Timothy Spall Takes On Painter J.M.W. Turner, A 'Master Of The Sublime'
Before he could play British artist J.M.W. Turner, actor Timothy Spall first had to learn how to paint; over the course of two years, Spall took private fine art lessons from London artist Tim Wright.
"The goal was to imbue myself in all of the disciplines and all of the different things that Turner would've known," Spall tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. He had no hope of becoming as good as Turner — "that's like being told to become as good as Einstein after you've done Sudoku," he says — but the hard work paid off: Spall has won best actor awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Cannes Film Festival for his role in Mr. Turner.
The film, directed by Mike Leigh, follows Turner from his early 50s to his death in 1851 at the age of 76. The artist's later landscape and seascape paintings are now revered, but were radical for their time.
"I suppose you would regard him as one of the greatest landscape painters of all time and a unique artist because he was a master of the sublime," Spall says. "... The sublime ... was something that tried to capture the beauty of nature, as well as its terror and its horror."
Spall has appeared in four other Leigh films, including Topsy Turvy and Secrets and Lies. He also played Winston Churchill in The King's Speech and may be best known to many Americans for his role in the Harry Potter films as Peter Pettigrew.
On whether Spall wanted to be an artist
When I was at school when I was 16 I was in a quandary because I didn't know whether I wanted to join the army — I had this terrible desire to be a tank driver in the Royal Tank Regiment, genuinely, or whether I wanted to go to art college because half of me wanted to be in the army and the other half of me wanted to be a surrealist. They're not mutually exclusive.
Then I did the school play and my drama teacher said after she was taking my nose off (not my actual nose, the nose I had been wearing as the lion in the Wizard of Oz), she said, "I think you should be an actor. It's a terrible job ... but I think you should do it and I'm going to help you and show you the way."
On how Spall took fine art classes in preparation for the role
It was always going to be a tall order, but this brilliant guy, Tim Wright, did take me through all the disciplines and gave me a personal fine art course on and off over two years. And he got me up to such a degree that I was able to paint a full-scale copy of one of his masterpieces — the same size, in oil, on canvas — and the received wisdom is that it's not bad. I've got it on my wall at home and I look at it in the morning and I think, "How the hell did I do that?" Because I certainly couldn't do it again.
On whether the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London tried to change his "working class" accent
No, thankfully they stopped doing that in the early '60s. When people went there, if you did have a regional accent — whether it be London or Yorkshire or Irish — they tried to inculcate the fact that it was impediment to you. And they got you to speak what is otherwise called "standard English" or R.P., "received pronunciation," which is the kind of English that grew out of the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] from the 1950s when newsreaders used to wear dinner jackets and dressed to read the news, where everybody sounded exactly the same and no one could be divined as to what part of England they were from. They were just generally regarded as being from the upper echelon of society.
On being diagnosed with leukemia in 1996 and his recovery
It was a massive odyssey. It was a journey that I had to go through. And I had a growing family; I had young children and a wife. My wife ... now travels with me everywhere — not because she nearly lost me, but because my kids are all grown up and my son is now a very successful actor, Rafe Spall. It was a very tough period ... and some people don't make it. I was one of the lucky ones. I did.
Age and life, if you're lucky, makes you think deeper, and the other thing it makes you realize is that you never stop learning and you never lose your fear of getting it wrong. Because I've been around a long time, but I'm terribly aware that there's so many things I need to know.
On how cancer has influenced his work
It doesn't matter as to whether you have to sublimate it or not or whether the character is going through it, because I think your job as an actor, particularly a character actor who doesn't act to make the character fit you — my job as a character actor is to make me fit the character, to serve the character. So you have to use massive amounts of empathy and often you're playing people who aren't very pleasant, as in the case of Mr. Turner, a man of massive contradictions. So you need to be able to go down into your imagination and dig deep to find out what makes people tick.
I think anything that increases your understanding of the human condition ... I think age and life, if you're lucky, makes you think deeper, and the other thing it makes you realize is that you never stop learning and you never lose your fear of getting it wrong. Because I've been around a long time, but I'm terribly aware that there's so many things I need to know ... I don't think I've got it right yet.
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