Timothy Spall: Facing death made me stronger 0
Despite winning this year’s Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and being hotly tipped for BAFTA and Oscar nominations, Mr. Turner star Timothy Spall says acting demands more than a passing familiarity with pain.
“You spend a lot of time identifying with people who are in pain,” he told Yahoo. “I’m not saying you have to be in pain as an artist, but two of our best screen actors have recently died: Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I don’t know whether Hoffman’s was a suicide, but it was certainly indicative of a deep amount of pain.”
Discussing his battle with cancer in 1996 – Spall was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukaemia and given days to live – the actor said it taught him to understand suffering. “For the first time in my life, I had this massive empathy with what it was actually like to face death,” he said. “You’ve got to remain sane, but it’s sometimes easy to slip. That’s why so many actors drink so much; they’re self-destructive.”
Spall – known for roles in the likes of Harry Potter, The King’s Speech and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – revealed he’d had several recent experiences that had knocked his confidence. “They really made me understood why people do get so despondent,” he said. “And people don’t believe it. They say, ‘What you? When you’ve had all this success?’ They think you must be so confident, but then the wrong thing at the wrong time can just bring the whole thing down like a poxy old balloon at a Christmas party.”
It was a similar pain that Spall identified at the heart of landscape artist JMW Turner, which helped him take on the role in director Mike Leigh’s biopic. “He had the negative and positive effect of having a mother who would have been diagnosed as a violent schizophrenic,” he explained. “This caused a pain in Turner. He became an implosive, introverted character that ended up bursting out into this genius.”
Spall insisted he didn’t want to sound like a luvvie, and acknowledged the rewards of a job well done. “It’s a fantastic, wonderful thing to be employed doing on a regular basis.”
Collecting the Best Actor prize in Cannes was an “extraordinary surprise,” he said. “They people only give you an inkling you may have won because they ask you to come back,” he explained. “I was on my boat with a bog roll, fixing a pipe, when they phoned. I wasn’t going to go back until they said, ‘No, if you come back you may have a nice surprise.’”
But he still didn’t believe he was in with a shot. “Then they sent this flipping Mercedes to the boat year in Northern Holland, and when we got near Nice there were police outriders in front of the car. I said to my wife Shane, ‘Things might be looking up here.’ And then we checked into the hotel and the room was four times bigger than the last one. I thought, ‘Things really are looking up here!’”
The prize meant even more because of the work Spall had put into the project over seven years. Leigh is famous for eschewing scripts, requiring his actors instead to fully immerse themselves in the scenes they’re playing and improvise them on set, and Spall learnt to paint to the level by which he could be filmed recreating some of Turner’s most famous works.
“This is the end of 30 years of working with Mike Leigh over seven projects,” he reflected. “There’s a lot of hard grind, work and research that goes into it. He got me to start painting two years before he even had the money for the film. It feels like you are the baby that you’re giving birth to.”
“It’s a collaboration with [Mike] as the Grand Maestro,” Spall told us. “It’s hard work, and if you f-ck it up, it’s in the cinema, your head’s 40ft big and you’re the stooge who’s given the poor sod that paid £10 to watch your film a bad time. If it looks like hard work on the screen, you’ve failed, so you’ve got to do all that and make it look like you’ve just turned up.”