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Actor Timothy Spall on his shift into Margaret Mahy's world


As a versatile character actor, Timothy Spall has been acclaimed for playing everyone from historical figures to fantasy bogeymen.

The drama teacher cornered her 15-year-old student who, as the Cowardly Lion, was the star of the school’s production of The Wizard of Oz. “I think you should be an actor,” she told him.

Some 45 years later, Timothy Spall, trim and dapper in his tweed jacket and waistcoat, flings an arm into the air. “It was like – phdinngg!” he says. “Everything made sense! I thought, ‘Yeah, I think I can do this!’”

He could and he did, ditching plans for the army and applying instead for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada). It launched a four-decade career, and even now, at age 60 and with an OBE to his name, he is in the limelight as one of Britain’s leading character actors.

His teacher’s advice had come with a warning: acting, she said, “is a stinking, rotten profession”.

“It is!” says Spall delightedly. “It’s not advisable. Nice work if you can get it, but 80% of actors are out of work. It is great and it is constantly surprising, but I never ever take it for granted.

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“It’s tough sometimes – you often don’t get a choice, but when you do, you have to be careful you are making the right decision. You can be defined by what you don’t do.”

We’re in an empty classroom in an evacuated school in Christchurch. A sign advertises desks for sale for $30. A fleet of campervans crowds the abandoned playground. Out on the street, a solemn line of streetlights peters out at the tattered edges of the city’s red zone.

Spall is in Christchurch to film an adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel The Changeover. It’s directed and produced by the husband-and-wife team of Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt and stars Melanie Lynskey and Lucy Lawless. Spall has dealt with young wizards before, as Peter Pettigrew in five of the Harry Potter films; in The Changeover, it’s a teenage witch.

“The book is beautiful,” he says. “It’s about a girl changing over from a girl to a witch but more importantly from a girl to a woman. That juxtaposition is wonderful. You can attach all sorts of cosmic or metapoetic reasons to that story, but she has to achieve maturity, find out who she is to vanquish this malign-ness. There’s a natural mysticism – I love a bit of mysticism. I wouldn’t say I was religious, but I like to think there is … magic – not hocus-pocus; it is deeper than that – and this book gets it.”

Spall says that when we first meet his character, Carmody Braque, he is a benign, sad old man, “but that is where it stops”.

As Carmody Braque in The Changeover.

Spall leans forwards, eyes wide, drawing out his vowels like the spooked raconteur in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. “He is a malign and malevolent character. Not a spirit. He is a thing, who once was a person. Any sense of humanity is gone, eroded by his desire to survive and survive unnaturally, taking the lifeblood and the soul of young children. He is more than 2000 years old!”

Spall leans back, all South London bonhomie and consonant-dropping Battersea accent.

“God, would you want to be 2000 years old? Seeing so much, constantly knowing? I wouldn’t.”

Spall made a career playing the ordinary, benign little guy: he first came to notice as boring electrician Barry in comedy-drama series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. His career blossomed under director Mike Leigh, who cast him in half a dozen films, including as photographer Maurice in Secrets and Lies and minicab-driver Phil in All or Nothing. But in recent years, his characters have walked the line between the loved and the loathed, the humane and the horrific. Carmody Braque is made all the more scary, I suggest, by his unremarkable demeanour.

“Exactly! The more recognisably human they are, the more frightening they are. If you go, ‘Whoa, here comes a baddie’” – Spall shakes his hands above his head in a truly startling spectacle – “it decreases the tension.”

Mostly, however, Spall’s characters are more ambivalent, a cast of troubled and troubling figures resistant to easy characterisation.

“I was always drawn to people who are fallible and people who are conflicted or not popular. Pariahs.” He draws the word out, rolling over the syllables.

“It’s the complexity in the human spirit. If you look at the history of film, often people who can play really kind, amiable people with warmth easily play quite devilish characters. Lucifer – he’s a fallen angel.” Spall flutters his hand downwards in a Milton-esque plummet from light to dark. “He wasn’t always the devil. But he gets worse because he can never be good again.”

Spall at the Berlin premiere of The Party. Photo/Getty Images

In Mr Turner, his most recent film made with Leigh, his portrayal of painter JMW Turner was a dark collision of sex and sensibility, artistic acuity punctuated by scowling and grunting. Language, says Spall, isn’t much more than a sophisticated grunting: “We have perfected it, but it explains only a tiny amount of what is going on inside.”

But in his carnality, in what Spall calls his “simian quality”, there is also an extraordinary appreciation of beauty.

“There’s this constant tension between the carnal, the animal and the beauty of his work. It is surprising this character with all this earthiness created this beauty, but in a sense that tension [of] the beauty in the horrendous is what the sublime movement was about, that is what is in his art.”

