Timothy Spall: genius does not always belong to beautiful people with lovely long hair

The Mr Turner actor reveals what it was like to play the 'difficult' Turner and how his wife helped him beat cancer

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Hanging in the National Portrait Gallery is a painting of Timothy Spall. His hands are thrust deep in his pockets. He is instantly recognisable and yet his eyes, usually so clear and blue, are filled with profound sorrow. Tim Wright, the artist, seems to have captured the very soul of Spall. Perhaps this should come as no surprise: after all, Wright spent a good two years teaching Spall to paint so that he could take on the role of JMW Turner in Mike Leigh’s new biographical masterpiece of the artist. 

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I meet Timothy Spall himself an hour or so after examining him on that wall, in the reception of Radio 2, where he has just recorded an interview for the cinema release of Mr Turner. As we walk a short distance to a nearby hotel, Spall is stopped half a dozen times by autograph hunters clearly impressed with his turn as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films or as Barry the biker in Auf Wiedersehen Pet. He patiently signs the DVD covers, but doesn’t seem to luxuriate in the attention as others in his position do.

There is nothing grand about Spall, 57, smart though he looks in a suit, waistcoat and crisp white shirt. He is looking remarkably trim; he later explains he’s on a diet and has shed a good couple of stone ahead of donning tight 1970s suits for his next role (in Sky Living’s 2015 supernatural drama The Enfield Haunting). As soon as we sit down, he orders a Diet Coke and, when I congratulate him on his outstanding performance as Turner, he bursts out laughing.

“Thank you very much,” he says, his south- London accent unchanged by 35 years of profes- sional acting. “The thing is, not everyone has heard of him. It’s a film about JMW Turner, not Tina Turner.” 

Joking aside, it doesn’t matter how au fait the audience might or might not be with the visionary British painter. Mr Turner is so much more than an arty biopic; it’s a meticulously researched period feature about an eccentric, grumpy and wilfully awkward artist who has to navigate his way through Victorian England.

Focusing on the last 25 years of his life, it also takes in the birth of the Industrial Revolution. There is, for example, a poignant scene in which Turner has his photo taken for the first time. He complains to the photographer that people in the near future won’t be painting the Niagara Falls, but will instead be turning up with a black box to take photos of it.

Turner seems to be nostalgic for the simplicity of a world he can feel slipping away in the mid-19th century; goodness knows what he would have made of people taking selfies in galleries 150 years later. Spall laughs. “But it’s all relative. We grow with the times. I think that Turner embraced change. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, his much-celebrated painting of the steam engine, is evidence of that. He knows the Industrial Revolution is coming and it fascinates him.” 

If Turner was a complicated character, then Spall gets to the very heart of him. He gives the performance of a lifetime, a show-stopper that won him the best actor award at Cannes earlier this year and which really should lead to an Oscar nomination next year.

Despite his gruffness, despite his endless grunting (“an expression of imploded emotion”), you can’t keep your eyes off Spall. How on earth did he make such an apparently difficult man so magnetic? “Well, Turner has got a certain enigmatic charisma. And Mike Leigh’s films are so often about the majesty of the incongruous person. He gives the best shot to people who you’d cross the street to avoid. Or who, at the very least, you’d dismiss as boring, irritating, annoying. He makes you understand them properly. He brings a nobility and majesty to their lives.”

He has a sip of Diet Coke. “Mr Turner is about the fact that genius does not always belong to beautiful people with lovely long hair who are the pop stars of their era. Yes, Turner was a difficult man. But we all know difficult people. I’m halfway like that myself at times. Anyway, Turner could have been a lot worse. Just look at Caravaggio, who the National Gallery describes as ‘arrogant, rebellious and a murderer’.”

Spall went to Rada, where he won a gold medal for most promising actor in his year, but he has always been interested in art and has drawn or painted for as long as he can remember. An exhibition of his angel paintings was held at Maison Bertaux in Soho this summer, but he still found two years of private tuition with Tim Wright incredibly hard going. “Tim is a brilliant teacher, but it was relentless. He facilitated me learning rather than making me learn. There were days when I thought I wasn’t up to it, but by the end I reckon I was painting as well as Turner – as a nine-year-old.”

I mention my earlier viewing of Wright’s portrait and how struck I was by the melancholy in Spall’s eyes. “Funnily enough, I had a couple of hours off the other day and I went to see it myself. Somebody came up to me and said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t do you justice. You’re not like that! You’re a funny, entertaining person.’ But sometimes I am just sad. You can’t be garrulous on your own. As you get older and more thoughtful, you carry stuff with you. Your kids get older, you take on their sorrows, you enjoy their triumphs. Life doesn’t always go to plan. 

This is something of an understatement. In May 1996, Spall and his wife Shane, a writer, were preparing to fly to Cannes to celebrate Secrets & Lies winning the Palme d’Or when Spall was told he had leukemia. “I thought I’d be on the read carpet, not lying in hospital with a raygun up my arse!” He starts laughing again, but just as quickly stops. 

His voice is sombre. His eyes hold that sadness in Wright’s painting. “You never know what is going to happen to you in life. I’m lucky because I have Shane. She’s my rock of Gibraltar. We were always a very close family [they have three children], but particularly when I was ill and she stood sentinel. We were in it together.” He smiles, almost to himself. “I do believe in the power of love.”

He didn’t want to die before all his kids – Pascale, actor Rafe and Sadie – had grown up. And Shane wasn’t going to let him die. “No. She wasn’t having it. One day, after the doctors thought I’d relapsed and I was about to have a bone marrow transplant, I watched Shane pegging up the washing in the garden. She was just carrying on. All of a sudden I thought, ‘F*** this. I’m having people tell me I might not… live’. I went down there and said to her, ‘I’m going to tell you something, darling. I’m not going to die. I just decided. It’s tough, but I know you know I’m not.’ ”

Spall looks up and his eyes are a startling blue. This May, when he got another of those phone calls from Cannes – the festival is very cloak-and-dagger; no one knows till they’re almost there if they’ve won a prize – he was fighting fit and able to go. The only issue this time was geographical; he and Shane were in the middle of nowhere in northern Holland on their seaworthy barge Princess Matilda.

Although they have a flat in Clerkenwell in central London, this is where they spend most of their time when Spall isn’t working; you might have seen them sailing around Britain in BBC4’s At Sea series. Anyway, the call came: get ready for Cannes. Several hours later a dazed Spall was telling journalists he’d been a bridesmaid many times,  but “This is the first time I’ve ever been a bride.” Pushing his Coke glass around the table now, he starts to mumble about Mr Turner being a joint effort. “I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about awards. I’m going to have to go along with it, I suppose. And any type of award is good or the film.” 

This is typically generous talk from an actor who gave everything to Mr Turner. He admits he found the film tough, never leaving home without at least four art or history books during the  research and rehearsal period. He also inadvertently broke Leigh’s rule of only getting into character when you put the costume on. “One weekend early on, I was still struggling to find out what made Turner tick. I couldn’t get out of character. I went into an empty bar in Clerken- well and said [and here he instantly morphs into Turner], ‘Are you a purveyor of wine?’ ”

He giggles at himself. “I had to go outside and lean against the wall for a minute. Calm down now, sport! I went back and said [back to south London], ‘Can I have a pinot grigio, please?’”

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It’s time to go. Spall is still thinking about Turner as he heads out of the hotel. “Surviving a serious illness gives you an understanding that life is very much about other people. I don’t think Turner, a genius who was obsessed with his work, did that as well as he wanted to. He tried to consider other people, but he found it incredibly hard. I’m lucky. I’ve learnt that there’s no point in just living for yourself.”