Art School Confidential: Timothy Spall on Painting the Sublime in Mr. Turner

“Implosive, curious mind… beautiful, grandiloquent language.” That’s Timothy Spall describing Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose mantle the actor takes on in Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s new biopic of the Romantic landscape painter.

Spall may as well be describing himself. While the hard-working 57-year-old makes regular (and regularly excellent) appearances in box-office hits (like Enchanted, Sweeney Todd and the Harry Potter series), perhaps his best work has been produced with Leigh–such as his performances in Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Secrets & Lies (1996), both of which earned him BAFTA nominations. With Mr. Turner, Spall hits an arguable career high, layering the “troll-like” famous painter with delicate coats of soul.

When MovieMaker spoke to Spall about the performance, he waxed lyrical about Turner’s work, displaying a deep affinity for the 19th-century master (after all, the young Spall considered attending art school himself as a teenager). Read his passionate discussion of Turner’s craft and legacy here.

Mark Sells, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Where did your love for acting come from? What inspired you to pursue it as a career?

Timothy Spall (TS): Growing up I watched the television. I was a kid in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and there was all sorts televisions, even from two generations before. I was a lost teenager wondering what the fuck to do with my life. Half of me wanted to join the army and be a tank driver in the Royal Tank Regiment. The other half of me wanted to be an artist and wanted to go to art school.

And then, I did the school play when I was 16. I played the lion in The Wizard of Oz. My school teacher said, “I’ve never said this to any of my pupils before, because it’s a horrible, stinkin’ rotten business, but I think you should be an actor.” And that’s what I became, for good or bad. Thank God for her. I’ve been trying to get in touch with her. I hope to God she hasn’t passed on. She was one of the most influential people in my life and I can’t find her. Maybe she’s passed on? So, she’s the one to blame.

JMW Turner

Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner

MM: How would you describe J. M. W. Turner?

TS: Contradictory. Absolute artistic genius. Difficult. Completely different from what you’d imagine him to be if you looked at his work. Once you start looking into what he was as a man, he fits the bill absolutely superbly as a portrayer and a depictor of what was known as the Romantic Sublime. It didn’t mean “romantic” as in, “Let me take you to Paris for the weekend, my darling.” Or “sublime” as in, “Oh my god, that cheesecake was sublime.” It meant the visceral, emotional side of what you saw, and what you felt about it before you attempted to portray it. The sublime being the movement about the destruction and beauty in nature, and the joy in things that are awesome, terrifying, and contradictory.

He was a man who grew out of the Earth and the mud of London, who happened to have this implosive, curious mind; this great God-given genius, which he perfected. In a sense, he was the embodiment of things that were both ugly and beautiful in nature, and that’s what he was as a man, I think. Kind of troll-like. He had a physicality and inability to express himself on the whole, unless he wanted to, and when he did, it was in bursts of beautiful, grandiloquent language. That’s what he was obsessed with. He knew so many amazing people.

The great thing about working on a character like him was this massive contradiction of this fabulous, breathtaking use of paint and work to create the glorious and the terrifying in nature, with this man that looked like he could have been carved out of the mud of the Thames.

Out of the Thames

Spall as Turner, “carved out of mud”

MM: How did Mr. Turner come about with director Mike Leigh?

TS: Mike Leigh has created his own structure for how things are brought to a position to be filmed. There are some very strict rules, but he has created an organic way of creating characters that are based on human beings that you know as the original templates. Through fusion, you create the raw material of a human being. So, you work on that person. And what you’ve got when you’re doing a historical character or person that lived is this massive amount of expansive material that you study. And then your job with [Leigh] is to improvise and create a human being, and bring this character and the research together like a foot going into a shoe, or a hand going into a glove. You make the hand become the glove and the glove become the hand so they are fused together.

The basic principle of improvising, and building a character, and creating a parallel universe of characters, is the added quality of all of the things you know. Then it’s your job to use detective work to work out the psychological and the emotional build-up of these characters organically, with the information of how other people spoke about them.

