Timothy Spall says the contradictions of ‘Mr. Turner’ were his key into the character

Timothy Spall has already picked up an award for his performance as J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's meticulous biopic “Mr. Turner.” He won the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the film first premiered. He has also received a European Film Awards nomination for his work, a character actor who has picked up the leading man ball and run with it…perhaps even all the way to an Oscar nomination.

I spoke to Spall this week about the opportunity, which he particularly relishes for being a shared experience with a longtime collaborator like Leigh. He is uniquely versed in Leigh's singular process of improvisation and intense collaboration, a process through which the script and direction of the drama is discovered by the collective of artisans and actors tasked with bringing it to life. So we talked about that, the contradictions of Turner as a gateway to understanding his artistic impact on the world and the joy of immersing himself in the “parallel universe” of a film such as this. Read through the back and forth below for more.

“Mr. Turner” hits theaters Nov. 14.


HitFix: Congratulations on the film.

Timothy Spall: Thank you very much.

It's really just a striking thing that you've done. We all know who J.M.W. Turner is, of course, but you've dug under his skin and presented him in what is truly a real education.

Thank you. That was the job description! [Laughs]

You've made a career as a character actor, well known and recognizable, of course, but without many opportunities to be a leading man. In “Mr. Turner,” you took that ball and ran with it. How did it feel?

It felt good. And it felt even better that I was doing it with someone that I've worked with for over 30 years. Mike [Leigh], of all the film directors I've worked with, has given me the best opportunities. He's always put me at the center of his movies and allowed me to investigate a character more thoroughly than when I've – not to say I haven't enjoyed supporting roles, but it is a wonderful thing to work with someone you admire and trust and also someone who is so encouragingly collaborative. He asks you to bring so much to it. So it was really a fantastic journey. It's not for me to say whether everything we did is a success, but from my point of view, the journey was extraordinary.

You spent five years researching the role with Mike. That's a long time.

Yeah, well, I think the first kind of four years of that was sort of floating around preparing. Mike asked me to do it seven years ago, so it was in the back of his mind and in the back of my mind. And then he asked me to start thinking about painting and to learn the principles of painting from a professional artist who took me through a kind of fine art course, teaching me all the elements. It wasn't until then, when we started as a group, and then in earnest when he managed to get the money together and the time slot for us all to get together and make it, that we really started to work intensely and concentrate our minds on the subject at hand and really get down to trying to create a prototype human being. He does that with everybody in a film, create an organic person based on the elements of people you have met in your life, and then use those elements as a template to create a person, and then bring that proto-human into the research that you're doing. That was what the six months we did was all about, to get the lagoon of real life and create a parallel universe of a Turner world that we all worked on independently. And then we started to draw on that as we began to shoot the movie.

Was there something about the man that was, I don't know, elemental or specific that you were really focused on carrying across in your performance?

What became obvious – well, actually, it wasn't obvious at first; it was a problem – was that he was a man of huge contradiction. We knew that that was going to be the case, and at first that was a barrier, but then once we realized it was the whole point of the man, it was liberating. You have this work that is there for the world to see, and this man who was emerging, that we were creating, and who was revealing himself to us through research, was someone who seemed completely incongruously contrary to that amazing, lyrical, fantastic explosion of work that he did. And that became liberating, because it was obvious that that was what it was that created the genius, this contradiction of a man, this man who could be kind one minute and cruel the next, that could be warm one minute and cold the next, that was mean and generous in equal measure, that was emotionally implosive, and that was a working class man, a man of the streets, a man that could have come out of the very mud of the River Thames – he was born literally 100 feet from it, in a dark street.

So all of these elements, with finding out how he looked, and it's all mentioned in books – and there was the massive gap that we found, trying to breathe life into this man. It became apparent that this wonderfully incongruous, working class, almost simian man, it was our job to work out how it was that that creature was able to make that wonderful, lyrical, poetic explosion of work that the world has now got to look at. That was brilliant. The more we looked at it, rather than making it more aesthetic or poetic as a romantic character, the more we were finding the bestial side of the man, the hard, contradictory side of his nature. That was great, but it felt like, “Are we doing it right?” But we went with what we were discovering, never what we were inventing.

The movie is obviously so steeped in the period, with brilliant design flourishes in the costumes and sets. I always like to ask actors how all of that helps to settle them into the characters they're playing, and this is particularly interesting, given the meticulous recreation of Turner's shop and the like.

Oh, absolutely. The research that the design team and the costume and makeup team – they're on the film right from the beginning as well. All of the stuff that we are working on, what we're discovering, they're discovering at the same time. It's not like a conventional film where you don't meet the people until the very end. They're working on this in tandem with you. They're discovering and pointing out and putting together this picture of where this character lives. As we're building the character, they're building his environment, so it's a shared, organic discovery. It was done all together as a mass collaboration.

I imagine all of that certainly helps add to the illusion for you as an actor.

Oh, not half! I mean, when you're rehearsing the scene, we made a studio in a building where we could work in real time in improvisations, where we could investigate the character and build him up. The sort of skeletal bones in unison with the art department and the costume department were all there, so when we eventually got on the set and they turned these skeletal things into the real things, that were practical and of the period, once we were walked onto that set, and you spend a lot of time familiarizing yourself with the set, and you start improvising on the set, it becomes a character itself. It becomes where the person lives. It isn't a set. It actually becomes part of the parallel universe that you're creating together. These props that you use, you know where things are. You know the layout of that place. And it was an actual house. They found this Georgian house in the middle of a housing estate maintained, oddly, with its own lake and everything. We worked for weeks before we even started shooting in there, to make it feel that these characters, this was their house, not their set. And oh my God, does it make a difference. You don't feel uncomfortable there. You feel like you're actually filming a parallel universe.

And last thing here, I'm always fascinated by Mike's process, which we've sort of talk through a bit here, of improvising and finding the script through that rubric or what have you. You've obviously worked with him quite a lot so I imagine that process works for you?

Oh, very much. It's fabulous because Mike, as we know, is a great dramatist and a great storyteller. But what he also is is an incredibly inclusive collaborator. So what he asks of his actors is enormous. He asks you to come with him on his journey. He makes you very much part of the raw material. You are the story that he wants to tell. To work with somebody that you admire and have worked with a lot, and to be asked to come up with the stuff he needs is a) immensely challenging, b) terrifying, c) painful, and fundamentally, d) very satisfying, if you get it together in the end. It never is more than a massive adventure. Sometimes it's better received than other times, so when it gets really well received, it feels like you've been on a journey together and you've all given birth to something that you're going to stick out there. It's a bit like presenting your children to people – it feels so personal. But he makes you so much part of the process. He is the Governor. He is the dramatist. He is the writer. But my God does he ask you to be a massive part of that. I'm not a writer. Some actors are. So it makes me feel the nearest that I ever am to having any form of authorship over my own character. It makes you feel more than just a depicter. It makes you a shared partner.