Talking With Rafe Spall About ‘Trying,’ TVs Most Heartfelt Comedy

In Trying, Rafe Spall (The Big Short, Black Mirror, and the upcoming western The English) is one half of a young London couple trying to stay together through the slow rolling process of starting a family through adoption. It is funny and nuanced with a big heart, never hiding from the tough moments that can challenge a young couple that’s trying to chase their dreams and the silly moments that can often act as a salve. It is a show that, to be honest, not enough people are talking about despite the fact that it just wrapped its third season (on Apple TV+) with a fourth on order. A show that, while very different, has the capacity to charm fans of shows like Parks And Rec, Schitt’s Creek, and The Good Place.

Trying will absolutely fit like a comfy sweater if you or someone you know is struggling to start a family (I speak from personal experience). But the show’s reach is larger, really nailing coupledom and how happily ever after isn’t purely restricted to perfect people who have everything in common. Authenticity and love are the words that I most think of when I think of the show, and they clearly sparked Spall’s interest, bringing him to a project that has very clearly changed his perspective when it comes to work/life balance. In the following interview, we talk about that, what it’s like to give your heart to a streaming project in an era when one might get erased for a tax break, only wanting to do relatable comedies, and the secret to Jason and Nikki’s charm on Trying.

My wife and I are getting ready to get into the adoption process ourselves, so this show has meant a lot to us. It’s a lovely, well-done thing.

That makes me very happy to hear.
I imagine you hear that a bit, right?

Yeah. I’m not on any socials, but Esther (Smith, who plays Nikki to Spall’s Jason) is and she passes on lots of stuff that she gets on DMs talking about how important this show is to people. Because infertility is a thing that touches many, many people’s lives. I think one in seven. And even if it’s not happening to you specifically, it will be someone you know. And it is a topic that’s not discussed in our culture. It still remains something of a taboo. And so to make people feel less alone, to make people feel seen, which is the purpose of all art, isn’t it? To make people seen, recognized, and understood. And I’m really pleased that this show showed us that in its own way.
What do you think it is that makes Jason and Nikki so perfect for each other?

I think they’re an aspirational couple in some ways because no matter what they go through, their love deepens. There’s that great line in the end of the first season where I say to Nikki, “If this doesn’t work out, you are enough. You are enough.” And I think that’s really gorgeous. They have the same sense of humor and much like in heavyweight boxers, if their speed goes, if their footwork goes, one thing that never goes is their punching power. And I think if you get a couple that makes each other laugh, it’s the last thing to go. Many other things fall by the wayside, but the sense of humor endures. That stays. That’s what keeps you together.

It’s a perfect pairing because the two characters are drawn very differently, but yet it still works, which is something that relates very much to my own relationship. Do you think that’s part of the strength of it also, that they’re so unique [from each other]?

Yeah. They’re different and they argue and they fall out, which is obviously true to most people’s relationships. But yeah, I like that. It’s not like the classic thing that had been defined by Peppa Pig. And if you do go down the route of adoption, and you are blessed with a child, Peppa Pig will become a part of your life. And in Peppa Pig, there’s Daddy Pig who’s dumb and always getting things wrong. And then there’s Mommy pig who’s always eye-rolling at Daddy Pig and is the organized one. And this isn’t the case in our show. We are free of those tropes. These characters surprise me at every point. I’m surprised at how good a parent Jason is, how easily he takes to it. He’s a natural. And there are things that moms would expect from Nikki that don’t come true. She’s incredibly organized, but she’s also unbelievably instinctive when it comes to the kids. There’s that great bit where she knows when the kids are thirsty. It’s lovely.

Before I got this show, I was putting out into the universe that I wanted to play a character as close to myself as I could find, and then this came along. And although we’re very different, there’s a lot of me in this character, which is quite revealing actually. It’s quite revealing because I can’t hide behind an accent or whatever. There’s a lot of me in it.

Does that cause you to question certain things in your own life?

Yeah, of course. I mean, it sounds trite, but this is a show about love and connection. And I think we can become very caught in our goals in life and the achievement and attainment of dreams, and something that I found in my own life is I’m real lucky. I’ve got a really nice career and I’m able to get paid for what I love to do, but what I realized is that success and whatever success I’ve achieved professionally, it’s all great. It’s cool. I’m very, very grateful for it and I love what I do, but it doesn’t keep you warm at night. People do. Humans do. Connections. You sacrifice a lot for your career, for the attainment of dreams because you hope that when you get the money or the status or the recognition, you hope that you’ll get to the end of the rainbow, and there’ll be that pot of gold that you spent the last 20 years striving for. But that doesn’t exist. That pot of gold is in people. It’s not in any of the other things I’ve just described.

