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Timothy Spall Takes On Painter J.M.W. Turner, A 'Master Of The Sublime'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Timothy Spall, won best actor awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Cannes Film Festival for his performance in the recent film "Mr. Turner." It's out next week on DVD.Spall plays the British painter J.M.W. Turner, whose now-revered landscape and seascape paintings became increasingly radical for their time. The film follows him from his early 50s to his death in 1851 at the age of 76. The director, Mike Leigh, said the film is about an artist who moved people, quote, "to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet," un-quote. Spall has appeared in four other Mike Leigh films, including "Topsy-Turvy" and "Secrets & Lies." He 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. His next performance is in the title role of a British TV adaptation of the classic children's story by Raymond Briggs, "Fungus The Bogeyman." Terry spoke with Timothy Spall last December.



Timothy Spall, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on your New York Film Critics Circle award and, of course, the award for best actor that you won at the Cannes Film Festival.

TIMOTHY SPALL: Well, thank you very much. Yeah, it's always a delight to get, you know, prizes you didn't think you were anywhere near going to be in the running, so there you go.

GROSS: Right. Well, let's start by talking about Turner. I'm going to ask you to describe his place in art history.

SPALL: Well, Turner - J.M.W. Turner - Joseph Mallord William Turner - I suppose - born 1775, died 1851 - I suppose you would regard him as being the greatest - if not the, one of the greatest - landscape painters of all time and a unique artist because he was a master of the sublime. The sublime being - not now, which has become sort of a term for a rather charming and delicious slice of cheese cake - the sublime was a movement in art which was something that tried to capture the beauty of nature, as well as its terror and its horror. It was a movement that grew out of the Romantic movement - again, a term which has come to mean a weekend in Paris, if you're lucky. And the Romantic movement...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPALL: I know. It's funny how these words lose their value by overuse. But the Romantic movement was, in a nutshell, basically the movement of art and poetry, which was about recording not just what you saw but what you felt about it as well.

GROSS: You'd considered becoming an artist before you became an actor. And I know you studied painting for a couple of years before actually shooting "Mr. Turner." So was it your goal to learn to paint like him? And if so, like, why was that an important part of your preparation?

SPALL: Well, to be honest, the first part of that - first, accurately, when I was at school when I was 16, I was - 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SPALL: And they're not mutually exclusive. And 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'd been wearing is the lion in "The Wizard of Oz." She said, I think you should be an actor. It's a terrible job, and I know I've told many other pupils this before, but I think you should do it. And I'm going to help you and show you the way. Thank you very much because it worked out, Helena. Thank you.

No - and then the second part of the question was Mike Leigh asked me two years before we - even before he got the money for the film, even before he knew it was going to actually, really happen - so he said, in the meantime, while we're getting this together, will you do me the pleasure of going to learn how to paint? And obviously the goal was to imbue myself in all of the disciplines and all the different things that Turner would've known, but it was more that than paint and becoming as good as Turner. That was - that's like - that's like being told to become as good as Einstein after you've - after you've done Sudoku, you know.

I mean, 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 did - 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 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.

GROSS: Let's talk about how you portray Turner. He is portrayed in the movie as a very visual, but not a very verbally oriented person, so he seeks out visual beauty and paints it. And he's very attracted to - you know, to physical beauty, but he's not very good at expressing himself as a speaker. He doesn't speak much. He does a lot of mumbling and grunting. And I want to play a short scene in which you're kind of mumbling in character and grunting a little bit. And in this scene, you're talking to your housekeeper who has been ordering your paints while you've been away, and - here we go.


DOROTHY ATKINSON: (As Hannah Danby) Your order came.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) He send the cobalt blue?

ATKINSON: (As Hannah Danby) Put it in a jar. Chrome yellow, scarlet lake, lead white.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Canvases?

ATKINSON: (As Hannah Danby) He put them downstairs for me - two 6-by-4s, three 4-by-3s.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Megilp?

ATKINSON: (As Hannah Danby) Next week.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) (Grunting).

GROSS: (Laughter) OK, so we hear this voice that you created for the character with the mumbles, the throat clears, the grunts. How did you end up doing the voice that way? Is there any evidence that Turner spoke that way?

SPALL: There is evidence that he spoke that way. Also, it's slightly misleading to say that most of it is grunting. There are moments in it where he's very, very eloquent. And he speaks...

GROSS: It's true. We'll hear some of that later.

SPALL: You know, it's not all grunting. It's because - I think what it is is that he expresses in his emotions through a series of noises. His intellect - he's very capable of talking in quite a sophisticated way. And it's a reflection of his autodidactic knowledge of growing out of his problematic intellect about what he knows. Although he's not a showoff, the reality is the grunts grew out of when we were discovering and trying to build a man who thought to a million things and felt a million things, but wasn't predisposed to express them because that was the nature - his nature. He had an implosive intellect and an implosive soul that rather than express what he was feeling, it manifests itself in a series of visceral, animalistic sounds.

GROSS: I found myself wondering that if Turner were alive today and if he was like how you depict him in the movie, would he be diagnosed as being someplace on the autism scale because he's very obsessive about his work - totally focused on it - but has so few social skills. And, I mean, for example, he has this relationship with his housekeeper, or maid, where he basically pays no attention to her, but he occasionally uses her sexually, almost like she was an appliance or something. Like, there's no warmth communicated to her at all, and he thinks nothing of it. He has two adult children that he fathered with his ex-mistress, and he doesn't acknowledge them in any way. Even when they come visit, uninvited, he won't talk with them. So I'm just wondering, like, do you think he'd be diagnosed today if he were alive?

SPALL: I think Turner - to a certain degree, a lot of this you've described suggests that this is just the surface of what you're seeing. I mean, there is a massive amount of subtext that goes underneath all of those things you've described. And hopefully, that is carried along in the character. You do see him being dismissive of his children, but when he finds out one of them has died, he doesn't say anything. But if you observe it carefully, you can see that he is internally in anguish.

He has this relationship with this housekeeper who remained his housekeeper and was his housekeeper for a long, long time. He'd known her since she was 14. He left her very well provided for. He did have a dismissive, slightly selfish relationship with her. But there is a odd kind of perfunctory love under that for her, although he is dismissive. How many people do you know, you know, who do have these relationships? You know, some people's lives are based on perfunctory and dismissive relationships. I don't think he's on the spectrum. I just think he is an uncompromising man who can behave like a swine, can behave dismissively. I mean, at times, he also behaves very generously. He ends up having a very loving relationship with a woman later on in his life.

BIANCULLI: Actor Timothy Spall speaking to Terry Gross last December. He stars in the biographical movie "Mr. Turner," which comes out next week on DVD. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Timothy Spall, star of the movie "Mr. Turner" about British painter J.M.W. Turner.


GROSS: So there's one woman whose inner beauty he really sees. She's not beautiful on the outside. She's not unattractive, but she's an older woman who wears, you know, kind of a white bonnet and - and...

SPALL: She's a working-class seaside landlady, a woman of her time.

GROSS: Right.

SPALL: Uneducated, not stupid, but a very ordinary, unremarkable person apart from having a deeply warm soul, and a person who understands this very unusual man.

GROSS: Yes. So there's this scene where you can see, like, how they're relating to each other, and I want to play that scene.

SPALL: Sure.

GROSS: She's a landlady in this seaside community of Margate. He's been renting a room with her because he wants to be near the sea because he's painting the sea. And he's using his middle name, Mallord, because he doesn't want people to know that he's the famous painter Turner. She's Mrs. Booth. And he's looking at her and seeing her inner beauty and is - she's kind of shocked that he sees her as beautiful. So here's the scene between her. She's sitting by the window, and you speak to her.


SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Mrs. Booth, would you be so kind as to look out of the window?

MARION BAILEY: (As Sophia Booth) Where? What am I looking at?

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) The tip of your nose to the bridge, to the curve of your brow, you put me in mind of a Greek sculpture I'm familiar with of Aphrodite, goddess of love.

BAILEY: (As Sophia Booth) (Laughter) No. No one's ever said that about my nose before - this old snout. Truth to tell, my eyes aren't so good these days. So when I do look in the looking glass, I'd be glad I cannot see so well (laughter).

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) When I peruse myself in a looking glass, I see a gargoyle.

