Timothy Spall on playing Churchill, a rat, and a wanker

Timothy Spall on playing Churchill, a rat, and a wanker

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Timothy Spall has become a familiar face in British TV and cinema, recognized by younger fans for his work in the Harry Potter franchise while also serving as a staple in decidedly older-skewing films as well, including Sweeney Todd, Secrets & Lies, and The King’s Speech. Spall can currently be seen in the cast of Assassin’s Bullet, starring Christian Slater and Donald Sutherland.

Assassin’s Bullet (2012)—“Dr. Kahn”
The A.V. Club: Your part in the film isn’t a huge one, but it’s integral to the plot. It feels like the sort of role that Sidney Greenstreet would’ve played. 

Timothy Spall: Well, you could say that. If by that you mean that he’s a person who can be construed on one level as being kind and on one level as being possibly evil, so you don’t quite know where you are with him. He’s a character that is… You feel comfortable with him, but you’re never quite comfortable when you’re leaving. [Laughs.] So, yeah, I suppose you could make that comparison on that level. 

AVC: How did you find your way into the film? Was it an audition situation, or were you offered the part?

TS: I was offered the part. I got the part out of the blue, the script out of the blue. I read it; it was quite a short time for me to get the script and then be in Bulgaria, so I can only assume that someone dropped out. [Laughs.] Either that, or they were playing it very close to the edge. When I got the script, I was very pleased to have received it, because I enjoyed reading it, and then I heard who was going to be in it as well. Luckily, I was available, and the next thing I knew, I was doing it. Things like this can happen. Sometimes you can be attached to something for two years, and you’re prepared to do it, but then someone slips out of the plan and you’re suddenly available when someone asks you to do something. And I was quite pleased that I was available in this case. 

Quadrophenia (1979)—“Projectionist”
TS: Well, that was my first job. I was 21 years old.  I literally walked out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and… No, actually, I’d been out a bit. But I was 21. It was all of a day’s work, if that. Hardly a life-changing experience. [Laughs.]

Gothic (1986)—“Dr. Polidori”
TS: Oh, yeah, I enjoyed that very much. That was probably one of Ken Russell’s last relatively big-budget movies. It was an absolute delight, the cast. It was also nerve-wracking because of the subject. But the company was amazing, including the lovely and tragically departed Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands, and, of course, Gabriel Byrne. Given that we were doing a very bizarre story, there was a wonderful esprit de corps, to say the least, and we got through it with a lot of humor as well as a lot of horror. [Laughs.] 

AVC: How was Ken Russell as a director?

TS: Russell? Ah, he was actually fantastic. We were all expecting him to be difficult and hard work, but he actually was very practical and very determined to make it work. He was a wonderful throwback, in a way, because sometimes we’d get notes around 12 a.m. from him, along with a glass of champagne. [Laughs.] So he was a bit of a throwback. But then, we are talking about 25 years ago. So it was like the end of an era of working on films like that, but it was a delight, because it was a very bizarre title, and I, uh, don’t think the film was very well received. But it was a great experience. 

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1993)—“Cunningham”
TS: Oh, that. Well, that was just a load of… What was wonderful about that was that Terry Jones directed that, and he’s also in it, and there was a bunch of the most wonderful British character actors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the episode, but it was directed by Terry Jones, one of the Pythons! And we were in Barcelona and Madrid. That’s all I know. But if anybody enjoyed it, good luck to them. [Laughs.] 

The Harry Potter films (2004-2011)—“Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail”
TS: Isn’t it funny? It’s been a delight to be involved in such an amazing bunch of films like that, but what’s remarkable about that from a personal view is that while it’s brilliant and amazing—I’ve been in about three or four—it doesn’t feel like I’ve been that much involved, because my little contribution doesn’t take long, whereas the kids worked on them for 10 years of their lives. Most of the older actors were just in and out. So while it was a delight to have been in them, what’s amazing is that, while it’s one of the smallest parts I’ve ever played in my life, it’s the one I’m most famous for. 

Still Crazy (1998)—“David ‘Beano’ Baggot”
TS: Oh, God! Have you seen that film?

AVC: I love that film!

TS: Yeah, I like it as well. I got it because I was associated with the writers, Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. I was involved in a very, very successful series called Auf Wiedersehen, Pet that was a massive popular hit in England in the early and mid-’80s. It was about a bunch of construction workers who went abroad to work, and it’s become an iconic thing. And Ian and Dick were also well known in America for various scripts and what they’d do with scripts. So it was a great thing to work with some of the best character actors of my age on something that was a sort of celebration about all that is naff about old rock stars. Even now as we speak, we know that rock stars, even the ones that we thought we didn’t like anymore, are now becoming triumphant. It was almost predictive, that film. And Beano, he was such a filthy, dirty, booze-swilling swine. I love playing that. I’m talking to you from a bar in Paris right now, so I can relate to that, by the way. [Laughs.]

Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-2004)—“Barry Taylor”
TS: Yeah, that’s one of those characters that I… [Hesitates.] Are you calling me from Canada or America?

AVC: America. 

TS: I don’t think you ever got that series in America. But Barry Taylor was one of those guys that I’m associated with very strongly. I’ve managed to kick him off to a certain degree, but sometimes if I’m walking through certain provincial towns in England, I get, “Barry! Where’s your motorbike?” So, like the other character, he was very iconic, one who represents a certain understanding in the way that working men all behave. And I have an ambivalent relationship with him. Sometimes I love him, sometimes I despise him. Because he was a character I was stuck with for a long time, but… he’s not me. He’s one of those loveable assholes on television. Not an asshole, he was more of what we call a wanker, or what you would call… Oh, what would you call him? A galoot, perhaps? [Laughs.] Or a likeable buffoon? I don’t quite know the word you would use, but he was a character that I loved. He was part of an ensemble, but he was the one that people actually ended up going, “Oh, poor Barry. We love him, but what a twat.” [Laughs.] It took me 20 years to shrug that one off, before I could start playing kings again. 

The King’s Speech (2010)—“Winston Churchill”
TS: Oh, there you go! Yeah, I mean, I was delighted to do that, because I’d worked with Tom Hooper before on The Damned United. I don’t know if you got that there. It’s a film about a very famous soccer manager and his system. Very iconic. And I worked with him on that, and he asked me to play Churchill. And, obviously, Churchill is a man who’s… well, I mean, you get to be asked to play him, and you have to do your work. I gave it my best shot. There’s usually something going on about Churchill, but I very much enjoyed playing him. It was, again, a cameo part, but when you’re asked to play massively important historical characters, even though it was only just as a sort of adjunct, you have to pay respect. So I enjoyed the research, and I’m going to be reprising that very soon… but I’m not about to tell you how or why. [Laughs.]

Secrets & Lies (1996)—“Maurice Purley”
Topsy-Turvy (1999)—“Richard Temple”
TS: Oh, yeah, Richard Temple. Well, that’s my long-term relationship with Mike Leigh, who I hope to be working with again soon. That’s a relationship that’s very dear to me. I’ve done five films and a theater play with him, so we’re known each other for about as many years as I’ve been married. My wife and I have been married and had three kids together, and Mike and I have been married and had five films together. [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you have a favorite of the five films?

TS: I’d probably have to say Secrets & Lies

AVC: What was it about that one in particular?

TS: Well, it also coincided with a period of time afterward when I got very ill. And obviously I got over it, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you from a bar in Paris.  But it was great because, when I worked with him on that film, I wasn’t ill at the time, but I became ill, and then when I got better, not only did I not die, but I had an international film career. [Laughs.] So there you go. 

Chicken Run (2000)—“Nick”
TS: Oh, well, there you go: another rat. [Laughs.] I’ve played many in my time. That was great, though. Great to work with Nick Park and that bunch of clever boys. That was, like, a three-year commitment. Two hours every eight months. But it’s still delighting kids all over the world, innit? So I’m privileged to be a part of that. 

The Missionary (1982)—“Parswell”
TS: Boy, you really are digging around. Richard Loncraine directed that. Look, you’re talking about the film I was working on when the Falklands War broke out. That’s how bloody old that is. [Laughs.] My first son had been born, and I was thinking, “I don’t want him to join the Army when he’s 26!” I loved the job, but all I remember about that was how much I wasn’t enjoying it. I was a young actor, but all I could think was, “Why are we at war with Argentina?” I was young enough to be brought into the National Service, but then it was just a flash in the pan, thank God. But one that took a few lives, so I’m not going to make light of it. I have a lot of affection and personal memories of that one, particularly that Richard Loncraine, who directed it, is a really good director who doesn’t get as much work as he should. Also, Michael Palin had the lead part. Another Python!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007)—“Beadle”
TS: Well, it’s always a delight to play despicable, perverted, sexually reprehensible, multi-reprehensible people. And even better when you’re playing with people like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Tim Burton. That’s about all I can say on that, except that I loved it. 

AVC: Plus, you got to sing.

TS: Well, I got to warble. [Laughs.]

Frank Stubbs Promotes (1993-94)—“Frank Stubbs”
TS: Now, why are you asking about this? Because you’ve never seen that in America, I feel quite certain. But that was a fantastic job for me, because it was my first sort of show that I got to myself, and it was a wonderful London tale about what you call a scalper. You know, when people buy tickets and sell ’em for more? Well, it was about a ticket scalper with delusions of grandeur, who wanted to go from being an asshole to being a massive entrepreneur. Imagine Don King without the hair. [Laughs.] He was a guy who was prepared to try his best to rise above but never really got beyond his own limitations. Because he was too kind to be nasty. 

Vanilla Sky (2001)—“Thomas Tipp”
The Last Samurai (2003)—“Simon Graham”
TS: I love Vanilla Sky. I’m so pleased to have been in that film. I think it’s great, and I loved working with Cameron Crowe. And I went on to work with Tom Cruise again on The Last Samurai. I really think Vanilla Sky stands up over time. And I think people should look at it again, because it’s tremendous. 

AVC: And how was working with Tom Cruise?

TS: Oh, I never found to him to be anything other than charming, generous, and kind. I’d like to fulfill the wishes of people who don’t like him, but I can’t. He was an absolute gent and a charming and professional man who I’d work with again if I had the opportunity. I thought he was tremendous. 

White Hunter Black Heart (1990)—“Hodkins, Bush Pilot”
TS: Oh, my goodness! How do you remember that? You’re obviously a buff. That, or you’ve just looked at my bloody CV. [Laughs.] Clint Eastwood was fantastic. I still relish the time I worked with him. And what a wonderful experience that was. That was just sort of… He was, like, three films in on that one as a director, but was an actor in that one as well. The wonderful thing about being an actor is when you work with other actors who are particularly decent and intelligent human beings, and he was just wonderful. I mean, to work with someone that you’d grown up watching on the television and in films, and then to find out that he’s a great guy, and then to realize that he’s a great director as well? It was a delight. These are the rare and cherishable moments in one’s life with which I’ll be able to bore shitless my grandchildren and great-grandchildren when I’m no longer capable of stepping out and pretending I can act.