Timothy Spall: Mr. Turner

The official Mr. Turner poster shows us the painter, as inhabited by Timothy Spall, from something like his canvas’ point of view: palette in one hand, active brush in the other, his face half-obscured by a wide sidelong blaze of paint. At the start of an appointed hotel interview recently, where Spall met to discuss his role in Mike Leigh’s new film, the poster stood nearby on an easel, with the actor carefully looking it over.


What do you think?

My granddaughter was on the tube — the subway, as you call it here — and she’s three, and has often been caught drawing with crayons on the wall. And she was with my son, her father, and she saw the poster on the tube, this poster, and said, “Naughty Granddad, drawing on the walls!” So now she thinks she’s got carte blanche.

What was your first awareness of Turner? Was there ever a time when you imagined playing him in a film, be it by Mike Leigh or otherwise? 

I’d sort of vaguely always knew about him. I don’t know why. I suppose because he’s an English icon, really. Although that doesn’t mean everybody in Britain’s heard of him.

Where I was brought up was quite close to the Tate Gallery, so I used to go in there. And like all kids when they first get into art, I gravitated towards the surrealists. But one day I ventured further in to the Tate Gallery, and I found myself wandering among these big rooms, and I thought I’d wandered into the Impressionists — I did know a little bit about Impressionism. And I was knocked out by these massive explosions of color. I thought this must be Monet or someone. Then I walked over and it said J.M.W. Turner. Bloody hell, I thought. That’s our Mr. Turner! Of course I didn’t make the connection of how revolutionary that work was. But I do remember it making a big impression.

So, cut to 40 years later, and I’m walking down the street in Soho in London where Mike Leigh has his office, and I bumped into him. And he said, “Ah, interesting that you should be walking down here. I’ve got this notion that I want to make a film about J.M.W. Turner. And guess what. I think, if you’re up for it, I’d like you to play him.” He said, “But keep it under your hat because it’s a mere notion, and as always I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do with it, where it’s gonna go, who else is gonna be in it, or what it’s gonna be.” I thought that sounded nice. Then I forgot all about it. And I was wandering around London again, failing in my intent to do an impersonation of an enigmatic actor, and I sat outside a pub I knew in Covent Garden. Well, I looked up, and there was this big plaque — I don’t know if you know, but London’s got lots of plaques — and it said, “J.M.W. Turner was born here above his father’s barber shop, 1775, blah blah blah.” Ah, I’ve got to ring Mike! And he said, “Fancy you calling me. What a coincidence…Don’t get excited. We still don’t know where we’re going with it, and we haven’t got the money, and I don’t know if we’re going to get the money.”

Good enough!

We actually ended up having to make this for half the money he wanted. Which is hard to believe. And he wasn’t exactly asking for a lot. This film cost 8 million pounds. To me it looks like a film that costs 100 million pounds. You wouldn’t know it. But also what he said was, “If you don’t mind, in the couple of years that we’ve got, would you learn how to paint?” Which I did. Up to a certain standard, anyway. I was taught by a guy called Tim Wright, a portraitist and a brilliant art teacher. He gave me a fine art foundation course. We covered every medium that Turner would have worked in — chalk, oils, ink. Eventually we got to a standard where I painted a full copy of one of his masterpieces, as an exercise.

Where is that painting now?

It’s on my wall. I look at it in the morning, and I think: How the fuck did I do that? And I tell you what, I certainly couldn’t do it again. But there’s an old saying: There’s nothing like the knowledge of being hanged in the morning to concentrate the mind. Plus I had my art teacher standing behind me. But really it was a device to make me do what you do in any Mike Leigh film. Whether the person is a painter, a photographer, a taxi driver, the owner of a pet shop — you go and get as big a working knowledge as you can. Handling the materials that this person would use every day. Turner was born with a paintbrush in his hand. I’m speaking metaphorically here, as obviously it would be very uncomfortable for his mother if he had been. But the brush was part and parcel, it was an extension of him. At one point I called him Turner Scissorhands. But, you know, brushes, not blades.

In addition to being in other Mike Leigh films, and the Harry Potter films, you’ve also played other well known historical figures. Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech comes to mind… 

Can’t get more well known than him!

Does Leigh’s method spoil you for other directors? Do you miss that kind of immersion? 

It certainly makes you feel unprepared. (Laughs.) Mike is very much the boss. The dramatist. The guvnor. But he asks you to collaborate. You’re the raw material. And every time he asks you to work with him, it’s a mixture of delight and trepidation. Because he’s immensely brave, and he asks you to come and match his bravery.

Of all the directors I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve had the privilege of working with some really great ones, he’s the one who asks you to be the most collaborative, to go with him and to feed his master plan. But you know, the life of an actor is one of having to cut your cloth according to other people’s techniques. It’s true that I seem to be tolerated by all sorts of different people, don’t I? The great thing is that I’ve worked. That’s a thing that you can’t always take for granted. I’ve always had a natural non-snobbish view of whatever is presented to me. I take it on its own value. Whether it be radio, television, a low-budget or a big-budget movie. If it’s interesting, I’m interested. If it happens to be financially rewarding, that’s great. A bonus! As a British actor, you can’t take that for granted. I’ve been fortunate enough to have made a living.

So what’s it like to play a great artist, who is also, shall we say, a not-great person?

When we started to look into who Turner was, at first his contradictory nature proved a barrier. It got so frustrating that eventually it became obvious that that was the point. He was a mass of contradictions. Anytime you play people who are clever or extraordinary, you’ve been given this wonderful opportunity. You know, I didn’t learn a great deal at school. It’s not the fault of the school. I went to a school that wasn’t really designed to produce the great academic minds of South London. It was designed to get people up into the service industry. But I was very lucky at around that time; there were quite a lot of people in education who were kind of ‘60s types, you know? Bohemians. And because I was a lazy bastard, and not really academic, I found myself gravitating towards the art department, hiding there. And then I got to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where all you needed was the raw ability to look like you might be able to act. I learned more in the first year at RADA than I did in my entire schooling.

How do you mean?

Well, because I did Shakespeare, for one. Here’s a great example. My wife is a person from a working background herself. And when our kids got older she went to university and did a mature degree. She did an English and History degree. And I remember her struggling one day because she was reading Shakespeare. And she said, “After a four-hour lecture, I still don’t get it.” I said, “Give it here, let’s have a look at it.” And I just read it, and spoke it like a human being would. And she said, “I can understand that.” Now, that is a great thing. What that teaches me is: Doing it is absolutely the way to learn. It’s the doing.

This film Mr. Turner is about a lot of things, but if it’s about anything, it’s about getting on with it. The man is a genius, but this film is not a conventional story about a genius. He’s an incongruous man. If you just separated him from his art, and he behaved the way he did, you’d hate him. That is the fascinating thing about him. And obviously that’s what fascinated Mike. Mike has devoted his entire life to putting people at the center of his movies who don’t usually get the best shots. I’ve always said he’s the master of turning the mundane into the majestic. So with Turner, our aim was to look at those paintings and go: “What did that?” When we say “sublime,” we mean all that is beautiful in nature, and magnificent, and also terrifying. Turner was very interested in that. I think he was compelled by it. And if you’re talking about beauty and horror, that is an incongruity in itself and you could say that about him. He got it, instinctively. What is wonderful about him is that he never cogitated in public about what he was feeling or doing. He just went and did it. So that was our challenge, and our joy, and it appears, judging by the wave of goodwill toward the film, that we bloody got away with it.