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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions