Rafe Spall’s first tryout was a speech from Julius Caesar that his famous dad asked him to perform in the living room before giving the then-fifteen-year-old a thumbs up to pursue an acting career. Fast-forward, and the British actor, son of award-winning veteran Timothy Spall, has since built a career that spans television, features and theater both at home and in Hollywood. Most recently, he’s starring in AppleTV+’s first Britcom, Trying. The heart-warming story of a couple struggling to have a baby, and ultimately opting for adoption, is written by Andy Wolton and co-stars Esther Smith and Imelda Staunton. Produced by BBC Studios, it’s received strong reviews since dropping this month. A second season has been commissioned.
Known for such features such as The Big Short, Just Mercy and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Spall also recently appeared in last year’s BBC mini The War Of The Worlds and has The Salisbury Poisonings about the Novichok crisis on deck for the BBC. Before COVID-19, he made a splash in the one-man drama Death Of England during its run at The National.
Spall was indeed having a very active professional year before the coronavirus lockdown hit the UK, but he’s kept busy giving back to the community by doing shopping for neighbors near his home in the Cotswolds during this period. We spoke to him recently from confinement, where he expressed great concern for the industry and was itching to get back out to the theater (and cinemas) to support his fellow actors, as well as his upcoming projects which include a collaboration with dad.
DEADLINE: How has the lockdown been for you?
RAFE SPALL: We are very lucky in terms of having young children and space to run around. One of the things that, when we look back at this — the best version of this as well as the terrible pain caused by loss and grief and uncertainty — I would hope it would be a time defined by altruism and kindness and discovery of community. Even though you’re not able to see and touch people necessarily, I’ve never felt a stronger bond with community.
Me and the kids, when the lockdown first was introduced here, we went through our local area and posted letters through people’s letterboxes asking if they needed any shopping and we had loads of replies. And we started a WhatsApp group for people who weren’t able to leave the house. It’s literally the easiest thing to do, but it’s helping people and it just brings you closer together.
Ultimately, the takeaway from this is really all we have is relationships and community, it’s so vitally important in this age of individualism our obsession with the rat race and attainment and striving. You forget the simple things in life like community and neighborly love.
DEADLINE: Which is sort of a paradox because we are not able to be together and yet there is a sense of community…
SPALL: It has never been richer. It seems to me that certain elements of this have been politicized, but most people are just getting on with it. It’s quite easy sometimes to lose perspective because the people that make the noise in social media and the media aren’t representative of the population as a whole. Most people just get on with their lives, they want to do the right thing and they’re good. This period of time has reinforced my belief in the beauty of humanity, and really when the chips are down, people do want to help each other.
DEADLINE: How are you seeing the impact on the industry?
SPALL: I worry about a huge population of my industry. I’m in a very privileged position, I’ll be able to, God willing, weather this and there will still be a demand when I come back. But there are a lot of people who do lead hand-to-mouth existences when it comes to acting. That accounts for 99% of the people who do my job and one of the things that people who do my job when they’re not working is they work hospitality jobs and that’s not available to people. So a lot of these actors have fallen through the cracks and they’re not getting support. I’m worried for them. I believe it’s the duty of actors who can afford it to contribute to some kind of benevolent fund to the union to try and help support.
You can see a time when we can get back to filming because it isn’t inconceivable that you can socially distance on a film set, but it’s the theater I worry about. There’s going to be a lot of theaters that won’t come through this. As a great lover of the theater, that’s actually heartbreaking to me.
DEADLINE: What’s different in your eyes as regards live theater and this crisis?
SPALL: I mean, the first hurdle has to be the government saying it’s fine now for people to congregate in spaces sat next to each other. But it’s another matter if people are going to feel safe enough to want to go and sit in a room.
Me personally, as soon as they say they’re open I’m there. I want to do everything I can to support theater and also when restaurants open I want to make it my mission to single-handedly resuscitate the English hospitality industry. I cannot wait to get back out there. I absolutely adore people, I love being around people, I love coming together. It’s one of the reasons I love theater so much: it’s a place for people to come together and experience something. Same with cinema, who knows how that’s going to pan out, but one of life’s simple pleasures is to experience art communally which is the way that it’s really designed to be consumed.
DEADLINE: You also work in television and are starring in AppleTV+’s first Britcom, which despite that moniker has quite a deep heart. How did you get involved in the show?
SPALL: I was in Atlanta filming Just Mercy and it was my first day. I was playing the district attorney from Alabama and was doing a scene, giving this big address to the judge, and I was doing an Alabama accent in front of a whole crew from the south, 200 extras from the south and Jamie Foxx, the king of the south, and I didn’t audition so no one had heard it yet and I was really frightened of having to pull out this accent.
I was getting through it and everybody was really supportive and it went great, but I checked my phone in between takes and this dropped into my inbox. It just seemed so appealing to be able to do my own accent (laughs) and then I read it and I found it truthful, and as you say, extremely warmhearted and funny. For a while, I’ve been looking for something that I can bring some of myself to and it was a perfect fit.
Me and Esther Smith did a chemistry read together — I think the show lives and dies on the chemistry of the two lead characters — and once that was sorted out, we really had a beautiful time making the show and I’m genuinely proud of it.
DEADLINE: You have three kids, have you ever faced these kinds of issues before or know people who have?
SPALL: I’ve been extremely lucky to naturally conceive. I do know people who have struggled with infertility and have gone down the path of adoption. But my investigation into the whole process through doing the show gave me such a respect for the people that do it because when you naturally conceive there’s not really much to it. You have a bit of an idea, there’s a simple act that takes place and then nine months later a baby comes out. There’s not really that much time to change your mind or think about it too much.
