Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Screen International, December 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner


Timothy Spall talks to John Hazelton about tackling the biggest role of his career in Mr. Turner, becoming detective to 'discover' his character and the ever-present spectre of unemployment.

In his typically self-effacing way, Timothy Spall confirms that playing the title role in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner was indeed a demanding job.

"Actors going on about how hard they work is never attractive, but yeah, it was probably the biggest challenge of my acting life," says Spall, who has been one of the UK's leading character actors for nearly 30 years. "And I knew it was going to be that, because I knew what we were going to have to do was a journey of discovery, as it always is with Mike."

The film - which explores the last decades in the life of 19th century British 'painter of light' JMW Turner - is Spall's fifth feature with writer-director Leigh, after Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and All Or Nothing. It joins a list of credits that also includes six Harry Potter films, a handful of US movies and dozens of UK films and TV series.

The earlier performances earned a string of Bafta and other nominations but Mr. Turner has put Spall squarely in the spotlight. Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle have given him best actor awards already this year, and he has picked up his second European Film Awards nomination.

The 'journey of discovery' on Mr. Turner started with the improvisation process for which Leigh has become famous, an approach Spall describes as constructing a character "from ground zero, amalgamating from other characters that you have encountered in your life as templates for a human being that you then start building up".

"You chuck everything in to create this character and then eventually what happens is the character starts dictating to you about the way it's going to go."

'Although I'm getting a lot of attention it's not going to turn me into something different all of a sudden'Timothy Spall

In this case, of course, there were the historical facts to take into account.

"We did have the luxury of a brilliant expert, Jacqueline Riding, in the time and the art," says Spall, "but it was also down to the individual, and particularly me, to go off and do my detective work. …

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