Interview: Timothy Spall


MR. TURNER written and directed by Mike Leigh, with Timothy Spall and Marion Bailey. 150 minutes. A Mongrel release. Opens December 25.

I’m looking at Timothy Spall, star of Mr. Turner, and I’m thinking that there’s something strange about him. 

He totally fills the screen as the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, but it’s not his real-life diminutive stature that’s odd – screen actors are notoriously tiny.

It’s not the snappy pinstriped three-piece suit he’s wearing for his series of interviews at TIFF 2014. 

“Are you looking at my moustache?” he laughs. “It’s for my next role, in a film set in the 70s.”

Spall’s comfortable in any period, whether it’s late 18th century as Turner, the 50s in Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa or in those other Potter pics – Harry Potter, that is – as Wormtail.

As the painter obsessed with natural light and new technologies, he creates a complex character, egocentric but also supremely human. Spall copped the best actor prize at Cannes and could get an Oscar nom in January. 

He doesn’t mind awards at all.

“My wife and I can be sitting in the living and we’ll look at the Cannes awards and say, ‘Hey, look at that!'”

The actor, charming, very voluble and lacing his conversation with profanity, explains what it took to understand the gifted but inarticulate artist.

“It’s all a strange kind of human alchemy. You have to let the character you’re building meet with the research, and I did a fuck of a lot of research.

“I spent three years fucking studying. His tools grew out of him as if they were part of his body, part of his sexuality. I spent two years with a portraitist, and he gave me a fine art foundation course.”

An essential part of bringing Turner to life is his speech – or lack thereof. He doesn’t talk, he grunts.

“He was a natural genius,” Spall explains. “He wasn’t someone who would have gone on chat shows and astounded everyone with his erudition. He could say a million things any time he wanted to, but he would just grunt and pull it back into himself.”

In one amusing, almost horrifying moment in the film, Turner has a small hissy fit because his painting isn’t being exhibited in as prime a spot on the wall as one of Constable’s. Then he goes up to his own painting and appears to deface it with a glob of red paint.

“He never said about Constable, ‘Isn’t he a load of shit?’ though,” Spall insists. “The truth is, no one knew where the paintings were going to be placed.

“As for the red paint, he actually did that. He came in, and everyone wondered, what’s he going to do now? He was at home at the academy and he could do a bit of showboating.”

Mr. Turner was developed through the same process director Mike Leigh has always used, encouraging actors to write their own scenes during a long period before filming. Spall says we shouldn’t confuse that with improv.

“You never improvise the scene. You improvise to create the scene, which is more set than a textual one would be because you’ve worked every single finite piece of it.”

His artistic relationship to Leigh has been one of his most potent over a 35-year career, which began thanks to the encouragement of a high school drama teacher. 

“I didn’t know whether to join the army or go to art college. My drama instructor said after my first performance in the school play, ‘I’ve never said this to one of my students before: it’s a stinking way of earning a living, but you should be an actor.'”

And now he’s known all over the world – but not for his collaborations with Leigh or even this award-winning turn. 

“The Harry Potter thing is still very odd. Wormtail’s a really small part, but it’s one of the things that made me famous in Outer Mongolia.”

Interview Clips

On Turner’s awareness of the real world.

On Turner’s painting technique. | @susangcole



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