HE’S starred in a Hollywood romcom and opened on Broadway with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, but Rafe Spall says chasing fame is illusory and that sticking to interesting work will see him right – including a role as a bitter teacher in his new film X+Y
I spent a long time in my career trying to get myself into a leading man position, playing someone who is dreamy, good-looking, whatever.” It’s that final word that tells you the most about what Rafe Spall makes of the relentless focus on physical appearance in his line of business. It’s a kind of resignation and a bit of bafflement, a touch of cheesed off-ness and a dash of couldn’t give a monkeys. Fair enough. Not least because Spall isn’t just pontificating.
He might be only 32, but he’s been around for a long time on TV and in films, since he appeared alongside his dad, Timothy, in an ITV adaptation of A Room With a View. Neatly slotted into the ‘character actor’ box, like his dad, he has appeared in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. He’s given some brilliant performances on telly, not least as a psychopath in Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line, and is respected for his work on stage. And then Spall did something a bit unexpected. He landed the part of Rose Byrne’s love interest in the comedy, I Give it a Year, in 2013. It was his first stab at leading man material and it gave Spall a close-up encounter with the sharp end of Hollywood’s limited idea of what it is to be attractive.
“Certain things were encouraged and expected of me,” he says, with the hint of a smile in his voice, “things that I’m pleased that I did because they were an interesting experiment.” Basically, he was told to get himself looking like the kind of man with whom Rose Byrne would fall in love. Ouch. It meant losing weight and lifting weights and mainly getting thinner.
“When can you relax? Is it when you’ve won an Oscar? Or when you’re rich?”
“It’s interesting having someone paid to train you every day and give you a diet and all of the things that people in normal walks of life don’t get given,” he says. “I’m not going to complain about it because I was privileged to get it, it was like winning a competition. If most people had that they could easily lose weight.” He doesn’t say the but, but it’s clear that there is one. “Look at Mr Humphreys,” he says after a small pause. Mr Humphreys is the wry, screwed up maths teacher Spall plays in X+Y, a lovely new film in which he stars alongside Sally Hawkins and Asa Butterfield. It’s the story of a young boy, Nathan (Butterfield) who struggles to connect with people, even his mum, Julie (Hawkins). He finds security and comfort in maths and is brilliant with numbers, brilliant enough that, with some mentoring from Mr Humphreys, he lands a place in the British team competing at the International Mathematics Olympiad. The film is funny and tender, full of poignant performances, not least from Spall. “Mr Humphreys is free of self-consciousness because he’s ill [he’s got MS] and he looks a mess. In watching it, my wife said she found that much more attractive than other stuff I’ve done before when I was trying to be good-looking. It’s interesting innit, what people find attractive.”
It sure is. Not least because Spall is coincidentally kicking Hollywood superficiality to the kerb in the week that the 50 Shades of Grey promotional activity has gone through the roof. In the papers, on buses, literally everywhere, there are images of the buff body of actor Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey in the EL James adaptation. What is sexy? It doesn’t seem that there’s much debate to be had on that one. And I get why it’s nice to look at Dornan’s perfectly honed torso, but surely that’s not what it’s all about? Now it’s me who is pontificating and when there’s a moment of silence, I wonder if Spall’s lost interest in my little diatribe. “It’s funny that you should say that,” he says eventually, “and there are two parts to my answer. One, Jamie Dornan is the godfather of my son, so it’s really funny to hear people speaking about his perfectly honed torso because he’s like my stupid mate.” He guffaws. “The thing about Dornan is, yes, he looks like that, he’s straight up one of the best looking men in the world, but his personality doesn’t marry with that in any way. He’s just my daft mate. What makes him attractive is that he is self-deprecating, funny and insecure like everybody. He’s blessed with that body and those looks but the women I know aren’t bothered by six packs and all that stuff. They don’t find those things conventionally attractive, which is good news for me because I would never have had sex if that hadn’t been the case.”
Actually, he’s happily married, to actress Elize du Toit, and they have two kids, Lena, who is three and a son, Rex, who is a year younger.
Spall’s honesty is as entertaining as it is illuminating. It’s not just in terms of looks that he’s an ordinary bloke – I mean that in the most complimentary way – it’s how he speaks too. It’s how he is. It’s part of what makes him a really fine actor – watchable, funny, understated, real. He has the knack of disappearing into the parts he plays, whether it’s as Shakespeare in Roland Emmerich’s weird Anonymous, or as the writer in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (a part he got, replacing Tobey Maguire in post-production) or as the scientist who comes to a grim end in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. There is something of the everyman about Spall.
Take Mr Humphreys, a man who not only has a life-altering illness, but who carries around the chip on his shoulder of never having quite fulfilled his potential. He is funny and bitter, a combination I rather like. Spall laughs. “He covers that gamut very well,” he says. “He’s funny, sad, moving, all the things that actors want to have a stab at. There’s a lot of me in Mr Humphreys.” The director of the film, Morgan Matthews, has spoken of Spall’s ability to bring warmth as well as emotion to the screen. It’s true that as well as being multi-layered, there’s an ease that Spall brings to his portrayal as well as a wry take on life that seems to fit with him.
“I feel like the more I do, the better I get because you have certain realisations about what you’re doing.”
