Timothy Spall: 'The feeling of doing it wrong gets bigger and bigger'

He is one of Britain’s favourite actors. This year, he’s been on stage in The Caretaker and is set to star in films as Ian Paisley and Holocaust denier David Irving. So why is Timothy Spall so full of doubt?

A couple of weeks ago, Timothy Spall’s agent asked his client – quite casually, as you do – how he was. Spall told him: “I’m feeling a bit that I don’t really feel I can do it at the minute.” It being acting. Acting being what he has slaved at for 40 years, hitting the summit some time back.

The agent set him straight: “You’re in the best part of your career ever!” But Spall isn’t the sort to shed vexation easily. Never was. And as he nears 60, that isn’t changing. For all those BBC barge larks (he has shot three series touring Britain with his wife, Shane, on the 52ft Princess Matilda) and bonhomie, all that acclaim and affection, age has neither eased his fretfulness nor mellowed his ambition. Quite the opposite.

In a windowless dressing room on an industrial estate outside Harlington (left at the Incontinence Shop, carry on past Mr Clutch), Spall hunches on a sofa and murmurs darkly. “The feeling of doing it wrong gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” he says. “The challenges get bigger and bigger. I feel ashamed if I feel I’m repeating myself or I’m being lazy.”

He eyes the rack of shirts in front of him: his wardrobe for the new Sally Potter film, The Party, which is shooting on a soundstage here. Today, he’s wearing two, and looks about as relaxed as a man about to shin up the scaffold.

“I feel absolutely that I want it to be different, more textured, deeper, realer. If you are afflicted with an artistic feeling, it’s just perfecting something.” A swig of Coke Zero. He wants, he says, “to elicit in people a feeling they’ve never felt before. Capturing that drives me more and more and more.”

Spall invokes JMW Turner, the artist he lately played, slathering on determiners like layers of paint (“accretion” is a watchword). “Turner became more and more intangible – revolutionary and eternal as well as real. It wasn’t until he was old, and then regarded as mad, that he broke right through and presaged modern art by 50 years. I’m not saying I’m Turner in acting, but as you get older you don’t lose that desire to advance.”

His eyes pop with worry: gobstoppers in a sea of stubble. The weight he last sported for Turner has since been lost. Today, he looks younger, blonder, certainly more urgent. Two years ago that grunting, genius turn ignited big Oscar buzz off the back of his best actor win at Cannes.

Cannes 2014: Mr Turner’s Timothy Spall: ‘I like to paint angels in anguish’

But then … nothing. The film was a critical success, a commercial one too (in Mike Leigh terms at least), but awards bodies turned up their nose. Not only did Spall get snubbed at the Oscars first round, he didn’t even get nominated for a Bafta.

At the time, he admitted disappointment. Small wonder: it was an unfathomable slap. And yet it has evidently acted as a fillip. Mr Turner stuck him centre-stage and, save for lucrative cameos, he has stayed there ever since. That he was denied prizes also lends him momentum – useful, potentially, this autumn, when we will see him as Ian Paisley in reconciliation drama The Journey (“bit of a mindfuck”) and David Irving in Denial, about the holocaust sceptic’s libel case.

He has a fresh appetite, he says, “to understand the atrocious … Say those two names and people have an instant reaction. You have to try and find a humanity. To be loathed and understood at the same time.”

The character he plays in the film he is plugging today, Away, is none too cuddly, either. Joseph is a grieving alcoholic saved from suicide by Juno Temple’s runaway junkie in off-season Blackpool. He’s excellent; she’s excellent. He compares the film to Lost in Translation. It’s true, there are echoes. But it’s hard to imagine it gaining quite the same kind of traction.

He cheerleads for a scene at the end of Away that boasts a moment of pure, platonic love. Any art that shows us something like that is inherently valuable, he thinks. He recently had an epiphany about human beauty, he says, when he worked with a bloke he hated. “I thought: you’re unpleasant, vile, something wrong with you. But then I just caught this glimpse of the nape of his neck, exposed. Like a bare ankle. Where you’re vulnerable. All of a sudden you go: oh, fuck! This rush of love and affection.”

Away film trailer on YouTube

Spall is an old pro at flicking that switch in us, too, making us fall hard for flawed men (“I wish I’d had a dad like you; you’re lovely,” sobs someone at him in Secrets and Lies). His character’s relationship with Temple in Away is weird, but works. It mimics what often happens when the cameras stop rolling, he says. “I have had friendships with young actresses and actors. I’m in danger of sounding idealistic or a wanker or both, but all actors have this tacit thing that because everyone’s shitting it a bit, it’s egalitarian. An absolute meritocracy.”

Spall – who says he’s long felt like an “old nine-year-old” – warms to his theme. On film sets, “there’s a wonderful currency of vituperation and bawdiness that cuts through. A Liberty House quality. People are candid.” Spall prides candour high. “If you’ve got a turd,” he says at one point, of duff scripts, “you can roll it in glitter, but you can’t polish it.” It could be his motto.

Last year, he was in a revival of The Caretaker at the Old Vic, which was well received by everyone, it seems, save him. “I never felt I got it right. But bottom line is: who gives a fuck what I think?” He rolls the words round his mouth like a wine gum. “If the audience are enjoying it, that’s all that matters.” Solipsism is for scorning, he says, slapping the Coke can against his knee.

Just as actors aren’t all luvvies, the audience, he stresses, weren’t all nobs. Spall’s ex-publican brother and his hairdresser daughter liked it a lot, though he concedes such productions “do appeal to a certain faction of society” – not one he counts himself part of. He grins. “I don’t enjoy the theatre. I don’t go. Don’t like going in the back door or the front.

“When it’s fantastic, it’s wonderful: I go and see my son [Rafe], my mates. I just got used to lying about watching telly – prefer that, to be honest.” He mentions a show called Hidden Killers, about radium in the toothpaste. At the movies, he heads for the back row, isolated as possible. “I love a cinema with two people in it,” he cackles. “Love it! Absolutely love it!”

Timothy Spall as Ian Paisley (left)
Timothy Spall (left) as Ian Paisley in The Journey. Photograph: Steffan Hill

Being back on stage made him realise he prefers film. He kept wanting to do scenes again, out of sequence, in the morning, without an audience. Spall might have gone straight to the RSC from Rada, but he hadn’t trod the boards since his near-fatal bout of leukaemia in 1996. “I’d forgotten how bloody different it is. It was such a massive, terrifying shock to my system.”

He was 39 at the time, with three small children, and he was given half a week to live. “It wasn’t until recently I realised I was still dealing with it. You forget the trauma. But you never get over it. The toll it takes on you. The horror you had to deal with.” He’s quieter here; the words tumble out slower, the sentences come shorter. Spall likes stringy lines broiling with adjectives, bubbly with learning. Not now. “The older I get the more I feel that’s all we are: a big bunch of feelings and instincts all wrapped up in some brief encounter with intellect.”

He says he has recently been pondering what drives people to suicide, “how ill, how unhappy do you have to be”, how faith affects those who are thinking, “I’m gonna die, or I could have died, I feel terrible, I’m dying.”

“There is nothing more profound than making that choice or being close to it. There’s only two things: being alive or dead. That’s it, that’s it. We forget that that is fucking it. Bye! Gone!”

He looks up: friendly, spooky. Spall does not seem on the brink. But what he calls his “peek over the other side” might have left in him a strange appreciation of precariousness. He doesn’t subscribe to any particular religion, he says, but speaks of feelings he doesn’t want structured. “I don’t know. It’s almost as preposterous not to think there’s a God as it is to believe.”

When he made Mr Turner, he took painting lessons, then exhibited in a Soho cake shop a collection of small ink paintings, plus accompanying poems, of angels in anguish: “The basic Biblical thing,” he says lightly, “penance, repentance, attrition.” In fact, they belie an immersion in a culture he calls “the furnace of our civilisation. You can’t get away from it. All that imagery is in us, innit.”

Now, he can’t bear to look at them. “I hate it. I think: that’s shit, terrible.” His curse, he says, is having enough talent to know his limits. “When I look at what I paint I think: nah, fuck off. I don’t like doing anything unless I can do it well.” A chuckle. “That’s why I don’t do very much. Apart from act.” His agent will be relieved, at least.

• Away world premieres at the Edinburgh film festival on 22 June and is in competition for the Michael Powell award


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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