The great thing is that there were many contradictory versions of what Turner was like, and what that pointed to was that he was contradiction. Although he didn’t seem it if you go deeper into it, he was the perfect man of his time to record the sublime because of these character traits: this implosive, internalized emotion and this incredible, Apollonian intellect, driven by a lot of emotional stricture. Nobody else could have done it. He was this fusion, this nuclear fissure of implosive emotion that came out from the end of his arm like a firecracker, like the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen, but in paint form. Without the repression or the self-implosive quality of his nature, I don’t think it would have come out like a lightning rod with a paint brush on the end of it.

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Spall studied with portrait artist Tim Wright to paint in Turner’s style for the role

MM: What specific material did you find most invaluable in your preparation?

TS: Mike asked me to learn how to paint two years before we even started rehearsing. He wanted me to become familiar with the material that Turner worked with. And I did. I had a guy, Tim Wright, a very fine portraitist, who taught me all the basic principles and gave me a fine art foundation. Then we made it very, very practical, to learn how Turner achieved what he did. Turner started out as a watercolorist and he adapted the free-flow principles of watercolor into oils, which was one of the elements that made his style so particular. Up to that point, oil paint was very specific. He was the man who cut it loose, who could make oil paint explosive. Going through the process of learning how to paint was very informative.

And then just staring at a lot of his work. We’re lucky to have so much of it in England. But he’s becoming so popular now that half of his paintings are on tour. He’s like a bloody rock star now. “I want to go see that.” “Sorry, but that’s in Detroit. That one is in Beijing or Nairobi.” He has been, since the ’60s, regarded as one of the greats. And his reputation has grown even more, which is great that more people know about him.

I read everything I could get my hands on. We also had a researcher whose life was devoted to art of that period, so there was always someone there when we wanted material. she would garner it and then your job was to go and read it. I read about five biographies. I looked at every piece of work in England. I then looked at those who influenced him. Rembrandt, and all the great painters of the Classical period. Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain. Even more obscure painters like Richard Wilson, Joshua Reynolds, and John Constable. I just had to get my head around what were his influences. He assimilated and synthesized all of those great artists and that afforded him the ability to paint not only in his own original style, but Classical as well.

MM: Did you strap yourself to the Princess Matilda [the 52-foot Dutch barge famously owned by Spall and his wife, Shane] to paint a snowstorm?

TS: I didn’t have to strap myself. Being inside that wheelhouse in a force nine gale in the North Sea made me realize what everybody said. Turner, if he wasn’t strapped to the top of a mast, was definitely on board a ship that was in a storm and he knew what it was like.  I ended up doing a full scale copy of [Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth] in oil on canvas. I’ve got it on my wall and I look at it in the morning and I think, “How the fuck did I do that?” Because I couldn’t ever do it again. As the old saying goes, there’s nothing like the knowledge of being hanged in the morning to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842

Knowing about the sea helped. It’s no coincidence that he was obsessed about the sea and that he painted it so much because it’s one our fundamental elements of life. No one could really paint it as well as he. You get the feeling that he understood its power, that we came from it. He understood its spiritual nature, he understood its fickle nature. In conjunction with the sun and the ether, what he was painting was dictated to him by the light and the sea and the reflective nature of the moon. He really, really understood the sea in his soul, to such a degree that he was able to record it. Not just pictorially, not just “this is what you can see,” but his emotional response to it. It’s very much a testament to his feelings and his genius and his understanding of the cosmos in a sense, which makes him more than just an ordinary depictor. He’s not a recorder. He’s a poet. It’s poetic what he’s saying.

Take one of his first most famous paintings, for instance, which is Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps. Hannibal is on his elephant and is absolutely tiny in the back of the painting. The rest of it is all about this mass of Hannibal’s army heading toward Rome to conquer it. And in the foreground of the picture, there’s two of his army and it looks like they raped a Roman citizen’s wife and are about to kill him and her. One of the assistants helping this guy perform these terrible atrocities looks up and is pointing to the sky. And the whole painting is dominated by this massive, curling claw of a cloud coming out of the storm with the sun behind it, that is about to destroy Hannibal’s hubristic attempt to conquer Rome. Man, in his pomp and desires, is nature. But he cannot be anything other than nature. He cannot better it because it will always get him.

