Timothy Spall: Lucky Tim

Timothy Spall is a very fine actor, and a lovely man. Now he's broken into the Hollywood big league, but it hasn't changed him one bit. He still loves Mike Leigh, 'nice arms' and, most important of all, Rich Tea biscuits. Portrait by Eva Vermandel

Timothy Spall. I ask you: what is there not to love? He is such a bloody good actor – although I don't have to tell you that – and such a good bloke. I can't think of a thing aside, perhaps, from the shoes he is wearing today, which are those creamy leather loafers most often seen advertised in the back of The Sunday Express of which I will only say this: I've known women leave men for less.

As it happens, they are not from The Sunday Express; they're from some film he did recently and he liked them so much he purchased them afterwards. He says: "They are smart, aren't they?" They're smashing, I lie, although, now I think about it, maybe they are smashing, in their way. Timothy Spall has never been overly concerned with projecting the "right look" and if he were, he would not be the Timothy Spall he is, and that would be disastrous. There would be plenty to not love then. In fact, I now even think he should have bought two pairs, perhaps even one with tassels.

We meet at a London hotel where today's look, if you can call it that, in addition to the shoes, is a suit that might be linen but also might be just crumpled. Take your pick. He is skittle-shaped with a head that is possibly too small for his body, jowls like pork chops and those ratty, wonky teeth. Has he ever yearned to look more the leading man? Not really, he says, adding: "I've only once wished I was more handsome and it was while looking at Burt Lancaster in The Bird Man of Alcatraz. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be lovely to look like that for a day?'"

Sometimes, he does think he looks a bit like Burt Lancaster, but then he'll see himself on screen and realise: "No, I'm not." Still, he does not appear disheartened about this. He finishes his glass of Chablis, orders another. I wonder if he has a sense of how much he is loved, national treasure and all that. He says it would be disingenuous of him to say no, but on the other hand, "while it's very nice, I don't quite trust it. As an actor you must take your work seriously but mustn't take yourself seriously. I do try to adhere by that. It is the work."

The work. The work that, at least in the public's mind, probably began with Barry, the dim electrician in Auf Wiedersehen Pet and had progressed though the Mike Leigh films, particularly Secrets and Lies which, in 1996, was nominated for five Oscars, although his particular performance as Maurice, the photographer being slowly defeated by his fastidious wife, was not. I say I was surprised about that. He says he was delighted. At that time he was receiving treatment for what he refers to as "my illness" – leukaemia – and the way he saw it was like this: "I thought: I'm not going to live and win an Oscar at the same time. Fate said to me: 'If you get an Oscar you are going to die.' So when I didn't get nominated I thought God is just letting me know that I'm good for another three years." He's been good for the past 11 years, so hopefully that is that. Don't you remember, though, initially hearing that Timothy Spall had leukaemia and feeling somehow personally crushed, devastated? That there couldn't be anybody who deserved it less and if there is a God, he's a shit? Tim's not sure if he believes in God. "I thought about it a lot when I was up against it and came to the conclusion that although the thing I was talking to was listening, it wasn't a bloke with a beard." What was it then? "I don't know. Just something that was looking after me."

What makes Timothy Spall the great he is? I'm not sure anyone can ever properly say, but I'll have a go. Whether he is playing the sad, gormless loser or the lovable but principled doormat or the toothsome grotesque, he will always bring the part home without any hint of conceit or clever-cleverness. He can also infuse the ordinary not just with complexity, but also astonishing humanity, pathos and humour. He is reluctant to discuss the art of acting – "because I'll sound like a prat" – but thinks retaining a certain amount of childishness is good.

"The childish response to what you are doing opens your heart a bit, so you are more liable to find something." A child's lack of artifice, we agree, is a frightening thing. Or, as he puts it: "It means they tell the truth; will ask: why are you wearing those trousers? Why do you smell like a baboon?" But in a performance, he says, it's the truth that matters and, yes, there is a lot of child in him. "I am naturally childish. I haven't chosen to remain so but I know when I get bored or am going through a repetitious experience I do tend to sing silly songs and be like a child and talk to people about their favourite biscuits." He is serious about biscuits but does not think, as I do, that you can't beat a digestive. Digestives are all very well, he says, and in some sense may be "the biscuit of biscuits" but "for simplicity, unsophistication and bare-faced beauty, it has to be Rich Tea." Boring, I counter. How about Clubs. Do you rate Clubs?

"Oh, yes, a lovely biscuit. If you like a lot of chocolate..."

Wagon Wheel?

"A very inferior confection, with a touch of cheap and nasty about it."

I think you can forgive a man almost anything if he's happy to talk biscuits, even his shoes. As for Iced Gems, he thinks they may still exist. "You'll probably find they are still being made in the Eastern bloc somewhere."

Anyway, the work has lately taken him to Hollywood. What's it like, being a name there now? "They're hardly knocking my door down," he says. But you are a name, I say. "Yes," he says, "and I am very pleased about that." He's been in blockbusters such as Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai, as well as Disney's more recent Enchanted, and next appears in Tim Burton's much acclaimed Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which he plays Beadle Bamford. Bamford – "a suppurating beast in a peri-wig" – was right up his street, as was his co-star Johnny Depp. "He was delightful, delicious." His most surreal Hollywood experience was during the shooting of The Last Samurai in Japan when he and his fellow stars were invited out to a geisha evening. "We drove miles out to the suburbs of Kyoto where we all sat on our arses being served Kobe beef by the geishas and this apprentice geisha, who had spent a year in Uxbridge – utterly peculiar – and Tom Cruise was there and Billy Connolly was next to him and Ken Watanabe was over there and Penelope Cruz was opposite me and, because it was uncomfortable, I kept shifting and kicking her feet and I thought: I hope she doesn't think I'm playing footsie." I wouldn't mind being Penelope Cruz for a day, I say. "She does look rather good, doesn't she?" he says. Do we think, though, that she does dye her hair at home? "No. But she's worth it." Damn. I forgot to ask him what Penelope's favourite biscuit is, although I'm thinking it may be the custard cream. Tim would approve of that. "An excellent biscuit; a meal in and of itself."

