Some motion pictures somehow manage to be still-life wonders. Freeze-frame from just about any Kubrick film (or most Coen brothers movies, for that matter), and you’re likely going to have a still image worthy of mounting on a wall. In that brushstroke vein comes Mr. Turner, the story of mercurial artist J.M.W. Turner, an English Romantic landscape painter, watercolor master and printmaker. Though a controversial figure in his day, he is now considered an artist who elevated landscape painting to a level rivaling historical artwork. Some of his works are regarded as abstract art and a Romantic precursor to Impressionism. Playing the conflicted artist landed in the lap of Timothy Spall, who has become a go-to actor for helmer Mike Leigh, who also cast him in such films as Topsy Turvy and Secrets & Lies. Spall—who picked up best actor honors from the Cannes Film Festival, New York Film’s Critic Circle and the European Film Awards, as well as a British Independent Film Award nomination—spoke about Turner, his mercurial nature and learning how to paint like a nine-year old.
Turner could be a difficult man; do you need to like the character you’re playing?
It really doesn’t bother me whether I like him or whether I don’t. But Mike (Leigh) has a particular formula and way of working, which is creating a character from nothing, developing him through improvisation. You come to know and connect with a character. So, in tandem, we were researching all the material we could on Turner. That became our job—building a character who turns into his own person. This is the second historical piece I’ve done with Mike (Topsy Turvy was the first), and it’s not so much an adaptation as adapting a character into something he was like, something organic. When that organic character meets the research, he likes to mix it up and make (the character and history) indivisible.
So you became a reporter of sorts?
You don’t feel like a journalist, because what you’re doing is transferring something into a human being, something that breathes and bleeds on its own. The whole journey is an investigation, with Mike being the maestro—the head chef.
What did your investigation of Turner uncover?
The first thing that became consistent was how inconsistent he was, how contradictory the reports about his nature were. First, you’re always looking for a through-line of the character. But once you embrace the fact that every human being is a massive contradiction, it becomes easier. Once we broke through the barrier of (Turner) being a massive contradiction, then that became the point, how inconsistent he could be.
Did you know anything about him before the project?
I knew a little about his art. I’d seen and enjoyed it, but I wasn’t anywhere near being an expert.
But you became something of one.
I learned to paint a little. I got over two years of training and practice. I painted a couple copies of a Turner to see how he worked out and went about his business.
Mike (Leigh) said you became a pretty accomplished painter. I believe he said, “He became quite good, though he’s ‘no Turner.’ ”
I learned to paint to your standard of, I reckon, Turner when he was nine years old. But it really was helpful. You see, painting so long was to make it look like you were born with a brush and an easel in your hand. You have to delve into the painting to see how he did it.
And how did he do it?
I think what he did was look and look and look at things. How the sky changes over time, for instance. If you look at his work from a visual aspect, you can see what was getting into Turner’s mind. You see that important, contradictory, emotional man. He was very gruff and disdainful, but deeply sensitive. He was a genius, a massive intellect and a poetic soul. He was a street-tough guy, working class. A lot of what he learned was self-taught. He was compelled by this burning desire to capture the sublime. Not the sublime of, say, a cheesecake. His paintings were sublime in a romantic way. It wasn’t just what people saw, but what they felt when they saw it. He was able to get to the root of what is fundamentally beautiful. I think that was his genius.
You have a distinctive grunt and gait in Turner; how did you decide how to play him?
He never liked having his picture painted, ironically. There were a few knocking about, and a self-portrait. But I read reports of him having a particularly hunched stance, with a very gruff and difficult way of speaking, with a guttural and deep voice. He was often non-communicative. He was very private and mysterious. It was our job to fill in the gaps with little minuscule detective work and let it develop in this Frankenstein-ian sense until the character can speak and think for itself.
Did you become obsessive over the project, like Turner?
Actually, no. Mike is great as a maestro because he encourages you to build this organism, and there’s a very distinct moment when you put on the costume and feel like the character. But you can leave (the character) at home when you take the costume off. Mike is strict about that. You don’t have to live with the character all the time to be the character.
Do you have a favorite scene?
I have lots of favorites. One of them was his father’s death. It’s a microcosm of his entire life. What is revealed is the scar the mother brought his entire life. He never took his father’s love for granted, but because of his mother’s mental condition she had protected him to such a degree. Losing a parent, a best friend, one of your great supporters. (The scene) felt very much like a big moment for a man on a journey with all these dysfunctions. There were so many different sides to the character, the great challenge was to paint someone who was so contradictory. He would be deeply taciturn to the point of rudeness. He had a million things to say and said so little, just grunting. Exploring that was so enjoyable.
Timothy Spall photographed by Mark Mann