English actor Timothy Spall is having a great year. In May he won the best actor award at Cannes for his portrayal of 18th-Century English landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner in Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner.” He is also a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for the role.
On the red carpet Friday night at the New York Film Festival screening of the luscious period piece, Spall spoke to me about getting into character for the role of the cantankerous, deeply flawed, sex-crazed painter in the last 25 years of his life.
Spall is slimmer now than he was onscreen for the role and much better looking. He has a strong Cockney accent and a terrific sense of humor. Unlike the socially inept painter he portrayed, the 57-year-old actor is garrulous, charming and great fun. He told me he enjoyed getting into character as the genius painter.
“I’ve met quite a few geniuses and I’m lucky to have worked with quite a few. And they’re never like you expected them to be. They’re usually fantastic and they usually look like matinee idols and they have everything going for them, but the wonderful thing about Turner is that he was a difficult sod. He was an unusual man. He was a man of contradictions. He was a man that could be non-communicative to the point of seeming like he was mentally ill. Then he could be someone who could be incredibly generous and also be very mean.”
I asked Spall about the grunts he delivers on screen, often in response to questions from others, as though he could not be bothered to speak. What inspired him to produce all these different sounds?
“That wasn’t objective decision,” he told. “That grew out of working on somebody who had all this immense ability to suck in what he knew about the world, and what he felt about the world emotionally. And everything he felt and the way he expressed it, he sucked it back into himself and that grunt, that sense of him communicating sometimes is about being able to say a billion things but saying nothing. He’s turning a scintillating speak into an implosive grunt and sticking it back into his gut which then spins around, comes up his head, through his arm out into a paint brush like a firework and WHACK onto the canvas. He saved his expression for his paintings,” Spall said as he spun around to demonstrate how the grunt traveled up his body. Even if it didn’t quite make sense to me, he was great fun to watch and listen to.
At the glittering sold-out screening at Alice Tully Hall, Glenn Close and John Lithgow were in the audience and stayed for the Q&A that featured Spall, Leigh and cast members Dorothy Atkinson, Mike Leigh, Marion Bailey and cinematographer Dick Pope.
During the brief Q&A, someone asked Spall if he ever painted. “No, I used to draw mad pictures in my mind but I never showed them to anybody, thank God.”
He explained that Leigh asked him to study painting before they began shooting the film so he would look like he knew what he was doing when he applied paints to canvas. “And I did that for two years, on and off, with a brilliant guy who more or less gave me a personal arts course in all the disciplines and he eventually got me up to such a standard of the life drawing and still drawing and watercolor to a point where I could actually paint a full scale copy in oil on canvas of ‘Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth.”
“I look at it now – I put it on my wall at home – and I think, ‘How did I do that?’ I certainly couldn’t do it again. But you know the old adage, there’s nothing like being hanged in the morning to concentrate the mind wonderfully. No, I haven’t picked up a paintbrush since. I drew a picture of something disgusting the other day. I had to burn it,” he laughed.