One of four boys, Tim was born and brought up on the Winstanley council estate in Battersea. His father, Joe, was a postman while his mother, Sylvia, worked in a chippie until teaching herself hairdressing and opening a salon, initially at home. I ask if he can recall what first caught his eye, acting-wise. He says: "The first time I was ever truly, truly affected by anything was actually – it sounds so pretentious – but it was Richard the Third. Olivier's Richard the Third. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. I was at home and it was on telly, probably in the early Sixties. I was frightened and turned on by it, perturbed and attracted. Really weird. I'd never seen an entity like it." He would always try to not watch telly with his brothers. "We always used to sit down to watch the big movie on Sunday and I'd be watching Joan Crawford movies and The Glen Miller Story and I'd always be hiding my face pretending I wasn't crying because I used to be blubbing away. I was eight and I'd be thinking: "Please, don't let my brothers look at me!"

He would not have become an actor had he not, one year, been cast as the cowardly lion in a secondary school production of The Wizard of Oz, after which his drama teacher said to him: "I've never told any of my pupils this before, because acting is a terrible profession, but I recommend you work with the National Youth Theatre." What did she see in your performance? "It just went very well and everyone laughed." Had it not been for that, he might have become an artist. He was very into art, and surrealist art particularly. "I did mad sculptures and weird doodles. My A-level piece was called My Mum in Hospital and it was a chest of drawers with a model of a nurse and a drip feed going into a drawer with a meat pie in it. I got an A for that, but that's the only exam I got, 'cause I failed all the others." Tim is obviously smart, so how come? "I was lazy. And also it wasn't a school [Battersea County] with expectations. It was a fast-track into trade."

When, after the National Youth Theatre, he was accepted for Rada his mum was not as taken aback as you might think. "She had a good singing voice, and she used to sing in pubs every now and again, and won a talent contest. So she had a slight flair for it. When I got into Rada she was delighted because she always had this fantasy about going there herself as a girl." Although his father died at 55, Sylvia is 72 and still "very seriously and gloriously alive and living in Margate". He recently convinced her to visit him in New York – "although it would have been easier to move the Albert Hall" – but she wasn't impressed when she first stepped off the plane. "She said: 'This doesn't look like New York.' I said: 'No, but that's because it's the airport, mum'." He took her on to the Enchanted set and introduced her to Susan Sarandon. "The first thing mum said to her was: what work have you had done to your face? Ha!" Sylvia was proud when Tim was awarded the OBE, although a little baffled at first. "What d'ya get that for then?" she asked. "Services to drama?" suggested Tim. "Oh, OK then," she said.

Anyway, after Rada he joined the RSC, and met his wife, Shane. "She was a friend of a friend of mine, whom I was renting some rooms off, and she came to see me in the The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Afterwards, I went to see this friend in his flat and she was there and I thought: 'Oooohh, nice arm.'" You're an arm man, are you? "She just had a nice arm. Well, she had two nice arms. I fell against one, I was a bit pissed, and I thought oooohh, I quite like that arm." When you proposed, did you propose to all of her or just the arm? "I asked all of her four months later. We got married and didn't know each other very well. That was 26 years ago so there is a lot to be said for marrying people you don't know very well."

They have three children: Rafe, Pascale and Mercedes. Interesting names, I say. "Pascale did go though a phase of wanting to be called Janet, but it didn't last very long," he says. He is burstingly proud of Rafe, also an actor. "That is one of my great delights, when I see him being good. I thought he was really, really good in The Wild Sargasso Sea." He feared most for his family during his illness. "There were terrifying moments, but I was most frightened for not being around for my family. That was the only unbearable thing; the rest you just get on with. People are ill all the time and they just take it on the chin. Some things you get over and some things you don't. It was a definite adventure, a definite peek over the precipice, but you don't want to be too scared, because it scares other people." Doesn't it strike you as ironic, the way really ill people have to make others feel better? "Part of the healing process," he says, "may be in making the people around you feel all right, so that some of that positive energy reflects back to you. I do believe in the power of good, positive thought and kindness."

During our time together, he only gets shirty the once, when I ask him what he thinks about the assertion that Mike Leigh doesn't so much celebrate the working classes as patronise them. "They're wrong," he says, quite angrily. "How can he put working-class people, who had never been portrayed by anyone else, at the centre of his pieces and make you feel for them, bleed for them... how is that patronising? It's much more patronising to make the working-class person the person who delivers the telly in one scene. I've often found it to be middle-class people who say all this, and who have absolutely no understanding of what it is to live in that world." Aside from that, he is delightful, warm and honest, and we talk about everything from Dickens – he is mad for Dickens; was thrilled to be cast as Fagin in the BBC's recent Oliver Twist – through to Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, which we agree has to be his masterpiece. And, of course, we talk biscuits. He even thinks he knows why pink wafers are still around, even though nobody appears to like them. "That's the biscuit which, after you've pigged out, you think: 'I've eaten so much I might as well have that pink wafer.'" Timothy Spall. What is there not to love?

'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' opens nationwide on 25 January

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