Timothy Spall: “Imagination is the biggest tool an actor has”

14 November, 2023

Timothy Spall is one of the world’s great actors. Born in 1957 in London and with an extremely prolific film career spanning over four decades, he is known for his work both in television and film, be it art films or blockbusters, including his role as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter.

His long-standing collaboration with English director Mike Leigh remains memorable, culminating in 2014 with the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival and the European Film Awards for his performance in Mr. Turner.

In June, Timothy Spall was a special guest of the Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) in Cluj-Napoca, where he received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The interview was taken on that occasion and is now published, coinciding with the release in Romanian cinemas – distributed by Transilvania Film – of one of his most recent films, the dark comedy Northern Comfort (dir. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson), which opened the festival and revolves around a diverse group of people afraid of flying who are stranded in Iceland due to hostile weather.

Timothy Spall shares details about his working method, talks about his collaboration with Mike Leigh, and confesses that he still has fears and plenty of things to learn.


What are the challenges for you in playing historical characters or real people compared to playing normal people, fictional characters?

Well, it’s a big responsibility if the people are still alive, you know, or if their loved ones are still alive because your job there is to give as much credence, as much color, as many levels as you can, particularly if the character has got a bad reputation. Your job is not to worry about what other people think of the character. If the writing is good, your job is to play as many different layers of that character as possible, because people have many preconceptions about them. If they are famous characters, there are many more preconceptions. And sometimes you play characters where everybody can do an impersonation of them, like Winston Churchill. So you gotta try and make sure that you are not playing the impersonation of the character that you’ve seen somebody else doing. Hopefully, the writing is always good enough. It’s usually an abstraction. Any historical film is an abstraction of the reality of what’s going on. Sometimes I think drama can investigate through the abstraction elements that reportage cannot, because seeing something and the angle you see it from reported is a bit like just as biased as it is depending on what you play against. Sometimes, drama can be fairer than reportage, because it investigates an aspect that reportage cannot follow. So there’s a poetry within written dramatization that can be investigated, the poetry of the character`s soul rather than the facts of the soul. However unpleasant or pleasant, the drama can investigate the poetry of it.

Is there any essential difference for you between playing in fantasy movies or blockbusters compared to low budget movies?

I don’t think so. I think the honesty is very important. Even if a character is outlandish, even if it’s supernatural, if it’s a human being you want it to be relatable, so you want it to have some characteristics that are noticeable or just the soul of the character being recognizable. Particularly if it’s somebody who’s supposed to be bad. You don’t just want it to be bad, you want to get as many shades in it as you can, many levels, you know.

Do you have a method for preparing your roles? What would be this method?

If it’s a real person I study them a lot. If there’s footage of them, I look at them. And I find particularly one thing I could look at which I think illustrates if you’re trying to sound like them or look like them or how they move, because the way somebody is physically often informs what is going on inside, even if it’s a contradiction. If there’s a photograph, I often look at the picture and try to mind what’s going on inside. You do a bit of detective work about this and that. What’s the back story? So the back story and the subtexts are important. Wherever you’re going, it’s important that you get a holistic idea of where that person’s coming from, what they are feeling, what affects them, where they are at any given time. 

This applies also apply to fictional characters? 

Yes, it does, I think so. You just want to make sure that you come with a full package. You are not presenting it all at the same time, but you gotta bring that lagoon of depth where everything else comes from. So you gotta think about it. What’s their motivation, to use a term that often sounds pretentious? Where’s it coming from? Then, do they know? ‘Cause a lot of people don’t know what their motivation is. Is their view of what they’re doing the other people`s view? Does that view affect them? Often not. A lot of people think they’re doing really good things, but they’re not.

The character then kind of starts playing itself. It’s an odd experience.

So it’s important for you to know the background of the character. 

Background and what their motivation is, what their morals are, what they think is right. Some of the most appalling people in history have done things ’cause they think that they’re doing the right thing. 

You ask the director for it, if it’s not written in the script?

No, I mean, you could discuss it with the director, but I think it’s imagination. The big word is imagination. It’s the biggest tool an actor has. Is the most important. You got to use that.

How much do you use your real life background, your past, your feelings?