BAILEY: (As Sophia Booth) Now, you be fishing for compliments, and my own ma used to say, them that fish for compliments don't get none. Besides, it is what's within a person that do matter. I do not know you, Mr. Mallord, and I'm sure there be things about you that are beyond my understanding. But I believe you to be a man of great spirit and fine feeling.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) Mrs. Booth, you are a woman of profound beauty.

BAILEY: (As Sophia Booth) Mr. Mallord, I am lost for words.

SPALL: (As J.M.W. Turner) (Grunts).

GROSS: There's your grunt. So that was my guest, Timothy Spall, as the painter J.M.W. Turner and Marion Bailey as Mrs. Booth.

SPALL: See, I think that, you know, all the things that we've been talking about, up to a point, are contained in that. You know, he does grunt, but when he - it's a flirtation scene. It's about two incongruous people who are just making an acquaintance and falling in love. And I'm pleased that you played that scene because it does - it does encapsulate an awful lot of his character and the warmer side of his character and the surprising side of his character because when they discovered that he'd had this relationship - he kept this relationship secret - you know, he was the leading light of the Royal Academy.

You know, he was a great mover and shaker. He didn't try - he wasn't a snob. He fell in love with this woman and he kept her secret. OK, he didn't - it wasn't 'cause he was ashamed of her, he just didn't want anybody to know anything about his business. When they discovered this woman was his lover and had been for so long, they were appalled, because - some of them were, some of them weren't - that he'd chosen to be with somebody from such a lowly background, you know. But the fact that she was from the same background as him didn't occur to them. But that is a simple fact, you know.

GROSS: Something that really strikes me about that scene is that, here's this painter who is, you know, obsessed with all things visual, particularly, like, beauty and turbulence and, you know, storms. And he sees his own face as being like a gargoyle. He doesn't think he has any physical beauty and doesn't pay any attention, really, to how he looks. And I'm just interested in that - in that contrast between the physical beauty he's attracted to in others and his thoughts about his own face as being hideous or like a gargoyle.

SPALL: Yeah, well, that's based on the fact, again, you know, when he was a young boy, he had a very inverted gait and a sort of very - his character was implosive. His whole physicality is very strong but very folded in. And it's based on the fact that, as a child, he was - loathed the way he looked. He loathed the fact that he was quite strange. Mumtruck (ph) was the name to call for him, which is slightly stunted and odd and a little bit weird-looking.

And I think, when we were divining - using detective work in the research, a lot of that, also, I think came from his mother's response to him. And his mother is one of the main characters in this film who actually isn't in it it. You only get her - she's only referred to on his father's deathbed. But she's a hugely important character because, nowadays, you talk about - was he on the spectrum? His mother then was regarded as a dangerously violent lunatic. Now, she would be, of course, diagnosed as being a paranoid schizophrenic or bipolar - person with a tendency toward violent outbursts.

GROSS: And she was institutionalized for several years.

SPALL: They put her away, yeah. I mean, at the point where he was at his most successful, her condition grew. It became a massive problem because she was, you know, dangerous and unpredictable.

And I think all his life he'd had this terrible fear of her, I think, to a certain degree, and fear of her unpredictability. And it's the end of a long journey about how his father had overcompensated and really looked after - his father was a barber. He grew up in a barbershop in a working-class street in London. He happened to be a barber and wig-maker. But his father, I think, not only was he protecting his son from this poor woman who had this terrible condition by keeping him down in the shop where he painted and drew all day, he also realized his son had this talent.

This talent grew and grew and grew, and some of his customers were artists. And so this boy was growing in this working-class environment, but with all of these unusual mixtures of people. You know, he could go out on the street and there would be a group of prostitutes, or there would be a group of costermongers. There would be a group of thieves. Or there might be gentlemen coming from the opera - the Royal Opera House. So he grew up in this cornucopia of tapestry of a late-Georgian London. And, you know, I think his character is formed very much by that and formed by his mother and his father's cosseting of him because of his mother's influence over him. Now, only in a Mike Leigh film would you be able to say that a character that isn't in it is one of the leading roles because you spend months and months and months creating a whole parallel universe that you exist in to try and - you grow a sort of Turner world.

GROSS: So after all this period of preparation, in which you're learning about people who aren't even going to be in the film, like learning about Turner's mother, just so you have that - just so you can react as if you had that mother, even though we're not going to see her - so after all that, do you finally get an actual script that you are expected to follow?

