactly what her doctors had missed. It was through this discovery that he found “micro expressions.” Every so often, an episode will show Lightman watching the video once again, after spending years and hundreds of hours reviewing the tape. Many viewers believe that he continually feels guilty for the death of his mother.

His Current Relationships

Another important component to the show is his relationship with his colleague and friend Gillian Foster. Gillian and Lightman team up before creating the Lightman Group. This happens when Gillian serves as his therapist. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and becomes “in the viewer’s face” many times throughout the arc of the show when there are obvious signs of jealousy. Even though they maintain a rule of each one staying out of the other’s private lives, despite what they hear and see, the rule is hard to maintain.

Aside from founding the Lightman Group with his associate Gillian Foster, he is currently divorced from Zoe Landau, who makes appearances in every few episodes. Both he and Zoe have shared custody of their intriguing, determined daughter Emily, who shares her father’s command of control. Zoe makes her first appearance in the episode titled “The Better Half.” In this episode, she is asking Cal for assistance in solving a case of arson. Zoe tends to expose her feelings of jealousy when Gillian is around. Zoe too has a powerful job in the community as an Assistant Attorney General.

Tim Roth

Tim Roth, the British film director and actor is likely best known for his obnoxious role as Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy with Liam Nielsen. However, he also has supporting roles in Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Made in Britain, Planet of the Apes, a King to Kill, the Incredible Hulk and others.


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