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Mr Turner

Timothy Spall interview: ‘“Mr Turner” is not a conventional biopic’

The London-born actor talks about playing one of Britain’s greatest painters in ‘Mr Turner’, his seventh film with director Mike Leigh


How did you end up playing the great nineteenth-century painter in ‘Mr Turner’?
‘It started seven years ago. I was walking down Greek Street near Mike Leigh’s office and I bumped into him. He said: “Ah, interesting to bump into you. I’ve got this idea that I want to make a film about JMW Turner. Keep a lid on it, but do you want to do it?” That was it.’

You’ve been working with Mike Leigh on and off since the late 1970s, with films including ‘Secrets and Lies’ and ‘Life is Sweet’. What do you remember of the early days?

‘The first time I worked with him I was 24. Now I’m 57. When I was at drama school, it was the late ’70s and Mike was plying his trade mainly on BBC Television, including the “Play for Today” series. He was the talk among young actors. He was the new thing that all of us from different backgrounds really got.’

He has a very loyal band of actors – Jim Broadbent, Sally Hawkins and others. Why do they keep coming back?

‘He’s the character actor’s director. What character actors want to do is investigate new types of people and present them in all their idiosyncrasies, psychological complexities and contradictory stupidities. That has been one of the great delights over our seven collaborations.’

Why do you think you suit each other so well?
‘He puts at the heart of his films characters who are never at the centre of other films. That’s why I’ve always fitted the bill. Even with “Mr Turner”, he’s not made a conventional biopic. We go into the man’s home life. He chose Turner because of his genius as an artist – but also because Turner must be one of the most incongruous geniuses that Britain has ever produced.’

After offering you the role, Mike Leigh told you to learn how to paint. How did that go?

‘I worked with a guy called Tim Wright who’s a portraitist and who ended up painting my portrait which he entered into this year’s BP Portrait Award! It turned out I had a bit of ability, but that was a pain in the arse because I knew when I was shit!

‘He took me through the whole old-fashioned fine art course. I ended up copying a full-scale version of Turner’s “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”, in oil. I’ve got it on my wall. I look at it every morning and think: How the fuck did I do that? I could never do it again!’

Did you throw yourself into endless books about Turner?
‘Oh yes. It was my task to do a massive detective job on him. I was the laziest fucker at school. I could have got a PhD in laziness at 14. But at one point I found myself walking through town with a satchel full of books. I fully expected to be attacked and called Swatty Spall. And every day I discovered that the fucker was a polymath. And yet he had this simian personality, like he’d come out of the mud of the Thames.

‘It was about bringing those two sides together. He had the crystal clear, poetic intellect of somebody who, if you were casting him in a film and knew nothing else about him, you’d go for someone who looked like Franz Liszt – not someone who looked like Guy the Gorilla.’

Mr Turner’ opens in UK cinemas on Friday October 31.

Watch the ‘Mr Turner’ trailer

Read more about ‘Mr Turner’

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Film
  • Drama

Twice before, first with 'Topsy-Turvy' and then with 'Vera Drake', Mike Leigh has punctuated his bittersweet studies of contemporary life with period dramas. Now, with 'Mr Turner', the British director of 'Naked' and 'Secrets and Lies' takes us back to the nineteenth century and the later years of the celebrated, groundbreaking, difficult painter JMW Turner (1775-1851).

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