Timothy Spall is running through his favourite Mike Leigh films, trying to pinpoint what it is that makes them so special. “Secrets and Lies is very dear to my heart,” he says. “That’s a masterpiece of its own kind. Also, it happened I got very ill afterwards, and when I came back from being ill, not only had I not died, I also had a film career, which was quite nice.”
From a fan point of view Naked and Vera Drake are firm favourites, as is another of his own collaborations with the director, 2002’s All or Nothing. “And not just because I’m in it,” he insists. “When it came out it wasn’t received very well.”
He goes back further, name-checking some of the Play for Today films that Leigh made for TV in the 1970s and 1980s. “Hard Labour: that was an amazing film. It was basically about a downtrodden cleaner…” Which is the point at which Spall zeroes in on what makes Leigh unique. “He’s the Carlsberg lager of auteurs,” he chuckles. “He reaches the parts others can’t.”
There’s certainly no denying Leigh puts the most unlikely people at the centre of his films and Spall, for one, credits him with giving him the “best shots in his career” – something that is more true of their latest collaboration than ever before.
Already fêted on the festival circuit, Mr Turner provides Spall with the role of a lifetime as he takes on Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) in a late-period biopic that really gets under the skin of the artist during his final years. Eschewing the traps of the genre, it’s a film resolute in its avoidance of cliché, finding innately human ways to reveal what has made Turner the most celebrated British painter of all time. “Turner was a star in his own right”, concedes Spall, “but a pretty incongruous one”.
Gruff and uncouth, his corpulent frame frequently hunched over... as depicted in the film Turner stands in marked contrast to the transcendent beauty of his paintings. It’s this disparity, Spall reckons, that first piqued Leigh’s interest.
“We didn’t discuss this, but it’s no surprise that he would choose Turner because of this difference between his art, his work and his genius, and his physicality, the way he spoke and the way he was as a person. Mike Leigh is someone who doesn’t hold back when it comes to creating unprepossessing characters who have a sense of majesty about them; he can make the mundane majestic. If you knew nothing about Turner – if there were no pictures of him, no images, no record – you would have made the assumption he might have been a Franz Liszt character: long black hair, gorgeous, being fêted in all the salons of London and adored by millions of women. But he wasn’t.”
Leigh first spoke to Spall about playing Turner seven years ago. “I was walking down the street and he said, ‘Ah, fancy bumping into you. I’ve got this great idea of making a film about Turner, do you want to do it?’ So, I said, Yeah.”
A few years later, in 2010, Spall found himself sitting in a pub on Maiden Lane, the London street on which Turner was born and brought up. He noticed Turner’s name, so decided to call Leigh for an update. “He asked what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m just hanging around, failing to be enigmatic’. So he said, ‘Do you want to come and see me?’”
Arriving at Leigh’s Soho office, he was told not to get too excited, but the project now had a name: Untitled 2013. “He said, ‘Are you still up for it?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘Would you do me a favour and start learning how to paint?’ So I did. For two years.”
Doing what was tantamount to an art foundation course, Spall found he possessed some natural ability – a holdover from his childhood in Battersea, South London, where art and drama were the only school subjects at which he was any good. Having harboured ambitions to become an artist himself – frequently strolling across to the Tate Gallery to study the Surrealists (and seeing Turner’s work for the first time, too) – his painterly eye and general interest in the subject were not without their drawbacks.
“I knew when I was doing something that was s**t. It used to drive me mad because I knew that I was never going to be anywhere near as good. I got to the point where I was probably about as good as Turner was when he was nine.” He laughs. “Although Turner when he was nine wasn’t bad!”
As it happens, Spall did manage to paint a full-size replica of Turner’s Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth that he’s not entirely displeased with. “I’ve got it on my wall, actually. In oil on canvas. I look at it in the morning sometimes and think, ‘how the hell did I do that?’ But I did it. I couldn’t do it again. It’s the old saying: there’s nothing like being hung in the morning to concentrate the mind wonderfully.”
Getting into Turner’s headspace was almost as tricky. Spall read as much as he could to piece together his psychological and emotional make-up. It helped, he says, that Turner was such a mass of contradictions. The grunt he developed for the part was a useful signifier of this. “A lot of his life and emotion was sucked back inside him and that grunting is an expression of an emotional and intellectual desire not to say what he really felt,” he says. “He never explained his work.”
That’s the sort of character detail that emerges organically from Leigh’s singular (and by now much pored over) way of working by improvising around the script during an intensive rehearsal period in which all the actors take responsibility for their own characters. Having worked with Leigh seven times now over the course of three decades, Spall found the process hasn’t really changed. He may jokingly liken his relationship with Leigh to a marriage (largely because he met Leigh a month after meeting his wife), but there’s no special shorthand between them. “There’s an absolute strict basis of rules. It’s a means to an end, and even people like me who have been working with him for 33 years have to go through exactly the same process.”
It’s worth it, though, especially with Mr Turner, which has been picking up plaudits for Spall and Leigh since debuting at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year (where Spall won Best Actor). “It’s incredibly gratifying that people seem to be liking it,” nods Spall.
But how would Turner have felt about it? Spall confesses he did visit Turner’s grave in St Paul’s Cathedral after finishing work on the film to ask if what he’d done was all right. “He didn’t answer back,” he says with a laugh, “but a tear fell out of my eye right on to his grave. I was a bit embarrassed so I pretended I was doing my shoelace up and wiped it off with my sleeve.”
Telling this story reminds him that he’d first visited St Paul’s in search of Turner three years earlier. Back then he had to ask a cleaner where he was interred. “She said, ‘Hang on, let me think. I know he’s in here because I’ve just washed him down’. Turner would have liked that.”
•Mr Turner is on general release from Friday.