You don't get very far into a conversation with British character actor Timothy Spall without him slipping off on an eyebrow-raising tangent. For instance, we're sitting in a room at the InterContinental Hotel, a name that brings to mind an anecdote, apparently. "InterContinental, I worked in one once. It was the worst place — in the kitchen, in the pastry room," Spall says. "I spent all day washing pastry tins in boiling hot water without any soap. My hands, it was like I was wearing rubber gloves, they were so fat and pink. And the chef said, 'Oh by the way, there's some rubber gloves over there.' 'You F---tard!'" He lets out a hearty laugh before adding, "I didn't go back. I joined the theater."
Another random personal detail he slips in later in the interview is that he owns — and extensively uses — quite an interesting boat. "It's a bit of a funny old boat. It's a flat-bottom, sea-going barge. And I've been going on the North Sea in it a few times where I've thought we might be pretty close to having it," he offers casually. "I did this mad thing in this boat — I taught myself to navigate. We left the Thames, and I was going to go to France and go through the canals, but my wife and I said, 'No, bullocks, let's discover our own country.' So I turned right and we circumnavigated the entire British Isles. On and off it took four years because I had to go off and make the money to pay for the mooring and the fuel."
Speaking of money, aside from being a former dishwasher and amateur explorer, Spall is first and foremost an actor. And his latest work involves embodying the complicated life of famed British painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner," something he ended up doing much more preparation for than he was expecting. "We'd first talked about it seven years ago. Then in 2010, Mike had me into his office and told me his next film would be about Turner and asked if I was still up for it. I said, 'Yeah, yeah, of course I am!' He said, 'And also, if you don't mind, I'd like you to start learning how to paint now,'" Spall remembers. That led to some very extensive fine art lessons. "There's about 300 different images that we made and about 24 paintings. I eventually ended up doing a full-scale copy of 'Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth.' I don't quite believe it. I've got it on my wall, I look at it and go, 'I didn't do that.' I even had it framed in the same kind of frame that's in the National Gallery. You know, it's not Turner, but it is great."
Spall is, though, appropriately humble when it comes to comparing himself to his subject. "In the end I got to a point where I was about up to the standard of how good he was when he was about 8 or 9. When you see his pictures from that age, they're not that bad. I'd have been proud of them," he says. "The terrible thing is the first thing I had to film when you see him painting is I had to paint a straight line. I'll tell you what, with a full crew of 60 people watching you playing J.M.W. Turner? That's where the two years of practice came in handy."
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SIDEBAR: Timothy Spall, sound machine
Timothy Spall knows full well that a lot of attention is being paid to the guttural noises he makes in his portrayal of J.M.W. Turner — heck, Vulture even did a translation of them — but he swears they're not just for comic or actorly effect. "He's this kind of simian, almost earth-like character — like he could almost come out the mud of the Thames, but he's got all this amazing polymathic intellect, this poetic soul. We elected to make him very introspective," Spall explains. "We made him a man that could've said a million things, but all he did was he computed them and imploded them back into himself in these noises. Whether it was satisfaction, joy, pride or exasperation."
"People have picked up on it. I didn't realize I was doing it that much," Spall insists. "I had a bit of an epiphany when I was looking at his paintings and how explosive they can be. I thought, this is an expression of somebody who doesn't express himself in any other way particularly. He left 26,000 completed pieces of work. It's like those people who say, 'I have made love to 26,000 women,' you say, 'That's about four a day! You must have been on a lot of coffee or something else.'"
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick