Timothy Spall on Mr. Turner, Fame, and the British Class System

Timothy Spall. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

In this year's crowded Best Actor derby, give Timothy Spall some consideration. The 57-year-old actor, best known for character parts in films like Harry Potter and The King's Speech, has the role of his career in the Mike Leigh–directed Mr. Turner, where he plays the famous painter J.M.W. Turner as a man of few words but major appetites. Ironically, though Turner communicates mostly in grunts or expectorations, Spall himself is an erudite, talkative interview subject, and he had plenty to say about the film and the notion of success when he sat down with Vulture several weeks ago.

Whenever I read a profile of you in a British paper, it always emphasizes that you’re from South London. Is that because Brits are so preoccupied with where a person was born, or does it actually inform who you are in a way that you could explain to our American readers?
You’ve hit on something that is really interesting here. Even in the most sophisticated so-called "cognoscenti" of the British press, even with those people who are believers in democracy and socialism and so forth, fundamentally what you're not going to get away from is that in Britain, there is a class system. It’s not as important as it used to be — in fact, people who are plumbers, who work in people's bathrooms fixing the toilet, can earn more than a university lecturer — but you will always be, to a certain degree, pigeonholed by where you’re from. It doesn’t matter if you play six kings, if you turn up and speak the way I do in England, there is still this sense of, "Oh, he's working class, blah blah blah." I don’t know whether you know, but my accent could not be misconstrued as anything other than a working-class accent. My wife is always annoyed when she reads articles about me — "Oh, it’s the same old shit: South London, self-taught, oh, and he can change his accent?" I don’t really mind, it’s just the way it goes. I mean, maybe I should have said, "Oh, fuck it, I’ll just pretend I was brought up in a middle-class family and I went to Oxford," but no, why bother? Too late now. I’m not gonna change my accent or my teeth.

What has the reception to the film been like in London?
Ever since it’s opened, it’s been riding this massive wave of goodwill, and it’s exceeded all expectations in London. Actually, people can’t get in. It’s astounding, you know, because you work on these films so intently and Mike asks you to collaborate to such a degree that it allows you to have such a sense of authorship and ownership of it that when it goes well, it’s fabulous. Being an actor for a long time, it’s a cliche, but you have to take the rough with the smooth — you have to take the kicks in the ass as well as the garlands. And I tell you, I’ve had my fair share of being kicked squarely in the ass, and I’d rather take the garlands any day.

Is making the film more important to you than how it's received?
It's a mixture of both, actually. I mean, I’m not built to be a person who’s a wish-fulfillment character, so therefore, a lot of the characters I play are unusual, sometimes they're not particularly attractive, and they’re more representative of the way people are than the way you want them to be. So what I’ve learned is that you serve the character before you serve yourself. That cuts out a lot of the shit, a lot of the self-masturbation about whether it’s gonna be marvelous and whether you’re going to be adored, loved, or despised. But it’s eccentric and downright stupid if you don’t want it to be enjoyed as a piece when it comes out! So, for me, you do it (a) for the work, and (b) for the audience. If you end up getting praise, that’s an added bonus. Sometimes when you've done it right, everybody might shit on it, and then ten years later, they say, "Actually, it’s better than we thought." I’ve been in a few of those, and I’ve been in a few that everybody have loved, and it’s turned out they weren’t even that much good, anyway.

That reminds me of the scene from Mr. Turner where he goes to the theater, not expecting the actors — who have no idea Turner is in the audience — to make a joke at his own expense. Even though Turner is so venerated, there will always be that little kick from the public that keeps his ego in check.
Exactly, and you know, I’ve been in Mike Leigh films that haven’t been so well-received. If you’ve had to the audacity to want to be part of the entertainment industry, you’re going to have to accept the fact that you are gonna get adverse comments as well as good ones. And it does help when you’re playing someone like an artist, to have experienced that, though I wouldn’t dare to say that the art of acting or depicting is as pure and sophisticated as something that Turner did. I mean, this man was a trailblazer, he was a genius. He was a man of his time and before his time. But, yes, having been an actor for 40 years, you do get an idea of what it’s like to be enjoyed and to be loathed. Even if you have a period where it all goes well and you might think you’re the bee’s knees, there’s one reality in an actor’s life that will always kick any puffed-up arrogance out of you. It’s called unemployment.

But when you talk about artists, arrogance is relative, I think. 

Well, I’d be a liar if I said that one wasn’t fed by one’s own egomania. There’s got to be a kick in you, a desire to get up there and the audacity to go and be looked at. You could say acting is a very sophisticated, protracted form of showing off, but in the end, it’s a very sophisticated one that becomes an art form if it’s good. Turner was a man that sacrificed a lot of his life to his art. I think he felt very early on — albeit incongruously, given his background — that he was a man of destiny.

Some of the queasiest interactions that Turner has in the movie are with people who are enamored with his fame. As an actor, do you find that there’s an interesting disparity between the people who recognize you and the people who don’t at all?
It’s a very interesting dynamic. I think you’re lucky enough if you get any recognition at all. I went to school, and I know enough really clever people who [have] not had any success, so if people come and they say nice things to you and tell you that they like what you do, it’s a nice feeling. It’s a validation of the fact that actually you’ve done something. So it’s great if they like it, though you do get people to come up who barge their way through rooms to tell you how shit you are, or come and damn you with faint praise. But fundamentally, the art and the craft of what you do is separate from that. Your job is to use everything you possibly can, to make people feel that what they’re seeing is real. If you’re lucky, it might be informative, it might be moving, it might tell you something about the world — or it might just be funny. Or it might just be miserable! But having said that, I don’t want to sound like I think acting is some private thing, or something that deserves to be regarded as a great, sophisticated form of alchemy. It’s basically that there’s a job to be done. And I think this film, although it is about a genius, really is about work.