One of the busiest and most recognizable British character actors in movies, Timothy Spall cuts a unique figure of comedy and menace that’s seen him play everything from Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech to the nefarious Wormtail in the Harry Potter series. Along the way, Spall has worked for the likes of Clint Eastwood, Tim Burton, Ken Russell and Bernardo Bertolucci, while his collaboration with longtime friend Mike Leigh yielded an acclaimed lead performance in the director’s Secrets & Lies. This week, Spall makes an appearance alongside Donald Sutherland and Christian Slater in the action thriller Assassin’s Bullet, and we had the chance to chat with the very charming actor about his career and five of his favorite movies.
A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946; 95% Tomatometer)
I’ll tell you what my favorite film is. I think it goes like this: A Matter of Life and Death, by Pressburger and Powell. Do you know that film?
I do indeed. It’s funny, one of your “peripheral” Harry Potter co-stars — Daniel Radcliffe — picked that as one of his all-time favorites.
Isn’t that interesting? It’s a great, great film. It’s marvelous.
One of my favorite films of all time has got to be Mary Poppins.
Oh that’s curious. How does Mary Poppins come to be on your list? Is that a favorite from your childhood?
Well I was old enough to remember it when it came out, but I don’t think I saw it in the cinema, I think I saw it when it eventually came on television. In those days, you had to wait about six or seven years before a film got from the f–king cinemas to the television, and it being Disney, they never actually released their films. It was a very clever policy: They just re-released them every 10 years. I think it’s one of those movies. I was having a very depressing time recently working on a job. I was feeling particularly bad and I put the television on on a Sunday afternoon, and Dick Van Dyke was singing “Chim Chimney” — it just lifted my spirits. Everybody criticized his Cockney accent — and even at the time I probably joined in — and you can criticize his Cockney accent, but you cannot criticize his brilliant comic dancing. It’s f–king wonderful. Oh, it’s wonderful. And the quality of the work: The beauty of that film, the simplicity of it and the way it was made and directed; the charm. The way it appeals to people — it’s the old cliché, you know: Eight or 80. It’s a wonderful piece of work. And it’s magical. It’s one of those films, you know, that you can dip into. If you’re ever feeling low, stick it on and you’ll feel much better. If you haven’t got any illegal drugs, put that on and you’ll be alright. [Laughs]
Today’s lesson for the kids: Don’t take drugs, do watch Mary Poppins.
[Laughs] Yeah. Say “no” to drugs but “yes” to Mary Poppins.
You’ve sung on film a few times yourself, of course — in Sweeney Todd, in Gothic, in Topsy-Turvy—
Oh god. [Laughs]
I especially enjoyed your duets with Alan Rickman.
Well that’s very nice of you, thank you. That’s probably one of the most repulsive characters I’ve played in my life.
But what a lovely voice.
[Laughs] Well it was a joy to manifest such a greasy, disgusting little man. But I don’t regard myself as a singer. I never ask to do it but I can sometimes just about hold a tune, as long as it’s all part of the character. I’m not about to start jumping about on the West End stage in a musical. But it’s nice to be involved in a film that’s got a bit of singing in it and manage to acquit yourself without too much embarrassment — that’s always an achievement.
What’s that one… the one with Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, from the Tennessee Williams script. It had several titles. It was called Orpheus Descending, the [original] script…
The Fugitive Kind — is that the one?
Yeah, that’s it! The Fugitive Kind. It’s f–king brilliant, I love it. Anna Magnani and Brando.
One more… I think it’s gonna have to be Naked by Mike Leigh.
You don’t wanna say Secrets & Lies?
[Laughs] Well look, why don’t you say Naked/Secrets & Lies? I didn’t want to be self-congratulatory in any way. [Laughs]
You can pick your own movie.
Well not only is it a great film, it was very important for me because I was very ill just at the time it won the Palme d’Or. So the fact that I didn’t die and the film had gone around internationally and won all these awards… not only did I not die, I had a film career when I woke up. I was very pleased about that. [Laughs]
Not dying, that’s always a good result.
Yeah, I was very ill. But thankfully I got over it, and that’s why I have a very joyous, lunatic relationship with life — ’cause it can easy go, you know.
Next, we chat to Spall about Harry Potter infamy and his favorite career moment.
I have to ask the obligatory Harry Potter question: Do kids always recognize you as your character, Wormtail?
Timothy Spall: Well I more often than not get sort of slightly frightened-looking children looking at me and wondering if I might be that person in restaurants. And occasionally I get six- or seven-year-olds coming up with a piece of paper [to be signed] with looks of horror on their face, being pushed towards me by their older brothers or sisters. [Laughs]
[Laughs] So you inspire a kind of low-level fear in children?
Well yeah. [Laughs] I take that as a compliment, any recognition. I’m not stupid enough to think that, being that young, they’ve seen my work with the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1970s — [laughs] — so I make the assumption that it must be for Harry Potter, or Enchanted as well.
Now that’s a good film, Enchanted.
Isn’t that a good film? I’m glad you said that. I think it’s a good film, very much in the vein of a Mary Poppins-type thing. I’m really pleased with that film. Again, it’s one of those ones — and without going on about ones I’ve been involved in — it’s one of those films that you know will be around for a long time and people will like it.
I liked that Disney had a bit of fun with their legacy on it.
Yeah, yeah. It does poke fun at itself, which is good. I was very pleased to do that.
Looking over the list of some of the directors you’ve worked with — there’s Mike Leigh, Tim Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Cameron Crowe, Bertolucci, Clint Eastwood, Ken Russell—
[Laughs] That is pretty impressive, isn’t it?
Now that I’ve it read to you, huh?
Is there a particular experience that will always stand out for you?
Yeah. I mean, the thing is, I cherish the experience with these chaps and the people that I work with. But you know, given that I’d say Clint Eastwood. About 20 years ago when I did my little part in White Hunter Black Heart, I remember walking on to set and thinking “Oh my god, I’m just about to be directed by Clint Eastwood.” Because I didn’t meet him in the interview — I did the interview on tape in London, and they sent the tapes over and he cast me from the tapes. So we’re doing this scene and it was the opening and he said “Hi Tim, it’s great to see you. I’m gonna give you a shot…” — and I can’t remember the film director’s name — but he said “…it’s like Charles Laughton in the film The Beachcomber.” And I realized that not only am I working with one of the icons of Hollywood, but two things: He was being very charming and helpful and complimentary, and he knows films back to front. To know some obscure Charles Laughton film from the 1930s was very impressive. So — and I must have been in my early thirties then — I was thinking, “This is all right.”
You chose the right job.
Yeah. Or he picked me, in this case, which was very nice. My career, you know, I’ve been around a bit now, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with all these great people. I have to say — and it’s not fibbing — it never ceases to thrill me that I end up working with the people I admire. It’s a joy and a great privilege. Long may it carry on. Long may I be tolerated by the people I admire!
[Laughs] And we look forward to tolerating more of your work.
[Laughs] Oh that’s very nice of you to say.
Assassin’s Bullet is out this week.