Timothy Spall looks nothing like most of the characters he’s played – and yet like all of them. The acclaimed actor is stylishly dressed, even sporting a light jacket despite the oppressive heat outside. He’s a man who seems comfortable in his own skin. Polite and thoughtful, he’s very much the image of a leading British actor. On screen however, he’s one of the most versatile players around; able to inhabit everything from fantasy bad guys to famous artists. It’s the latter category that’s brought him to Australia for the release of Mrs Lowry and Son. We caught up with him for a chat about the film and his methods.
The Blurb: How much did you know about L. S. Lowry before doing this film?
Timothy Spall: Not that much actually. I mean, he’s become a bit of a thing in Britain, you know. It’s quite fashionable to have a repro on the wall or a coffee mug. I think there was a pretty awful song – “Matchstick Men” – about him in the ’80s. But when it looked like the picture was going to get up I took myself up to The Lowry, which is this huge institute on the Salford Quays with shops and restaurants and things. Well, in the middle of all these shops ans restaurants there’s this smaller gallery that holds a lot of his work. Something like 75% of his paintings are there, you know.
What struck me about the work were these kind of unreal, chaotic scenes but they conveyed something about real life. I spent hours just looking at these paintings.
And you can watch this quite lovely documentary from 1957 and see him at work and just going about his business really. There’s one moment when he’s coming out of this train station and a woman steps in front of him. He was quite a tall man – which I’m not – and he has to kind of hover over her to avoid running into her. It’s just like a Lowry painting.
BL: Is that kind of research something you do often?
TS: Well, when I can. I mean, if there’s something to research. If it’s like a fictional character, then you just have to use your imagination. But yes I’ll research real people. I mean I’ve done Turner, the painter; David Irving, the Holocaust denier; Pierrepoint, the executioner. I mean, with Pierrepoint, he wrote a book – a wonderful, beautifully-written book. I read the book when I was 15 because it was just so fascinating book. So when the movie [Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman (2005) – dir. Adrian Shergold], I read it like three more times.
But in saying that I think my job is to find the essence of these people, not to imitate them. So for me it’s about the impression, rather than the imitation.
BL: Are you drawn to darker characters?
TS: No, I don’t think so. I mean, it’s all the same to me. My job if you like is to find the character whether they’re good or bad. But with a dark character like say Irving, you have to look and say, well, what’s brought them to this point. What’s happened to them to make them this way?
BL: Who would be your favourite character from the ones you’ve played?
TS: I’d say the painter Turner [from Mr Turner (2014) – dir. Mike Leigh]. I’ve taken up painting in the past few years and that character taught me so much about art and painting. I was interviewed on the BBC a little while ago and they introduced me as: “Timothy Spall, actor and painter”; I was pretty chuffed about that. But it was just a great experience with Mike Leigh as the puppet-master over the whole thing. And, you know, it brought me some gongs. Now you have to be careful about that sort of thing but it was then I decided to go for lead roles rather than character bits.
BL: Mrs Lowry and Son is based on a play. Did your experience on the stage help you with the role?
TS: Well, you see, I got it as a film; as a film script. So I approached it as a film, not as a play. But when I was young, I did National Youth Theatre, before going on to RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts]. Back in those days, in the two years I was there, I did 22 plays a year. It’s not like that any more; but it gave you experience. So I think the experience of doing that, of being on the stage, has helped me.
BL: I think this is your first time on screen with Vanessa Redgrave. Did you know her before that?
TS: Oh yes Vanessa. I didn’t really know her; I’d met her a couple of times. But of course I admired her. And I greatly admired her father Michael Redgrave, just a wonderful actor. But she was a delight. I mean, she was 81 when we did the film, and she lit up the set every day.
BL: What’s next for you?
TS: I’ve got two things. One is The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica, about a kind of cranky… just difficult architect who embarks on this grand project for a mysterious character who goes by “the Grand Duke of Corsica. I’m in that with Peter Stormare, who you might know from Fargo and other things. And the other one is The Last Bus. I play an old man who travels from John O’Groats to Lands End [basically the length of Great Britain – ed.] using his pensioner bus pass. The great thing about it is it shines a light on contemporary Britain will all its kindnesses and follies.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television