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Timothy Spall: "For the first time, I became something other than an actor"

The actor speaks to RadioTimes.com about his new film It Snows in Benidorm, his various upcoming projects and the roles that have changed his life.

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Published: Saturday, 3rd September 2022 at 9:00 am
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When Timothy Spall filmed It Snows in Benidorm, the new film from Spanish director Isabel Coixet, the world was a very different place. The film – which premiered in Spain almost two years ago and finally opens in the UK this weekend – was shot at the beginning of 2020, just a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic completely upended the way of life for millions around the world.

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It means that promoting the film now makes for something of an odd experience for Spall, who just like the rest of us had no idea what was coming at the time.

"I just watched it again with my daughter and my wife," he explains during an exclusive chat with RadioTimes.com. "My daughter visited us with my youngest grandchild when we were there, and while watching she said, 'It was like a different time!'

"But if we watched it a year or so ago, when we were all still in lockdown, it would have seemed even stranger. The way that human nature is and life is, when things come back to normal, even though the world has been through a bizarre trauma, the normal starts to seem normal again. For a while, the normal seemed extraordinary, which is most unusual!"

Funnily enough, that theme – the relationship between what might be considered normal and what seems extraordinary – is a key part of It Snows in Benidorm. The film sees Spall take on the role of meteorology-obsessed Mancunian bank worker Peter Riordan, who lives an extremely humdrum existence until he's forced into early retirement after a number of run-ins with his boss.

This shock to his system prompts him to do something fairly radical, at least by his standards. Unsure what to do with his newfound time and freedom, he takes a trip to the titular Spanish resort town to visit his expat brother – only to find that his sibling has mysteriously vanished. On his mission to locate him, he gets drawn into a bizarre world that introduces him to a side of Benidorm that isn't often explored. And he even embarks on an unlikely romance with an acquaintance of his missing brother.

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It Snows in Benidorm
Timothy Spall in It Snows in Benidorm

"What I love about this film is that on the face of it, it's about a very normal man," Spall explains. "A man who's almost decided he's going to disappear, he has such a mundane life. And he goes to a place which is well known for being a place where you get your rocks off.

"And those expectations that other people have of Benidorm, and he might notionally have, he falls right in between the cracks of – not finding the whole Brits on holiday thing, but being introduced into this bizarre Spanish side of things, the working side.

"It becomes, in a sense, almost like he's in somebody else's dream. The atmosphere is particularly unusual – it seems normal, but it isn't, he's thrown off centre."

It is indeed a rather enigmatic film, and a hard one to easily categorise into a specific genre. So how would Spall himself describe it?

"It's a fish out of water tale, a chalk and cheese relationship and then a bit of a mystery," he says. "But the atmosphere and general tone of it, which you cannot ever judge in the script, I think is this slightly hypnotic, strange thing."

As well as a Spanish director, the film also boasts perhaps the country's most well-known filmmaker, Pedro Almodovar, as a producer (indeed, according to Spall, Almodovar was at one point interested in directing it himself). And that mixture of Spanish perspectives and his own English point of view, Spall explains, is part of what makes the film so fascinating and unique.

"It's this kind of Mancunian everyman in the hands of a Catalonian auteur, who falls in love with a nightclub worker who's also got an exotic dance act," he says. "I mean, you're talking about a real mixture here – you know, something's gonna happen one way or another!"

It Snows in Benidorm
It Snows in Benidorm

Spall himself got to experience this different side of Benidorm during filming, spending time with several of the performers who make their living in the various nightclubs and bars. The Elvis impersonator was particularly charming, he says, and there were plenty of other interesting personalities he met during the process as well.

"There was a drag comedian, then there was a lady with a snake, the lady who produces the egg," he explains. "So there was this whole world that you saw when you were going into these clubs and into these areas and seeing it from another point of view."

The film also explores another part of Benidorm's culture and history that might not be known to most viewers: the resort's association with Sylvia Plath. The poet spent some time in the town on her honeymoon with Ted Hughes in the summer of 1956, and – according to the film, at least – shocked the locals by wearing a bikini. Although Spall had not been aware of that story prior to filming, he did know that Benidorm used to be a very different place than the one we think of now.

"Up until the 1950s, before the big boom of package holidays, it was a fishing village," he says. "And now it's, you know – for those who haven't been there – it is an extraordinary place. So, for it to turn into that in a matter of 60 years from this place where Sylvia Plath went with Ted Hughes to sit around is incredible."

It Snows in Benidorm
It Snows in Benidorm

Spall has been one of Britain's foremost thespians for several years now – and so it's no surprise that he has plenty of other projects in the pipeline at the moment. He's just wrapped shooting on Sarah Phelps' true crime drama The Sixth Commandment, where he will take on the lead role of murdered school teacher Peter Farquhar, while he also recently shot a film in Iceland titled Fearless Flyers.

"And I've just finished a Sky Christmas movie," he adds. "We were all in overcoats, boiler suits, and balaclavas, with snow everywhere in 40 degrees heat!"

Interestingly that's pretty much the exact opposite experience he had on It Snows in Benidorm, where the film's metaphorical title came true just two days into the shoot. "It was winter," Spall explains. "I mean, it doesn't look like it but it was actually the middle of winter. And believe it or not, on the second day I was there, it snowed. I mean, it was unbelievable – it was bloody freezing, there was snow in the mountains. It snowed in Benidorm!"

Perhaps the most exciting of Spall's upcoming projects is the Netflix film The Pale Blue Eye, which is directed by Scott Cooper and adapted from Louis Bayard's 2006 novel of the same name. Spall is one of many stars to feature alongside Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, and Gillian Anderson, and the premise certainly makes for intriguing reading.

"It's set in West Point Military Academy in 1846, I think it is," he says. "This unusual, slightly weird suicide happens. And they call in a recently retired New York detective, who would have been an early detective, which is Christian Bale. He comes to this area to retire and they ask him to come and investigate the mystery of why this has happened.

"I play the President, the guy who runs it, and he brings this detective in. And there is one particular renegade and slightly on probation cadet, who is one Edgar Allan Poe, who's actually at West Point as a cadet, and this film is an investigation into these unusual suicides and there's a very massive twist at the end of it.

The Pale Blue Eye
Christian Bale in The Pale Blue Eye Netflix

"So it's kind of like an Edgar Allan Poe gothic horror, with Edgar Allan Poe in it – played by Harry Melling, an excellent actor that people might know from Harry Potter. So it's about this peculiar world that Christian Bale is thrust into and it's got one of the most extraordinary twists you can imagine."

Given how many characters Spall has played in his career – from real historical figures like JMW Turner and Winston Churchill to iconic fictional creations like Peter Pettigrew and Hamlet's Rosencrantz – it's interesting to ponder which roles have had the biggest impact on his own life. And Spall says that just about every role has affected him one way or another, even if it's just by opening his mind up to a new way of thinking.

"The late Ken Campbell said a wonderful thing," he explains. "He said, 'The thing is, actors always assume they're more intelligent than the character they're playing.'

"So the great thing about that is if you're playing a really intelligent character, and you have to research what their job is about and what they do, you're going to end up slightly more intelligent. So my education has come mainly through the work I've done, and I've been an actor since I was 21, so I've done all sorts."

Mr Turner
Timothy Spall in Mr Turner SEAC

Still, some roles have affected his life more than others. "When I played Mr. Turner, and then I played Lowry five years later, I learned to paint," he says. "It was a very long research period for Turner, and then I picked up painting again when I was playing Lowry. And that led to me being offered my own exhibition.

"When It Snows in Benidorm stopped, I got back home and the pandemic started, and for the first time in my life, I became something other than an actor. I painted seven days a week, for six months, eight hours a day, and produced these full 20 paintings for this exhibition. So that was an interesting thing – literally, life imitating art. Play enough painters, and you can become one!"

That said, Spall wouldn't want to turn into all the people he's played during his career. "I've played some awful characters," he laughs. "Holocaust deniers and so on and so forth, and I can do without that! But my job has influenced me profoundly, really."

Read more Big RT Interviews:

It Snows in Benidorm is playing in UK cinemas now. Find out what's on tonight with our TV Guide or visit our Film hub for more news and features.

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