Timothy Spall: ‘Cockroaches in your mouth and a bucket of leeches – that’s where you know you’re in a Ken Russell movie’ | Movies

I heard there was a mod to Rada to become the embodiment of an animal. Legend has it that you were amazing and people would strive to witness it. What animal were you and what process did you go through? spikeboy

I remember I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, so I think I was a sloth, so I could huddle in a corner and pretend to be on a tree and move around a bit every 20 minutes. We had a great teacher, but I was tired of some of the more modern dance stuff, so I used the animal thing as an exercise to get some kip.

We really enjoyed the films of Turner and Lowry. Did you learn to paint in both of their styles? Which famous British painter would you like to play next? Rextanka1 and DarkAnemicI

I started painting a few years before we even started rehearsing Mr Turner. I had this great teacher, Tim Wright, and I painted a complete reproduction of one of Turner’s masterpieces that I have on my wall and I still can’t figure out how I did it. ‘have done. Only when I played Lowry [in 2019’s Mrs Lowry & Son] that I started to paint a lot. I couldn’t stop painting between takes. I was doing slightly bad Turners, slightly bad Lowry impersonations, then all of a sudden I started painting but I couldn’t figure out who it looked like and realized it was me. I had my own exhibition last year [at London’s Pontone gallery], which was a huge surprise. Thus, life imitating art.

William Blake would be one hell of a role because he was not just an artist but a philosopher, a Christian mystic, and an amazing character. There are so many artists, but I’ve had enough trouble with rats. I played a few of these [Scabbers in Harry Potter, Nick in Chicken Run, and in the Mike Leigh play Smelling a Rat]. I played Churchill twice [in Jackboots on Whitehall and The King’s Speech]. So I’m your man for artists, Churchill or rats.

You’ve been trapped… Spall in Mr Turner. Photography: Film4/Allstar

Do you take on a role like the executioner Albert Pierrepoint (for the 2005 film Pierrepoint) with an accepted measure of risk, or are you sure you can bear the psychological burden? roll your eyes

I was confident in that, as an actor, you are always playing someone else. You dive into someone else’s psychology to tell their story. As a young man, I had read his autobiography, Bourreau: Pierrepoint, and I had been struck by the mixture of gaiety, politeness and darkness. So I knew there was something very unusual about this man. One of the first people I had to hang was one of my sons [actor Rafe Spall]is very good friends, who was staying with us with his girlfriend. They installed this reproduction of the gallows in the execution room of Wandsworth prison. There were so many people that I was like, “Hello, how are you? I’ll hang you in a minute,” and I had to hang him the first week. So it was absurd.

When we went to Norfolk to recreate Hamelin Prison in Germany, I had to drop off about 15 people in one afternoon. Pierrepoint was keen to show respect to the bodies, and cleaned and washed them afterwards, so he didn’t just drop them. He took it seriously, like he does in the movie.

What are your memories of Danny Boyle’s 2001 TV movie Vacuuming Completely Naked in Paradise? conor_boyd

It was Danny Boyle trying out his new style with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. We had 14 cameras in the car, I had one camera strapped to me, so it was a real experience. I played this really unusual character: vile and vulnerable, Bernard Manning meets Steve Jobs. He was: sell, sell, sell and would never shut up. And at one point I had to say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious backwards. It was a hell of a job, but I loved doing it.

I had almost forgotten how completely crazy, crazy and inventive it was 1986 Gothic is. What did Ken Russell like to work with? GasparGarcao and TheFall2007

Ken Russell was actually very tight-knit and organized, given that he had a reputation for being this extraordinarily wild man. I remember coming to rehearsal and saying to him, “This is where we find you dead. Here’s the art director to discuss cockroaches coming out of your mouth. I said, “Excuse me? Cockroaches come out of my mouth? There’s no way cockroaches are coming out of my mouth. They ended up using a cast of my face. We also had a leech wrestler with this huge bucket of leeches. Ken panicked and tucked his jeans into his socks because he thought one of them was going to crawl up his leg. One minute you have cockroaches coming out of your mouth, the next you’re working with a bucket of leeches. That’s when you knew you were in a Ken Russell movie.

