Recently seen as a domineering equerry, Major Alistair Gregory, in Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” keeping a watchful eye on Kristen Stewart’s Diana as she arrives at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate for Christmas, Timothy Spall has high hopes for the film following its rapturous Venice premiere, the actor tells Variety at Zurich Film Festival.
“‘Spencer’ is going to be a big deal when it comes out. It has been so well received,” he says, calling his character “a bit of an antagonist.”
“He believes in the sanctity of that system. Britain doesn’t have a constitution and if there is one thing that can really represent this poetic, mystical Britishness, it’s the royal family. That’s why everyone is so obsessed with them, including people from other countries. My character understands that. He says: ‘I was prepared to die for this. It’s bigger than my life and it’s bigger than your marriage.’”
Following a small part in 1979 “Quadrophenia,” Spall became known for his collaborations with Mike Leigh, as well as a recurring role as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” franchise, often taking on impenetrable, grumpy characters that later reveal their softer side.
“It comes naturally,” he deadpans.
“I’ve played a few characters over the years who are quite famous for being unpleasant. You have to play them for what they are, but it’s your job to go and investigate what this person was like as a child. What were they like when they were vulnerable? What happened to them? Everyone was a baby in someone’s arms, even Adolf Hitler. No one is born bad.”
The actor appreciates a chance to “dig deeper,” he says, coming up with his characters’ entire biographies. Especially on Leigh’s films that already brought him multiple awards, including the best actor prize in Cannes.
“And yet he still struggles. He has Oscar nominations, BAFTAs, but he still struggles to get money to make films,” he says about the director whose films are made through “rehearsal process, improvisation and character observation.”
“You start from ‘year zero,’ from birth, arriving to the point when you see them in the film. You investigate their family life, whether they have a job and if they do, you go and do it. When I played ‘Mr. Turner’ [British painter J.M.W. Turner], I went and took painting lessons. I am a painter now – I just had an exhibition in London,” he says.
“If acting is anything, apart from all the bullshit that’s written about it, it’s about storytelling and trying to be representative of a human being in all of its different disguises. We always make assumptions about others. The press certainly does, compartmentalizing everything into good and bad, ugly or beautiful. But people are a combination of all these things and if you look for them, you see the subtleties. You see how intricate everybody’s individual tapestry really is.”
Same could be said about his role in Gillies MacKinnon’s “The Last Bus,” now shown in Zurich. Widower Tom, who embarks on a long bus journey all the way to Cornwall’s Land’s End following his wife’s sudden death.
“He needs to say goodbye for both of them,” says Spall. “It’s a terrible word, ‘closure.’ It’s so L.A. But people do that at the end of their lives if they get a chance,” he says, hinting at the tragedy that brought the married couple together but ultimately kept them apart.
“He needs to confront something they never properly did – the reason why they ran away. He is accepting that this is the end and yet, through this slow journey and through this experience, he is brought back to life. He has to help people and be helped by them,” he says, mentioning his character’s many encounters during the odyssey that ultimately turns him into a local celebrity.
“I have been an actor for 40 or so years, and I am scared every time. I don’t take it for granted. Every first day of a movie is the first day of school. But you have to remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the character. You are only the stupid bleeding vessel that comes along to play it.”