But when you adopt, that takes years and a huge level of meddling in your life. It’s intrusive, so there’s a lot of time to say no. But if you don’t, and you get through two years off that level of invasiveness and you still want it, then my God you really want to have a kid, and that’s really beautiful.
The nature of relationships after you’ve been with a person for a long time, really the only thing that sustains it is laughter and if you stop finding each other funny and fun to hang around then you’re done, you know? That’s what I like about this: they’re a couple that have been together a long time, they like each other. It’s about people being nice to each other and trying to do the right thing which I think is a fair reflection of society, and at the moment I’m really pleased to be putting something out there that is about goodness and kindness.
DEADLINE: Was there any striking difference in working on this as opposed to a series, say for the BBC?
SPALL: Nothing majorly discernible apart from time. You have a show like this which traditionally would have been made by the BBC, so obviously the budget would have been tighter, you’d have less time to shoot it so we were shooting maybe 10-day half-hours which is definitely generous for a UK show.
When there’s crowd scenes, there’s actually people. There were a certain level of production values which felt different, and the coffee was maybe slightly better. But the practice of standing in front of a camera trying to look like a real human being whilst relating to someone else is the same whether you’re doing an AppleTV show, a huge franchise movie, or a small British indie. In between cut and action, it’s always the same.
DEADLINE: You come from a show business family, and your dad has also worked across all media, how influential has he been in terms of decisions you have made?
SPALL: I didn’t go to drama school, so my drama school was essentially having sat there watching TV with my dad because he would comment on whether things were good or bad. That was where the architecture of my taste started. But then when I made it clear that I wanted to be an actor, he gave me a theater allowance. From the age of 17 he’d give me £40 a week and I’d go and see everything, everything, everything.
DEADLINE: So he didn’t discourage you at all?
SPALL: No, he didn’t. When I was 15, I said, “I want to be an actor,” and I was kind of embarrassed about telling him. He said, “Okay you should audition for the National Youth Theater” which was where he started… And he said, “Go and learn this speech and show it to me.” It was a speech from Julius Caesar and he sat on the sofa with a glass of wine and I did the speech for him.
In that moment he was, he later told me, as nervous as I was because if I had no talent it would be his duty as a father to save me from the grief of entering into this vicious industry. But he saw something and as soon as he ascertained that I was getting into it for the right reasons, he was fully supportive.
DEADLINE: Are there pitfalls to being the son of a famous actor in the same industry?
SPALL: From my point of view you go, “Okay, my dad’s an actor. I want to be an actor too. He’s also extremely successful, so well that must be what being an actor is like.” That gives you confidence. You soon figure out that in no way is it that easy, it’s very difficult, and that being the son of a famous actor may well open doors and get you seen for things, but they’re not going to give you the job because you’re the kid of an actor — and if they do, then the next person that sees that movie certainly won’t give you the job because they’ll see that you’re crap (laughs). So I like to think that when the door is open, it is a very meritocratic experience. But it would be remiss of me to say that I didn’t benefit from nepotism because of course I did, and I’m extremely grateful for that.
I’m fascinated by and in awe of people that come out of nowhere and with no acting family that do it for themselves. I’m not saying that I haven’t done it for myself because of course I have. But I had a leg up and I had this confidence that the industry was for me, whereas some people, especially from working class backgrounds, they don’t feel like the media and the industry is for them. They feel like it’s for other people, and I never had that. I was always lucky to go, “Yeah, sure I’m allowed this,” which is half the battle for some people.
DEADLINE: There has been more discussion over the past few years about a class system within the UK industry. Do you think it’s getting any better?
SPALL: Look, take Trying. This is a show about normal people doing normal jobs. He teaches English as a foreign language, she works in a call center. They’re not fancy people, and this is a show on a global platform so that we are presenting a certain version of Englishness which isn’t necessarily understood or consumed by international audiences. I’m a huge fan of Richard Curtis, but (in his films) they live in £9M houses. I love those movies, but that’s not how most people live.
When things are made about working class people, it’s usually made about how difficult their existence is. Like, just because you live in a council flat, you don’t fall in love and have sex and kiss and have a laugh. That seems to be in culture the reserve of the middle classes and that’s kind of my problem with a lot of the way the working classes are represented in films. They seem to be made by middle class people for middle class people and a lot of the things that are made for working class people aren’t watched by working class people. It seems like with Trying, we are showing a slightly different element of British society. Sometimes I feel like people in America think that we all live in stately homes.
DEADLINE: You’ve had a busy year, what else is coming up?
SPALL: The Salisbury Poisonings is a show I’m really proud of; it’s about the humans involved in that terrible incident. It’s a very scary story that could have been a lot worse.
The next thing that’s happening for me is the second season of Trying. We were slated to go in the early fall, so let’s hope that’s not too badly affected… I have a TV idea that I’ve been working on for a while with my dad and now we’ve just hired two writers and I set up a production company. There’s a broadcaster attached to develop it. There’s a huge thirst to get stuff together for when this lifts, to get projects into the state that they’re ready to go. Broadcasters are really wanting to commission things and get right into going.
DEADLINE: After such a busy time, is any part of this lockdown a sort of respite?
SPALL: I think it’s worth saying I’ve spent a lot of my professional life as an actor sat around in my underpants drinking in the day and not knowing where the next paycheck is coming from. This is very familiar to me, like I’ve been training for this year my entire life. This is just the life of an actor, mostly sitting around.
I’m away a lot and just finished that one person show which was enough acting in a six week period to last me for a couple of years, so I’m okay in that regard and I’m just spending time with my kids, homeschooling and being with my family.
But, you know, the thing is, I’m aware that I’m in an extremely privileged lucky position to be able to get to do that. I know there is a lot of pain and anguish and anxiety out there for most of the world. My thoughts are mainly with people that don’t have that privilege.
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