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« Meet the Contenders: Chris Pine "Into the Woods" | Main | Complete the Christmas Sentence »
Saturday
Dec272014

Interview: Timothy Spall on "Mr. Turner" and Fathers and Sons

Mr Turner, Mike Leigh's long gestating dream project about the romantic painter J.M.W. Turner recently hit theaters in limited release but it's buzz began back in the summer when Timothy Spall took home the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his grunted commitment to this fusion of great artist and unsavory man. Last month I had the opportunity to sit down with the Mike Leigh favorite (this is their fifth big-screen collaboration). It'd be impossible to list all the ways in which the man and role are different but the physical strikes you first. Spall has slimmed down considerably since playing what he calls this "toby jug of a man." 

The generous friendly actor, a thousand times more articulate than his current character, talked about the hazards of working with Mike Leigh, and beautiful fathers and son relationships both on screen and off. 

Nathaniel R: I’ve talked to a few actors who’ve worked with Mike Leigh. You always hear about the months of prep work and not knowing how large your role will be. You're the lead this time but is it frustrating to do the work and then just have a small part? 

TIMOTHY SPALL: I think it is. I’ve been in situations where other actors have worked a long long time and because of the way the film is structured they’ve ended up working for three months for one scene. That’s just the way it goes. It is a hazard when you work with Mike Leigh and he doesn’t hide that fact. In all the 33 years that I’ve worked with him, he’s never guaranteed I’d be the center of the piece

Well this one you had a good idea...

Unless he was shooting another film secretly in the evening about Constable.

Or a film about the Academy.

Or about Tina Turner.

Kathleen Turner

One of the Turners. [Laughs]

Mr Turner's whole language seems to be grunting. Dd you have to work on different ways to do that. Or maybe different ways to not say something. 

No, not really. Again, when you work with Mike it’s all organic, it’s all about how it reveals itself. You become inside the character. Your job is to become the character. The character isn’t serving you.

So less vanity required than in other performances I guess.

Thankfully! Mercifully it cuts out all that shit. What you’re doing is trying to create a character that is the character. It's not how am I going to [act this] or how does the character suit me? If this character is a shit or is cruel or he walks funny or is unattractive or he stinks that is what he is. You can’t make value judgements objectively because if that’s what you find out he is that’s what he is.

  So when you get into trying to build the character, you’re bringing it all together, creating a proto human being to fit the research. It became obvious through eyewitness reports and people who knew him that he was a non communicative character. When he does speak he speaks eloquently. He's an autodidact, he talks a lot about architecture and mythology, but he just does it in a pithy way. He can speak as well as anyone but this whole sense of him being non-communicative emotionally was very important. 

Right.

Our job is to fill in the bits that aren’t in the research. Wonderfully and conveniently the Georgian/Victorian era was pre-psychology. They didn’t do what we all do know, explaining ourselves over and over.  

In some cases there wasn’t even language for it. 

Exactly. If you were a difficult personal socially and you did outrageous things you were a nutter, you were a lunatic. You weren’t suffering from delusional self worth. They just got on with it.

What we were trying to divine with Turner was what created the man that could create that fantastic visual poetic devotion. Create the human being in all its incongruity - a visceral and beast-like creature that could do that

Even though he's non-communicative emotionally, it’s obvious who the two people he loves are. The sequences with the father are my favorites because they have such a different feeling. They are communicating but it's physical. That’s probably not anything you could get from research?

It's really nice that you would say that. We grew it organically. We worked on the character from when he was born. What is interesting is that one of the leading characters isn’t in the film: his mother. Turner's mother was a very difficult aggressive and embarrassing lunatic. And what we found — we talked about her a lot -- was her influence in their relationship. 

They became a a united front?

Yes. Paul Jesson who brilliantly plays daddy -- what was very important when we working on the character as a kid was that [Daddy's] responsibility was to fill in the gaps that the mother wasn’t supplying: the overcompensatory, the protection. He was taking him away from the mother. The mother was upstairs doing what she was doing poor thing. Turner was downstairs in the barbershop drawing. His poor father suffered a lot with this. What we worked on was that — this unspoken elephant in the room, the mother, that created this very rare sensitivity. From the young Turners point of view he grew to take it for granted so when he lost it, it was terrible.

One of the key scenes is your showing at the Academy when you're still working on a painting -- much to everyone's horror. A lot of times when people play instruments or paint or whatnot on film it's faked. But you can actually see that you're doing it. Did you take lessons? 

I did. I called [Mike Leigh] one day about four years ago when I was wandering around London. He said ‘It’s funny you should call - come into that office. Remember that Turner thing I was telling you about? Well, I’ve decided it’s going to be my next film.' This was in 2010 and all his films are called by the year.  ‘But don’t get excited because it’s going to be Untitled 2013.’ Do you still want to do it?'