Timothy Spall with Gabriel Byrne in Gothic
Beyond our Ken… With Gabriel Byrne in Gothic. Photography: Sportsphoto/Allstar

I remember you like silly boy in Merry Wives of Windsor to CSR back to the 70s. You stole the show. If you had the chance, what role would you play these days? jimboy63

Yes, like Peter Simple! If I ever go back to the RSC – which is highly unlikely – I’d like to take on one of the old kings. At 65, I think my days with Hamlet are probably over – Hamlet is 33 – but Ian McKellen just played Hamlet at 82 as a big hit, so it can be done. I guess all actors have this unreasonable and slightly absurd desire to try King Lear, because you always have to be old to play it. This is one of the biggest parts of all written drama, so extremely difficult. I would probably have a chance, but I have no ambition to return to acting.

I’m afraid of living in a computer simulation. Are there any clues, glaring or otherwise, that could help me determine if I am, in fact, a soulless, motion-switching algorithm of vastly superior intelligence? randomlexis

Um, no, I think that’s the answer to that. But you can never be sure! It’s weird, I’m only in one scene of an episode of Red Dwarf, but I was in all 40 episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. It’s a bit like Harry Potter. I’m only in about 15 scenes in total, so I’m not there either. It just goes to show that you don’t always have to be the lead to be remembered.

What Mike Leigh movie you’re not in would you have liked to have seen? vammyp

Probably Nuts in May, the brilliant TV movie of the 70s, it really is a piece of today. It’s one of the funniest and most brilliant Mike Leigh films of all time and I recommend it to everyone.

One of my favorite scenes is the barbecue in Secrets & Lies because of the complex choreography. How many reps were needed and how many takes did it take, uh? boavisteiro

It was very precise. The thing with Mike Leigh is that there’s a misconception that everything is improvised. It’s not. It is crafted with absolute precision; you’re never going to be more rehearsed. I kept cutting a steak. We did about 15 takes and they ran out of steak, so they had to sew those steaks together, and when I cut it, it had all these stitches, like it had had surgery. It was absolutely disgusting!

I met you when you came to see Rafe play in my play, Death of England, NT in 2020. Have you ever been tempted to give acting notes to Rafe? Does he give it to you? RoyWilliams

We support each other morally, but I never gave him an acting note and he never gave me one. He grew up with me shouting on TV: that was his lesson. You can’t tell somebody how to act; it is something that is learned in repetition.

Is acting talent hereditary? I guess. Many sons and daughters of actors become actors; the same for painters. Look at all the Dutch, there is the “generation patch” between older and younger workers. It has to do with the atmosphere you were born into. Pierrepoint chose to be an executioner because it was in his family. If I had been an executioner in real life, would Rafe have been one too? Who knows, apart from the fact that luckily we haven’t had the death penalty since 1961, so we wouldn’t have much to do!

Rafe Spall in Death of England.
Keep it in the family… Rafe Spall in Death of England. Photography: /Helen Murray

If you could meet Shakespeare, what would you ask him? alexHD

My mind is stunned by his genius. His incredibly prophetic and philosophical poetry touches everyone. Not only is he a great playwright, but he said things in two lines that philosophers are still trying to explain.

So I’d like to ask him what he thinks of everyone trying to tell him it wasn’t him. So many people say, how could it be, when he came from such a humble background? He probably had a Midlands accent, he wasn’t an aristocrat. I’d say, “You maybe thought you were underrated when you were alive, but things haven’t changed much, man.”

Who would you like to play you? BobWoodturn

I would be says Rafe, but he’s a foot taller than me. Having just done Hamlet, Sir Ian McKellen could play the younger me, why not? I played Margaret Rutherford, so it wouldn’t even have to be a man. Glenda Jackson played King Lear and she’s 80!

As an actor, whatever you play, whatever you do, even if you spend your whole life playing a character, you play other people. That’s what you dedicate your life to: playing characters in stories that people can hopefully enjoy. One thing you can be absolutely sure of is that you will never know your personal essence. You have no idea how you meet everyone. I couldn’t get started. I would not know. It’s open to everyone, any age, any gender. It depends on the interpretation, the format, so I would pass it on with pleasure. I hope they will want to consult me, but they may not even want to. It could even be a musical! But it depends on the choice of the artist, so I will definitely not pursue it.

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