Timothy Spall, who stars as turner in Leigh’s upcoming film, talks to Andrew Lowry about acting privilege and painting practice
Mike Leigh demands a lot of preparation from actors – how did you get into Turner’s mindset?
Two years before rehearsals, Mike asked me to start painting. You start with watercolours, then acrylic and charcoal. We did all the disciplines of drawing, just like a basic art course. I must have done 400 sketches and 20 paintings, and I copied a full-scale version of a Turner painting. That took three weeks, with the teacher taking me through the techniques he used and what was in his mind. What you had to get across was that this bloke had been holding a brush since he was born – you had to treat the materials in the right way. We didn’t know if it would work, but seem to have got away with it.
Your portrayal may not be what people expect…
That’s the great thing, the incongruity of this ape-like person who produced these wonderful paintings. As a child, he didn’t like how he looked. He described himself as goblin-ish. Also, he was a genuine cockney from Maiden Lane. But he went on to become this incredible painter. The synthesis of all he’d seen burst out into this incredible new style in his later life. He couldn’t hold it in any more. They all thought he was crackers. People thought he was blind, but look at those paintings. He wasn’t blind. Either that or he’d gone to Specsavers.
Could you relate to Turner’s journey from humble roots?
Kind of. I was a bit disappointed when I got to Rada – I thought there’d be people in smoking jackets. A friend of mine wrote a book about life as an actor – on my first day, he said he thought I’d come to fix the radiators and was in the wrong room. We ended up becoming very good pals.
Acting is becoming increasingly upper-class – do you think you’d have gone to Rada today?
It’s a f*cking shame. I wouldn’t be able to go these days. I got my full fees and half my living from the GLC [Greater London Council]. I had to audition for the council after I’d got in – to a bloke who’d been inspecting tiles. He said, “You’re an energetic fellow.” I said, “Thank you, can I have the money?” I worry talent is slipping through the cracks. I used to get letters from people saying they were trying to go to drama school, and I’d try to send a few bob. I ended up working with one of them, he said, “You don’t know this, but five years ago you sent me 50 quid.” Quite a well-known actor.
Your son Rafe has followed you into acting – did you give him pointers growing up?
I never taught him anything. He’s his own man. But all those times watching TV when he was a kid, shouting “WHAT THE F*CK?” when we saw dodgy acting. And listening to me and my mates talk about what was working.
When your Cannes success, Leigh’s Secrets & Lies, was winning awards, you were struck with leukaemia. What was that experience like?
I died in 1996. The day they were walking up the red carpet at Cannes, when it won the Palme d’Or and Brenda Blethyn won best actress, was the same day they stuck a pipe in my heart and put electric soup, otherwise known as chemo, into me to save my life. They were sitting in Cannes getting prizes, and I was lying in hospital wearing sunglasses with a ray gun up my arse.
Did it change your view on life?
It did several things. There was a period when it was a massive question mark – they didn’t know which way I was going to go. I was in limbo. I learnt a lot, I learnt to prioritise what is important. I had a sense of what my family was going through, a sense of what true suffering is. We all think we have an idea, but you only get it if you’ve been through it. It makes you more sympathetic. It also makes you less able to take bullsh*t, and more fair-minded, which isn’t a contradiction. It does make you understand.
Do you like being called a ‘national treasure’?
It does start to feel like maybe you’re heading toward being cashiered. National treasure – the next stop is one of those actors’ homes. Also, if you misbehave, it’s like going to jail and losing your knighthood. From national treasure to national disgrace. The fewer appellations you can get, the better.
(Images: PA; Entertainment One)