Monday 23 October 2017

Cannes do: How Timothy filled in his acting canvas

Despite roles in the Harry Potter series and more, Timothy Spall's been better known as 'what's-his-face' for most of his career. But after winning plaudits for his portrayal of the artist Turner at Cannes Film Festival, that could be about to change, says Deirdre Reynolds

An actor for all seasons: Timothy Spall in Channel 4’s ‘Bodiy Harm’
An actor for all seasons: Timothy Spall in Channel 4’s ‘Bodiy Harm’
Timothy Spall in 'Wake Wood', shot in Donegal.
Timothy Spall and Uma Thurman
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

He's the star of countless TV shows and movies including The King's Speech and Harry Potter. But until this week Timothy Spall was probably better known to film fans as 'what's-his-face'.

The British character actor has finally taken centre stage after being crowned Best Actor on the closing night of the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite being hotly tipped to take the gong for his role as artist JWM Turner, the five-time BAFTA nominee admitted he's more used to losing than winning at award ceremonies.

"I've spent a lot of time being a bridesmaid," London native Spall said during a poignant acceptance speech.

"This is the first time I've ever been a bride so I'm quite pleased about that. I tried to control myself because everybody's crying now: footballers, actors," the 57 year-old added afterwards. "But I couldn't because it is a big deal for me."

Mike Leigh's biopic hits cinemas in October. Critics are already raving about the portrait of Britain's most famous landscape painter, not to mention Spall's turn as Turner.

Gearing up for what's been described as "the role of his career", the dad-of-three recalled accidentally slipping into character in a pub: "I grunted in a Georgian way, 'Are you a provider of wine?' I had to go and lean against a wall and take a deep breath to go back and ask, 'Can I have a glass of Pinot Grigio?' This is the only time in my life when the character bled into me." It's a far cry from playing Rab C. Nesbitt's cellmate back in 1993. Although classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, scaffolder son Spall is probably best known for his TV personas, including the bumbling Barry Taylor in cult comedy Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

Not that his dramatic talents went unnoticed either. Over the years, he's worked with directors such as Clint Eastwood and Bernardo Bertolucci and held his own opposite Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp.

In 2000, he was awarded an OBE for his services to drama.

Nonetheless, for cancer survivor Spall, it's sure to have been an emotional return to the Croisette.

The actor previously starred in Leigh's Palme D'Or winning movie Secrets and Lies in 1996.

But he was unable to join in the celebrations because he was battling leukaemia.

"Mike and I have worked together on numerous occasions and he's always offered me the best parts of my career," says Spall, who's been married to wife Shane for over thirty years.

"I was devastated I wouldn't be here in 1996 for Secrets and Lies but I was hooked up to a chemotherapy machine.

"And this is what makes it so great for my wife and family, after thinking they might lose me that, 18 years later, I would be at the Cannes Film Festival again, winning for Mr Turner."

Spall isn't the first film star to be lauded later in life.

Despite being showered with Olivier awards throughout her career, it wasn't until 1999 that Dame Judi Dench won her first Oscar for her cameo as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love at the age of 65.

While at 77, Henry Fonda was too ill to collect his first Best Actor Oscar for his final film On Golden Pond in 1982, and died just six months later.

Irish director David Keating worked with Timothy - or Tim as he's known simply to pals - on acclaimed horror Wake Wood starring Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle in 2010.

Speaking to Review this week, Keating says he's not surprised the industry is taking notice of the thespian: "Tim came on board Wake Wood a weekbefore we started shooting around Pettigo. He told me he'd read the script while his wife, Shane, drove them across country on a stormy night, and that the character got under his skin.

"For a year or two afterwards, whenever we'd meet up he would be sporting this fantastic battered tweed jacket that he wears in the film. He loved it so much that the costume department gave it to him as a gift. Tim is a hell of an actor, to work with and to watch, but he's also a warm and funny man."

Having twice played a rat on the big screen, first in Chicken Run and again in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the homely star admits he's looking forward to being offered more illustrious parts thanks to his latest flick.

"Actors are divided into two camps," he says."Those who get the good-looking, wish-fulfilment parts and then the supporting actors like me who get the real-life roles.

"I've been lucky enough to have many, but there are not many prizes to be had in a supporting position. Finally, with Mr Turner, it feels like someone has made me into a leading actor – albeit an ugly one."

As the red carpet is rolled up for another 12 months on the French Riviera, attention is likely to turn to Mr Turner's – or rather Mr Spall's – chances at next year's Oscars.

Spall about Timothy

Spall met wife Shane at a play in London in 1981. They wed just three months later and have three children: Pascale (38), Shane's daughter from a previous relationship, whom Timothy adopted, Rafe (31) and Mercedes (29).

As a teen, the actor was a cadet in the Third Royal Tank Regiment. In fact, he only applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art after being rejected from the army for being too fat.

Mr Turner is the actor's sixth collaboration with director Mike Leigh following on from TV film Home Sweet Home (1982) and films Life is Sweet (1990), Secrets and Lies (1996), Topsy-Turvy (1999) and All or Nothing (2002).

Life of Pi star Rafe is his son, and was named after the character played by his father in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the production at which his parents met.

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