Hannibal, 1812

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812

And we’re still doing it. I’m sitting in the Trump Hotel in New York. New York is a testament, as is Chicago and all the major, great cities of the world, to man’s attempt to create a human version of nature. Massive, brutal buildings that point up to the sky. This is what man always tries to do. And then you get Hurricane Katrina, you get the earthquakes. This is what the sublime is about. Man can do what he likes, but as soon as nature wants to have a go, we’re all just worms.

MM: How is your process for portraying a non-fiction character different from a fictional one?

TS: You’ve got a lot of responsibility. It’s worse when the person is alive or is in recent memory, like Churchill or someone like that. I’ve played real people and people remember them. I’m playing a man in a TV drama mini-series now [The Enfield Haunting, in which Spall plays English paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse], and I’ve met his son and grandchildren, and there is a massive responsibility there. It’s still a work of art. You’re trying to encapsulate 25 years of someone’s life in two and a half hours. So you’re gonna have to use artistic license. But there is a massive responsibility.

I don’t live that far from St. Paul’s Cathedral, so I went down there a few times and pretended to tie my shoes on his grave and had a word with him. “I’m trying to play you, I hope you don’t take offense, and any tips you can send, please do so via the cosmos!” Also, with someone like Turner, there are probably 8,000 people with PhDs who are experts on him. One of my great pleasures thus far was to go in at the end of a screening in London where the entire audience was made up of curators of museums, people who have devoted their lives to writing books about him, and people who feel they own him to a certain degree because of their devotion to him. And not one of them punched me in the face! Most of them, much to my surprise–even someone who was a great, great granddaughter of his family–didn’t say, “How dare you, you got him completely wrong!” That was a blessed relief. People whose books I’d read and studied and got information from were incredibly generous. It was like they were relieved that all these things that were stuck in their mind had been used and put out there. Rather than destroy him, it felt like we were doing a service for him.

Now, I’ve just set myself up for people to say, “Oh, Mr. Spall, how wrong can you be? You arrogant berk. Actually, what you’ve done is a piece of shit.” But thus far, it appears to be received with approval. Presenting at Cannes was a white-knuckle ride. It was like, “Oh my god, we’ve made this thing and it cost this much money, now we’ve got to show it,” and it went down well. It was not only an experience of great relief, but one of gratitude. And I remember thinking, “Well, thank God that wasn’t a waste of time!”

MM: At this point in your career, what are some valuable lessons you’ve learned?

TS: It doesn’t matter the level of success you have. As an actor, you get a lot more respect than you really deserve because you’re out there and you’re in things that people see. It would be easy to believe in the whole celebrity circus part of it. The one thing that reminds you that you are human is a nice bout of unemployment. It usually knocks the stuffing out of your arrogance. Any time when it’s good, you’re going to realize that it could stink as well.

Everyone has an ego. You wouldn’t be doing something as ridiculous as acting if you didn’t have one that was slightly inflamed. You have to get up there and stick your head above the parapet and let people say “good” or “bad,” “that’s great” or “that’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Spall at the Cannes premiere of Mr. Turner in May, 2014

Spall at the Cannes premiere of Mr. Turner in May, 2014

But the great thing I’ve learned is that if you devote yourself to serving the character and the film, your job is to make that as good or real and entertaining as possible. It’s not to use it to make you look good. It’s to use you to make it look good. Celebrity culture has it all back to front. It’s all about serving celebrity for itself. Being an actor is about using everything you’ve got to make something that doesn’t exist appear fresh and new, so that it might be worth getting someone out of their house to go and see. So, if you bear in mind to serve the character, serve the piece, not serve your own ego, then you never lose sight that that’s what the job is. Not about flats and nice clothes and being seen with a glass of champagne with the right people. Acting is a craft and an art form and a job. By God, if you start losing your head when things go right, you’re certainly going to lose them when they go wrong. You’re going to disappear up the noose of solipsistic failure. Your job is to entertain and to realize things for people to see. It’s nice when it’s successful. It means you got it right. But it shouldn’t be turned into an excuse to feel special. MM

Mr. Turner opens in theaters Friday, December 19, 2014, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Mr. Turner stills courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Photograph of Timothy Spall at Cannes courtesy of Shutterstock.

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