SPALL: No. It's a very odd thing to explain, because each scene is only based on the improvisations that you've done before - more or less just before you do them. And then your job as the actors and him as the writer-director, you distill what is the essence of these scenes that can be two hours long, down into two-minute scenes. And they are never written down - only by the script supervisor, who was the lady in charge of the script, and Mike is conducting you. And so they are absolutely set so they can be used - you can look at them if you need to. And then you present them to the crew, the cameramen and the soundmen, and they look at and they light it and then you shoot it. But you do it slice by slice by slice by slice by slice.

BIANCULLI: Actor Timothy Spall, star of the movie "Mr. Turner" speaking with Terry Gross last December. Their conversation continues after a break. And we'll also hear what our film critic, David Edelstein, thinks of the new "Avengers" movie. And rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new album from Nellie McKay. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's conversation with actor Timothy Spall, who starred in the Mike Leigh film, "Mr. Turner." Spall played British landscape and seascape painter J.M.W. Turner who died in 1851 at the age of 76. Spall has appeared in four other Mike Leigh film, including "Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy." He played Peter Pettigrew in several "Harry Potter" films and was Winston Churchill in "The King's Speech." Terry interviewed Timothy Spall last December. "Mr. Turner" comes out on DVD next week.


GROSS: We were talking earlier about your voice in this film. You're from a working-class background and, as you say, grew up with a working-class accent or dialect. Then you went to the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts in London. Were you trained to change how you speak?

SPALL: No. Thankfully, they stopped doing that in the early '60s. When people - if you did have a regional accent, whether it be London or Yorkshire or Irish, they tried to inculcate the fact that was an impediment to you. And they got you to speak what is otherwise called standard English or RP - received pronunciation - which is the kind of English that grew out of the BBC from the 1950s, where 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 sort of from the upper echelons of society.

Whereas now - no you were allow - when I went to RADA, you were allowed to - if you were an ike like me from South London, as long as you were able to do other accents when you were performing them, they didn't seem to mind. That doesn't still mean that every time you open your gob in England, you don't betray your origins because you do.

GROSS: So have you done Shakespeare and did you have to do, like, a Shakespearean accent for it?

SPALL: There's no such thing as a Shakespearean accent.

GROSS: I know. But you know what I mean - yeah.

SPALL: I have played kings. I have played princes. I have played aristocrats. I have played people from all different types of backgrounds.

GROSS: I want to ask you about a turning point in your life, which could have been the end of your life. In 1996, you were diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Did you know something was wrong when you were diagnosed? Could you tell?

SPALL: Yeah. I had to sit down every three minutes, and I was covered in bruises, and I was falling asleep all the time. So I had a feeling there was something wrong with me. I wasn't in pain, and I was about to go to the Cannes Film Festival. And I thought I'd just go and see my doctor, and I got a call the following day - he took one look at me. He didn't say anything. He just took about five gallons of blood out of me and sent me away, and he said I'll let you know.

And the following day he phoned me up and said, I'm sorry, old boy, you've got leukemia. I said, I can't have leukemia. I've got a job to do. I've got to go to Cannes tomorrow. He said, no, my dear boy, you're not going to Cannes, you're going to hospital. So that was a bit of a life-changer. I went in a hospital. Mike Leigh, Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and others went to Cannes. Then "Secrets & Lies" won the Palme d'Or, and Brenda won best actress. So - and the rest is history. I watched them walking down the red carpet at Cannes in 1997 with a pipe being inserted into my heart to give me the electric soup called chemotherapy that saved my life.

GROSS: You know, this is an example of my theory that sometimes when something wonderful is happening to you professionally, something horrible is going on in your personal life at the same time, like you're sick...

SPALL: Well, there's no doubt about that.

GROSS: Or a family member's sick. Yeah.

SPALL: What I'd like to - I'd like to take this occasion to say on air a tribute to my best friend who died yesterday.

GROSS: I'm so sorry.

SPALL: Well, thank you. And his name is Reynold Silver. I got an award from the New York Critics Circle, and my best friend died. And I'd like to just make this interview a tribute to him, Mr. Reynold Silver, I just thought I'd like to say that as you were saying that.