“When I first read it I definitely thought that I had this part in me,” he says. “I feel like the more I do, the better I get because you have certain realisations about what you’re doing. Really, the more I act, the more I realise relaxation is paramount. I’m trying to be free of tension.
“The way the filming works is that you’ve got 200 people in a room all going about their business then someone puts a board on, tells everyone to turn their phones off, calls action and 200 people all stare at you at one time. To not tense up in that moment is really difficult.” He laughs. “I love Mark Ruffalo. He seems so relaxed. It’s like he’s just talking, like when the camera stops he might just keep being like that. That doesn’t come for free, it takes work. That’s something I strive for and aspire to.”
Beneath the easy chat and banter, Spall is serious about acting and manages that rare thing of talking about it without sounding precious or pretentious, although he checks himself just in case. “It always sounds daft talking about the nuts and bolts of acting but when you get two people opposite each other and they create something between them which is this organic thing, this magic, it’s just wonderful to watch. You’re witnessing chemistry between people which is a delicious, wonderful thing to see. If you’ve got someone who can really roll doing it with you – like Sally Hawkins – then really that’s why you act. From my point of view it’s truly immersive and as a result cathartic. You are truly removed from yourself which is like meditation or going on a f**king juice fast. It’s all about removing yourself from yourself and as a result being present.” He laughs, guessing how that sounds. “You’re just absolutely involved in that moment and that’s an amazing thing to feel.”
Looking at his career across film, TV and the stage, I wonder if he has a sense of where it is he fits best? “I don’t know which I’m most comfortable in but I know what I’m most proud of. My theatre work. Theatre is tough. You really learn a lot about yourself when you do it.”
The last play Spall did was Harold Pinter’s Betrayal on Broadway alongside Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. Mike Nicholls directed, his last project before he died. It was the hottest ticket in town and in many of the reviews, Spall was singled out for praise. “No matter what happens in the future with my career, I’ll always have that,” he says. “I opened Betrayal on Broadway with those people. It was amazing and no one will ever take that away from me. It took some serious balls to go out and do that on the opening night with Steven Spielberg and Bruce Springsteen sitting in the audience. It was crazy.
“I came out and made eye contact with Spielberg and I thought I was going to faint. I had this little speech worked out in my mind that I thought I might have to say. It was something like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry but I won’t be contributing to tonight’s performance of Betrayal…’ and then the play started and it was like s**t, I’ve got to do this in front of every famous person in the history of the world.” He’s not exaggerating that much – Madonna was there and Glenn Close, the vice president of America and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Javier Bardem. “Crazy,” Spall says. “Mind-blowing.
“It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to playing top level sport, like what it must be like to go out and play in the Champions League final and the question is not only can you hold your s**t together, but can you be creative, can you play an actual game? That’s what makes great sportsmen I guess, cometh the hour can you express yourself in that moment of severe pressure. That was a really amazing thing to have learned.”
It’s clear that even if other people had a sense of a career trajectory that they foisted on to Spall – from character actor to leading man – he’s having none of it. “I’m comfortable anywhere I’m employed and doing something for the right reasons,” he says. “I never want to go into something with a cynical attitude in terms of making money or furthering my career. I want to do things that I care about.” So we know he’s not interested in anyone else’s version of what his career should be, but what happens when you’ve had an experience like that on Broadway – does it let you take your foot off the gas or add even more pressure? Maybe I should stick with the sporting analogy – after the Champions League Final can you go back to Sunday kickabouts?
“It raises large questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing and who you are doing it for – yourself or other people?” he says. “You have to figure out the make up of your ambition – what is it you’re after? To be a movie star? Or to be famous? You’ve got to break it down or you’ll never be happy. What is the end point? When can you relax? Is it when you’ve won an Oscar? Or when you’re rich?”
It’s clear from the way he speaks that Spall has given this proper thought. He sounds like he’s shooting the breeze, but he’s not really. Just like he looks like he’s having a right laugh playing Mr Humphreys – and he sort of is – but there’s more to it than that. When he’s acting it’s about being relaxed. In life, it’s about making sure that being an actor isn’t the only way that he feels fulfilled. “It’s difficult because working in any artistic field means that what you do is a huge part of you. It’s part of your make-up and of your soul, it’s not just your job. But the problem is when you equate your sense of worth to your success which is easy to do because it’s quick and you can realise that. Oh, I’ve got a nice little buzz on because I’ve got a job. Now I’m worth it. Now I’m cool, now I matter. But it ain’t Christmas with your kids which is really the most important thing. That means everything.” He pauses and an anecdote comes to mind to illustrate his point. “I go and do a performance of Betrayal and Billy Crystal comes back stage afterwards and says, ‘oh you were so good’ and I say ‘thanks Billy’ and it feels so good then I go home and I p**s on the toilet seat and my wife tells me off for it, quite rightly. And then I wake up the next morning and I’ve got a one and two-year-old whose asses need wiped.” He laughs. “That’s real. And I’m very lucky to have that, to have a wife who is a truth-seeking missile who couldn’t be less impressed with my acting success or me having a f***ing six-pack or whatever because to her that’s the opposite of sexy. It’s much sexier to have a lasagne than to talk about how much you can dead lift. I mean, vanity is the opposite of sex, isn’t it?”
He makes a good point, I reckon.
• X+Y is in cinemas now