Sometimes, if you need to be upset, you might have to draw on something that’s upset you. It’s not a pleasant experience. A pain in your life, something you’ve had to deal with, you go back to it. And also I think there’s often a point when you’re thinking of a character and when you start to shoot you actually feel some connection with it that is inexplicable. And that doesn’t happen because it’s your sympathizing or whatever, you just feel a connection with it, that you think: “For good or bad, it’s kind of working now”. And then sometimes after a while you have to do the work, but the character then kind of starts playing itself. It’s an odd experience. Doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any work. You’ve got to constantly think about it. But I think that comes if you’ve done all the homework, thought process, hopefully. It doesn’t always come. 

It must be a great feeling when it comes.

Yeah, but it doesn’t always mean it’s going to be good (laughs). You never know. You can trick yourself.

How would you describe your collaboration with Mike Leigh?

Very special. Very important to me. Very proud of that collaboration over the years. Because it’s all so diverse, it’s so many different characters. He’s a genius, I mean, he’s invented his technique. And it’s a technique that so meticulously involves research, backstory. I think I’ve learned that from there. You work on the texture, the minutiae of a character and then you get up running based on that minutiae, rather than doing it the other way around and looking at the story already created and adding that minutiae. You’re part of the creation of that character, so it’s co-authorship, which is a fantastic feeling. It’s made within the technique of the making of the film. So the rehearsal process is not in fact rehearsal, it’s a creative process from ground zero up to the point where the whole thing becomes something that you can base the drama on or the comedy on or both.

I’ve never taken it for granted

Do you still have fears as an actor? 

All the time. I never take anything for granted. I’m always nervous. I am always terrified: “Oh my God, this is it,  I’m going to be found out, it’s the end of it.” I never know if I will finish a job and I don’t know what the next one is, if there is one. I always assume it’s the end of it.

Really? I don’t believe it. 

After nearly 48 years, I still feel that. I still feel like that’s it. It’s somebody else’s turn. I’ve never taken it for granted. Ever. So I think that keeps you on your toes. And also everything feels new to me. It doesn’t feel like: “Oh, I know what to do here.” It’s rather: “How am I going to do that?” I don’t go into a box of tricks. Often if it looks like they have made a mistake, I think: “Are you sure? Me?” Actually it makes it even more interesting, ’cause then you can go even further to find out what it is you’re looking for and what they think.

Do you still learn things about acting?

All the time. I don’t think I’ve worked it out yet. And I think that’s probably a good thing. As I say, until you see that character from the page, from that script arise, you don’t really know. And you still don’t know whether it’s gonna work. You get on the set, and even then you don’t know if it’s gonna work. To a larger or lesser degree, there’s a certain amount of anxiety. Then you got the other people, and all that’s going to come together? That’s a brilliant thing about making a play or a film. You can have a great script, a great crew, but until people get together on that set and all the preparation starts, you don’t know whether the chemistry and the alchemy is gonna happen. It is only a script. You don’t know if that’s going to become a film. Everybody’s huge hopeful intention is it will work, but no one ever knows.

I never like watching myself

When do you know, when do you find out? Only when you watch the film?

You get a good feeling that it’s going well if the rushes are looking great. But even then I’ve been in the situation that a film comes out and no one likes it. Or the critics hate it and the audience likes it. Or the other way round – the critics love it and the audience hates it. There’s been a few of those. It’s not an exact science. And it’s kind of a mystery in it, which is brilliant. Is the mystery of storytelling. It’s a bit like you don’t know until you do it, and when it’s done, you still don’t know. And funny enough, if it has value, even if it’s shit, people might watch it again and reevaluate it. Times tell. When people look at the classics, they go: “Oh, God, that film.” Like Citizen Kane, for instance. When that came out, it wasn’t a huge hit. And some of the great performances, if you went back and read, you’d see that there were people that didn’t like those performances. There’s the thing and there is the reaction to the thing. Is the thing itself that is important. Mostly, in my experience, it’s a sincere desire to make it work. Obviously people have to make a lot of money out of it, but the artists are always far more interested in the art of it. 

Are you satisfied when you see yourself on the screen?

Never. I never like watching myself. I can usually tell if it’s sort of right, but it’s not for me to really judge. What I learned a long time ago is as an actor you never know. I don’t think any human being themselves knows what their actual quality is. You don’t know what your essence is. You might be aware of it, but you don’t know what it looks like or how it activates. It’s for other people to judge, not for me, ’cause I can’t. It’s impossible. 


Photos for TIFF by Vlad Braga.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.