Career-wise, by any measure of my 15-year-old self’s expectations, I’ve made it in what I wanted to do, and that’s really great, but that isn’t enough. It isn’t enough. It’s not the good stuff. I’ve got three kids and my relationship with them, with my friends, the people that I love the most, that is what’s important. And it’s an obvious realization.

Things get in the way though. It’s a very difficult realization. You get distracted. Ego, ambition, all these things. In my own life, I’ve experienced it.

Yeah. Of course.

When you’re looking at the next project, does it have to be something that really makes an impact on you emotionally that you want to connect to? Are logistics and geography more a part of the discussion now than they’ve been in the past?

Yeah, all of the above. I just finished doing a 22-week run of To Kill A Mockingbird in the West End, Aaron Sorkin’s script, which meant that I didn’t get to see my kids a lot. And then I won’t say what it is, but I got offered the role of my life, to start straight after this show. I finished To Kill A Mockingbird on the 13th of August and this would’ve been going to another country, to America for three months. Amazing part, hell of a director, fantastic script, very jazzy cast, and I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it because I needed to be around, need to be around for my kids. And I perhaps would have done that in the past. Maybe I would’ve done it because it’s all I’ve known really.

You go, “Well, this incredible opportunity has come along. Let’s jump on it.” And God willing, those opportunities will continue, but they didn’t meet the criteria, and the MO at the moment was to be present for my kids. They’re starting new schools. They need me, they need their father. And you don’t get these years back. And in terms of creatively, I just have to do things that I believe in. And I know that, again, that sounds trite, but that’s what I care about. And that might even be also, they scare me. Playing Atticus Finch really scared me. That was frightening.

It would only feel trite if I see you in the trailer for Fast And Furious 11 as a mechanic. I think you’re in good shape.

That would be disingenuous. But no, I mean, I love what I do and I like to be challenged. But really, now, I just want to do things that have humor in them because life has humor in it. I just did To Kill A Mockingbird, big laughs in that. Yeah. You need to have laughs because it’s how we cope. And I’m not really interested in doing anything that doesn’t contain some element of relatable humor because that’s what humor is. It’s relatable. That’s why we laugh because it’s a release of identification.

Obviously, you’re in a streaming show, you pay attention to the industry. You see, I’m sure, the stuff that’s going on with HBO Max and shows disappearing from the service. Does that give you pause or concern about not just this show, but any other things that you would do in the future that would be on a streaming service? The idea that it could just get taken away for a tax write-off or something?

Yeah. But listen, that’s the gig, right? That’s what you do.

That seems like a new evolution of the gig to a certain extent.

It is a new evolution, but it speaks to a certain thing, which in my game is the wafer-thin gap between glory and humiliation that you tread all the time as a performer. One minute, you’re cock of the walk, the next you’re a feather duster. And that speaks to that, just like you could be on a hit show, which does three seasons or more on Apple TV. I did a season of a show that I loved on Showtime called Roadies that was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, and that got canceled after one season. And at the time I was heartbroken, but lucky enough to get this. But look, sure, that perspective of looking at the ruthlessness of commissioning and counseling… I look at it from the point of view of this is a golden time to be an actor. The wealth of stuff that’s out there.

Oh, so many opportunities.

Yeah, it’s very different. My father’s an actor (Timothy Spall). The wealth of opportunity that I have is far greater than that which he had. It’s terrific, and who knows how that’s going to play out in the future? Because every rush, there’s a crash. So let’s see. So let’s make hay while we can.

With regard to something like Roadies dying off and having that heartbreak, do you get more closed off from falling in love with a show like that [now], or do you just have to push back against that?

You’ve got to give all yourself to it. You got to do that. You got to realize that disappointment is a part of it. For every job I got as a young actor, there were 500 I didn’t get, so I get rejection constantly. And you soon figure out as a young performer whether you’ve got the stomach for that and bad reviews. You can do something really great that you care about so much, and then everyone thinks you’re terrible in it. But that’s all part of the fun, it really is.

All three seasons of ‘Trying’ are available to stream on Apple TV+