Having been sitting in a small meeting room, with a cup of English Breakfast tea in one hand, Dictaphone in the other, there was a serene sense of fulfilment when awaiting the arrival of British acting royalty Timothy Spall. Yet when he walked into the room, an overwhelming feeling of nerves kicked in, as despite his distinctively affable demeanour, it felt like J.M.W. Turner had just emerged, such is the ineffably committed performance from this great actor, in Mike Leigh’s latest cinematic endeavour.
It didn’t take long, however, for this imposing figure to suddenly become so much more approachable, as in a mere matter of moments, when Spall introduced himself (as if he’d need to), his gruff voice, mixed with his effortlessly eloquent, and personable discourse was comforting – not to mention the distinct lack of grunting we bear witness to in his depiction of one of Britain’s most lauded, irrepressibly gifted artists. For Spall, this experience transcended what we’d consider to be regular preparation for a role, as Leigh put his star man through the paces, in their seventh collaboration together.
“I knew it would take a massive amount of work, and I am one of the hardest-working, laziest bastards in the world,” Spall said. “But I knew there was no way I could get my teeth into this, unless I worked. So I did a hell of a lot of studying. I knew somewhere along the line something would give me an epiphany and it was through graft and imagination that one particular Christmas break during rehearsals, I read a lot of books and looked at a lot of his work, and all of a sudden something happened in my head.”
Leigh was adamant that Spall took rigorous painting lessons too, to help him embody, and understand the role at hand, an obligation for any actor working alongside this esteemed filmmaker and seven-time Oscar nominee. “It was very beneficial,” Spall admitted. “He knew I had a bit of ability but I have never really painted. The way Mike works as well, every character who has a skill, the actor has to try and, not master it, but understand it. So when I played Aubrey in Life is Sweet, I did a lot of cooking. When I played Maurice in Secrets and Lies, I spent a hell of a lot of time learning about manual photography. This time, I spent a lot of time drawing, to painting a full scale, same-size copy of the Snowstorm Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, in oil. That’s the point I got to. That practical side was a great help, and an insight.”
Spall and Leigh have become almost synonymous with one another, and Spall told us that he wouldn’t dream of turning a project down if the director was involved, unless he had no choice but to. “The only time I’ve ever said no to Mike, was when I was unavailable. I regard my long-term professional collaboration with him over the years as one of the things I pride myself on the most. I’ve never worked with one person that much. I consider him to be a genius and was a massive fan of his before I ever worked with him. We’ve got to know each other well over the years, and when he mentioned this to me, I was extremely excited about the prospect. Then four years ago when he asked me to start painting, I took a deep breath and though, here we go – that was the beginning of the adventure which ended up as this movie. It’s astounding actually, I don’t know quite how we did it.”
The life of Turner is a fascinating, and yet somewhat elusive one. Aside from the paintings – which are the most intricate, emotive forms of the man’s expression – as a person, there is much we don’t know. However Spall believed this allowed him more room to be creative when tackling such a renowned figure.
“It gave me more creative freedom. There’s portraits of him and talk about him, how he looked and how he spoke, but very little about the workings of his mind. But your job when playing someone from real life, is to read everything possible that you can, and whilst working on building the character, eventually you’re going to try and make these two intermingling collide, in a Frankensteinian sense, they become the same thing – it’s an ongoing process. He was a man who, through his life, was a polymath, much to the surprise of people. They knew he was a genius, but didn’t realise he was so well-read. He knew everything, from Greek mythology to the kosmos, he knew about the theory of light. He was an instinctive genius who perfected his art through assimilating and synthesising other people’s work, which eventually exploded into this amazing pre-expressionist form.”
“What you’re doing all the time is building a character using your imagination, filling in bits that aren’t written about, and making conclusions and using the contradictions, because there is a lot of contradictory stuff about him. I read all his letters, most of the commentary about him, I studied the people he was influenced by, and the rest of it is left up to artistic creation, and amalgamating all these aspects together, to bring this being to the screen.”
The film, and in particular, Spall’s performance, have been rightly lauded ever since the picture premiered In Competition at Cannes film Festival earlier in the year – but Spall admits that he’s unable, yet, to appreciate what he has achieved as an actor. “I’m not in the position, in any way, to be objective about myself in the film, yet. Considering I’m in every scene, that’s quite difficult. My brother who saw it recently said it was a masterpiece and that it was the first time he has sat through a film and didn’t recognise me as his brother, he just thought I was the character, so that in itself is a wonderful thing.”
“You are the baby that you gave birth to, it’s really weird. You can’t judge it. I can look around and hear people say lovely things about it, and I know that it’s a beautiful film, and I know Dick Pope’s work is some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen in my life, and I know my fellow actors are wonderful in it, faultless. But give me four or five years and I might be able to be objective about it.”
Spall was rewarded for his efforts with the prestigious honour of the Best Actor accolade at Cannes, which has inevitably lent itself to much discussions about his chances at next year’s Academy Awards, yet it’s not something the actor is giving much thought to, as a whole side to the industry he’s still somewhat unsure of.
“You can be quite critical [about the Oscars], or ambivalent about it – I have been in the past, and there’s truth in both. We know there shouldn’t be competitions about these things, because how can you judge one against the other? Then if you’re in a really negative mood you could call it all preposterous. Then you get one and you’re like weyheyhey! We’re all hypocrites,” he joked.
“It uncomfortable even thinking about it. You’re setting yourself for a hubristic disappointment, and secondly, you’re tempting fate. Thirdly, it’s like, oooh get her. You know? But when it comes down to it, on a practical, business level, the film world is an artistic one, but it’s also a business one, so if a film gets praised it gets a bigger audience, and although it has a lot of expectation, it’s still an esoteric subject. We as Englishmen feel we own, and know something about Turner, but it would be different in Japan. Different in Brazil. So the whole gongathon on the poster gives the film a lift, and you’d be a fool and a liar if you said you didn’t want the film to be seen. But, on a personal level, it’s thrilling, exciting, daunting, terrifying, possibly deeply embarrassing, and worrisome. But I’ll see what happens, and if I have to go along with it, and shake hands with people and all that, I probably will. But the bottom line is, and all that matters, is that the film is there, it’s been made, we did it, and it will be there forever. Whatever happens to it, it’s there, and that’s just great.”
What can’t be denied, regardless of how the picture fares in the awards season, is just how proud Spall is of what everybody associated with this production achieved. “It’s lovely to have done, as a piece of work to stand behind, and feel ownership of it to a certain degree. It’s Mike’s genius that created it, but it’s lovely to feel so integral. Especially when people like you, who spend your life looking at films, say charming and lovely and enthusiastic things about it. I’d be lying if I wasn’t delighted by that. Just waiting for the next kick up the arse now, there’s always one around the corner!”