Ignored at both the Oscars and the Baftas, his portrait of the artist nevertheless earned him critical and commercial success and a best actor win at Cannes, adding further to his screen profile.

This year, he’s already appeared as David Irving in Denial, about the Holocaust denier’s libel case against Deborah Lipstadt, and in Sally Potter’s drawing room drama The Party, he plays the sozzled academic husband to a politician played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Next, in The Journey, he’s portraying Northern Ireland Unionist leader Reverend Ian Paisley.

“Talk about waiting for the 77 bus,” he says of the Irving and Paisley roles. “Nothing comes, then two come along at the same time. You say, ‘Hang on a minute. I’m playing one loathed demagogue, loathed and loved on one side, now I’m going to play another.’”

These days, Spall prefers the screen to the theatre. He returned to the stage early last year, playing the wily, selfish, itinerant tramp Davies in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at London’s Old Vic theatre.

As the sozzled academic husband in The Party.

It wasn’t an experience he relished. “I know the popular perception of actors is they love the theatre, but I prefer to do it out of order, back to front, rather than all at once in the right order. My broken-up jigsaw puzzle of a mind prefers that.”

It was his first stage performance for 20 years. The first time since, at the age of 39 with three small children, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and given just days to live.

Getting the all-clear, he bought a 16m seagoing barge, the Princess Matildaas “a fingers up to what happened to me”. With wife Shane, he nervously circumnavigated Britain in the boat and the couple’s voyage was filmed for a BBC series.

Spall’s home port remains London. He was born and bred around Lavender Hill. “That’s my alma mater. Clapham Junction, Battersea Park, Clapham Common – that’s me. London is my home. Always will be.”

His CV, including a stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, now runs to more than 60 films, a list that grows by the year.

“As you get older, you’d think your imagination would be tempered, but it is not. It just increases because you have experienced more. It’s active all the time, and it sometimes goes to horrible places and you have to put it back. So if you are driven by your imagination and you’re interested, then it is only going to be more interesting and more challenging because you’ve got to try to corral all that into what you are trying to do.”

Which he is doing with surprising vigour. He has lost weight, appears fit and switches from near melancholic gravity to affable erudition with a wry smile and a shrug of his shoulders.

“Yeah, I’ve lost a lot of weight, and the trimmer you get, the more you walk about – I’ve got quite fit recently. Let’s say I’m older than I’ve ever been but – I’m alrigh’, I feel alrigh’.”

The Journey will be released on July 13 and The Changeover on September 28. The Party is screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Additional reporting by Russell Baillie

Spall as Ian Paisley in The Journey.

A tall order

Spall chalks up another tough real-life role.

To play Reverend Ian Paisley, the firebrand Presbyterian minister and politician from Northern Ireland, Timothy Spall had to undergo something of a conversion.

There were shoes to elevate the 1.73m actor to Paisley’s 1.93m altitude. There was some face-stretching too. “I had a prosthetic chin that made my head longer. I don’t have much of a chin myself.”

Spall’s portrayal of the 80-year-old in The Journey, a movie set during the 2006 peace talks, makes Paisley a mellower figure than the thunder-and-lightning orator whose image is familiar from old television footage.

The vehemently anti-Catholic and loyalist (anti-republican) Paisley founded and led the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for 40 years, during which he thwarted many agreements to end the Troubles. He died in 2014. The DUP is now propping up Theresa May’s Conservative Government.

Spall had to think long and hard about playing the divisive figure in the film, which was shot in Northern Ireland. There, he says, friendly Belfast locals would stop him in the street and ask: “So you’re playing the big man, are ya?”

“It occurred to me that however appalling and tragic and disastrous and horrific the Troubles were, it was their troubles. It’s about them.”

The movie puts Paisley with Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness (played by Colm Meaney) on a joint trip back to Belfast from the talks in Scotland.

They bicker, but they lay the foundations of an unlikely friendship, which, when the real pair became First and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007, earned them the nickname “the Chuckle Brothers”.

“Obviously, it’s unashamedly a fictionalisation of something that could have happened,” says Spall. “It’s a vehicle to put these two characters with this massive impasse together. The film asks how do these people, who we perceive as arch-enemies and whose sides have been killing each other, put aside the passion of their feelings?”

After his portrayals of Paisley, JMW Turner, David Irving and British hangman Albert Pierrepoint, Spall says real-life characters are his most demanding roles. He’s worked out his own way to go about it.

“Whether the character is a hero or a villain or someone else’s hero or someone else’s villain, I always park whatever my feelings are about them and concentrate on where they are coming from – not play the consequences of their actions from an objective point of view, but play what they are feeling and what they are going through at the time.

“It’s my job as an actor to try to make it not an impersonation but an embodiment.”

– Russell Baillie

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.