GROSS: Well, why don't you elaborate a little bit more and tell us something about your relationship with him?

SPALL: Reynold Silver was a dear friend of mine. I was at RADA with him, believe it or not, in 1976. So I've known him for coming on 40 years. He had the good sense of giving up acting because he couldn't take the indignity of it and devoted his time to becoming a teacher in a very unglamorous school, in a very unglamorous part of London - in Islington. Most of his school kids - well, half of them - were a lot of girls from immigrant countries who'd come in from Africa and Asia into this working-class part of London. And he devoted his time to trying to teach them about Shakespeare and poetry, and he did a very good job.

You know, he was a man, you know, one of the great heroes of life I think that people - we forget. We're so used to celebrating celebrities - whatever that word means - that we forget that there are people out there like doctors and people who saved my life, and people like my dear friend, Renny, who devoted his life to teaching - not for a great deal of money - kids who really weren't expected to achieve anything academically, and he even managed to help a few into Oxford and Cambridge. So, you know, this is my tribute to you, dear Reynold.

GROSS: Well, I'm very sorry for your loss.

SPALL: Well, thank you very much. And thank you for allowing me to talk about him because I loved him, and I shall miss him forevermore.

GROSS: Yeah.

So can I ask you when you were very sick, were doctors preparing you for the possibility that you might die?

SPALL: No. They didn't because they never do when you have a serious - unless you ask them. They did tell me that I had a - I think it was - they said, look, things are looking good. You've got a 60-40 chance of surviving this these days. Twenty years ago, you'd have had a 70-30 chance of not surviving it. But no, it was a very tough period. But - very, very tough period and some people don't make it. I was one of the lucky ones, I did.

GROSS: Can you think of a role that you played subsequent to your illness where you felt you were drawing on the suffering you experienced when you were sick?

SPALL: All of them. It doesn't matter as to whether you have to sublimate it or not, whoever the character is. My job as a character actor is to make me fit the character, to serve the character. To present this human being who turns up in a piece of film or entertainment that’s going, you know, exist as if it might exist after the film is finished and it existed before the film has started.

I think anything that increases your understanding of the human condition, and I do not for one second profess to be in any way, you know, special about this because I think age in life just makes you just, if you're lucky, 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, you know?

GROSS: Let's just end with this - name one or two of the movies and one or two of the actors that really inspired you.

SPALL: I remember sitting down at home once when I was about 8 or 9 and watching "Richard III" with Laurence Olivier playing Richard III in that famous film. And I can remember being absolutely terrified, and completely enthralled by this thing that I didn't understand. I didn't really know who he was, what it was, but I remember being exhilarated by it. It was like a crack of thunder. It just made a massive imprint on my little sort of unformed brain later on because I spent a hell of a lot of time being a lazy little tyke at home. I had watched a lot of television. And in them days when I was a kid, there was lots of old films on. So the next person that really affected me was Charles Laughton when I saw "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame..."

GROSS: That is one of my favorite movies. And I was thinking about "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame..."

SPALL: Yeah.

GROSS: When your character says that he thinks he looks like a gargoyle because...

SPALL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Certainly in "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame," in which the hunchback rings the bells in the cathedral of Notre Dame, he sits on the gargoyles all the time, and even says, why wasn't I made of stone like these? You've talked about how you improvise in Mike Leigh films...

SPALL: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if the word gargoyle was yours when Turner in "Mr. Turner" compares himself to a gargoyle. Was that your wording that - were you thinking of Charles Laughton in "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" when you said that?

SPALL: Well, it did grow out of an organic moment, and I did come up with it in an improvisation. But as to whether I was directly thinking about him, I don't know. But it was more based on my research about what I knew Turner felt about how he looked. As to whether it was a little thing that popped out of my admiration and my love of someone like Charles Laughton - it could be, who knows? All these things, you know, any port in a storm - you just hope when you're trying to create something out of the blue with the use of your imagination, you'll take anything, wherever it came from (laughter).

GROSS: Timothy Spall, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SPALL: My pleasure, nice to talk to you. Thank you for listening.

BIANCULLI: Timothy Spall speaking to Terry Gross last December. He stars in the movie "Mr. Turner," which comes out next week on DVD. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "My Weekly Reader," the album by singer-songwriter Nellie McKay. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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