Yes.

'I haven’t got the money. I don’t know what it’s going to be about as usual but it’s going to be about Turner.' I said great. I'll keep that free. 'Also, this might put you off,  learning how to paint until we do it.'  

So I spent two years on and off with  an artist to take me through the whole basic principles, foundation course really. Every time you see me painting it’s me. We had brilliant access to all the paintings -- reproductions, obviously they’re not originals. 

Another scene that really stuck with me is you singing at the piano. Obviously you can sing much better than this in real life. You were in Sweeney Todd.   

I wouldn’t say I’m a singer but I can sing a bit, yeah. 

So is it weird to be able to sing and then sing so badly for film?

You know what? Funny enough that scene when it happened it happened again organically with that lady sitting by the piano. I didn’t invent it. We talked about his love of music. When I started to sing if I tried to sing well I couldn’t because I was in character with a man who couldn’t sing. If you ever wanted a classic example of being dictated to by a character, it was that moment! It just came out like that. That’s how I felt he sang [Laughter] 

Spall in his first Leigh film Life is Sweet (1990)All or Nothing (2002) the last time Spall led a Mike Leigh picture

You’ve done a lot of voice work as well. Bayard for example in Alice in Wonderland. Do you treat acting the same when you're only using your voice?

Absolutely. I did Chicken Run. I’ve done quite a lot. I do commercials to make a living. Every time I do it I think of it as a character, as being a character and playing Bayard (we just made a second film). It's only a small part [Talking to himself] 'Okay, he’s a dog. Dogs don’t talk but what does he sound like.' Obviously you don't get six months rehearsal but it’s about character. How can it be about anything else? 

Your son, Rafe Spall, is also an actor.

I’m so deeply proud of him. 

Was that to be expected. Did you come from a family of actors yourself?

No. What I share with Turner is that my background is very ordinary. My mother was a hairdresser and my dad was a postman, ordinary working people. I grew up in a very non-theatrical background in London in the late 50s. I was lucky enough when I got the bug that during that period of education in England it was paid for. I worked with the National Youth Theatre in the summer and auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. They accepted me so I was at Drama School at 19. 

Really I’ve never had a proper job. I’ve always been an actor. I was lucky. 

Timothy & Rafe Spall

Nathaniel R: So when Rafe told you he wanted to be an actor..

TIMOTHY SPALL: I'll tell you my two reactions: the first one was absolute horror and the second one was deeply flattered because I thought 'my boy wants to do what his old man does!' I didn’t want to tell him how tough it was going to be. But he'd seen. He'd seen me sitting when I wasn't doing anything. He didn’t grow up in a mansion - he lived a proper life. 

The thing about being the child of an actor is it's good on one and bad on another. You’ve got an example and something to tie on to but you've still got to be good. What he’s done really well is he's ploughed his own furrow. He's a different creature than me.

I'll be honest. I didn't realize he was your son until a week ago! 

Tall good looking boy. He’s a throwback... I know he’s mine! [Laughter]

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Reader Comments (12)

nice post

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterankit

Wonderful interview!

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMikadzuki

Wonderful post. Thanks.

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Now I really want to see the film where Timothy Spall plays Tina Turner.

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

LOL Or Kathleen Turner plays Timothy Spall.

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Henry -- oh man, Kathleen would kill that.

Andrew - THE WIG. IMAGINE THE WIG.

December 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

LOL Imagine the gold lame bustier onesie.

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Bahaha the WIG indeed!!!!

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Love that he's finally receiving all these awards and nominations. He's been so overlooked all these years. Love that you included a pic from Life Is Sweet. He should have been nominated.

December 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Hilarious and lovely interview. Makes me love the film and the performance even more.

December 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGoran

There's a moment in Mr. Turner where you're watching Spall in full-action-painter mode, and you see the sky over some craggy cliffs, which you assume is the finished canvas, and then the camera pans down and you're in an actual landscape. The audience gasped outloud -- the distance between the painting and the film had completely collapsed.

At so many moments like this, Mr. Turner feels like a masterpiece -- a must-see for anyone who regards Mike Leigh among the very few best working directors today (and if you don't, what's wrong with you? lol). But the emotional distance, the very inability to articulate psychology that you're talking about in this interview, made the film, for me, a tough one to love. It seems strange to say that I didn't connect to the characters in a Mike Leigh film, but that was where it left me.

Thanks for the engaging interview. Always great to get more insight into how actors develop their characters with the great Mr. Leigh.

December 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Just lovely. And I hadn't connected those two, either.

December 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

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