Timothy Spall says the contradictions of 'Mr. Turner' were his key into the character
Timothy Spall has already picked up an award for his performance as J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's meticulous biopic "Mr. Turner." He won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the film first premiered. He has also received a European Film Awards nomination for his work, a character actor who has picked up the leading man ball and run with it…perhaps even all the way to an Oscar nomination.
I spoke to Spall this week about the opportunity, which he particularly relishes for being a shared experience with a longtime collaborator like Leigh. He is uniquely versed in Leigh's singular process of improvisation and intense collaboration, a process through which the script and direction of the drama is discovered by the collective of artisans and actors tasked with bringing it to life. So we talked about that, the contradictions of Turner as a gateway to understanding his artistic impact on the world and the joy of immersing himself in the "parallel universe" of a film such as this. Read through the back and forth below for more.
"Mr. Turner" hits theaters Nov. 14.
HitFix: Congratulations on the film.
Timothy Spall: Thank you very much.
It's really just a striking thing that you've done. We all know who J.M.W. Turner is, of course, but you've dug under his skin and presented him in what is truly a real education.
Thank you. That was the job description! [Laughs]
You've made a career as a character actor, well known and recognizable, of course, but without many opportunities to be a leading man. In "Mr. Turner," you took that ball and ran with it. How did it feel?
It felt good. And it felt even better that I was doing it with someone that I've worked with for over 30 years. Mike [Leigh], of all the film directors I've worked with, has given me the best opportunities. He's always put me at the center of his movies and allowed me to investigate a character more thoroughly than when I've — not to say I haven't enjoyed supporting roles, but it is a wonderful thing to work with someone you admire and trust and also someone who is so encouragingly collaborative. He asks you to bring so much to it. So it was really a fantastic journey. It's not for me to say whether everything we did is a success, but from my point of view, the journey was extraordinary.
You spent five years researching the role with Mike. That's a long time.
Yeah, well, I think the first kind of four years of that was sort of floating around preparing. Mike asked me to do it seven years ago, so it was in the back of his mind and in the back of my mind. And then he asked me to start thinking about painting and to learn the principles of painting from a professional artist who took me through a kind of fine art course, teaching me all the elements. It wasn't until then, when we started as a group, and then in earnest when he managed to get the money together and the time slot for us all to get together and make it, that we really started to work intensely and concentrate our minds on the subject at hand and really get down to trying to create a prototype human being. He does that with everybody in a film, create an organic person based on the elements of people you have met in your life, and then use those elements as a template to create a person, and then bring that proto-human into the research that you're doing. That was what the six months we did was all about, to get the lagoon of real life and create a parallel universe of a Turner world that we all worked on independently. And then we started to draw on that as we began to shoot the movie.
Was there something about the man that was, I don't know, elemental or specific that you were really focused on carrying across in your performance?
What became obvious — well, actually, it wasn't obvious at first; it was a problem — was that he was a man of huge contradiction. We knew that that was going to be the case, and at first that was a barrier, but then once we realized it was the whole point of the man, it was liberating. You have this work that is there for the world to see, and this man who was emerging, that we were creating, and who was revealing himself to us through research, was someone who seemed completely incongruously contrary to that amazing, lyrical, fantastic explosion of work that he did. And that became liberating, because it was obvious that that was what it was that created the genius, this contradiction of a man, this man who could be kind one minute and cruel the next, that could be warm one minute and cold the next, that was mean and generous in equal measure, that was emotionally implosive, and that was a working class man, a man of the streets, a man that could have come out of the very mud of the River Thames — he was born literally 100 feet from it, in a dark street.