Timothy Spall: The Beauty in Bleakness

November 28, 2019
The renowned actor (and part-time painter) adds to his set of artisanal portraits, taking on another British cultural figure in Mrs Lowry & Son.

Timothy Spall has made a career of finely-honed performances, combining his unique creative approach, with painstaking research, to carefully sketch out, depict and get under the skin of his characters.

Over four decades, Spall has turned creating complex sketches of seemingly ordinary, uninteresting people into an artform, in films including Life Is Sweet and Secrets & Lies.

In 2014, Spall played the strange and renowned British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. Prior to making the movie, the performer was tasked by Leigh with learning to paint for three years before filming, as part of his research. Time and again, Spall has exceeded at meticulously dramatising seemingly ‘uncomplicated’, one-note, boring characters (who are anything but).

Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner

Returning to his canvas to craft another piece of fine portraiture, Spall artfully plays renowned painter, L.S. Lowry, in Mrs Lowry & Son.

Helmed by theatre director Adrian Noble, the film depicts the latter years of the tormented and misunderstood craftsman, who lives in a bitter, complex and dependent relationship with his mother, which obliterates all of his other relationships – and even prevented Lowry from becoming known for his art. Unable to get due recognition while alive, sadly; only at the end of Lowry’s life, critics began to re-evaluate the landscapist’s strange and poetic works.

Starring in the movie alongside iconic British thespian Vanessa Redgrave (The Devils, Julia, Agatha), the two-hander is another high-water mark for Spall and his collection of carefully sculpted characters.

We caught up with Spall to discuss playing L.S. Lowry, finding the humanity in performance, why he’s invested in characters that are misunderstood, and subtilizing the lives of people “you encounter in a supermarket”.

You’ve played many complex and diverse characters in your career. With Mrs Lowry & Son, what did you first see and respond to in the dynamic between the two characters? What caught your attention with this story?

I read the script which absolutely fascinated me, [especially] about this relationship, this incredibly intimate, unique relationship with his mother. This abusive but loving relationship. I was familiar with Lowry’s art. In my research, I looked at his works and started to see through the discovery of making the film how that relationship forms what you see in Lowry’s works. There was something more than just this industrial world of strange people in it. I always knew there was something more. The more I worked on this relationship, the more I realised that tension is in the works. He’s a man that’s been brought up to be in thrall to someone’s every need, to please them. His life has never been affected by an intimate relationship with anybody that matters. He wants to please her. We find these two characters at this point in life where he’s just about to get this opportunity with his art and he knows it’s going to cause problems. Throughout his life, she’s been so successful in keeping him and he knows that he relies on her as much as she relies on him.

It’s a relationship of inextricable mutual dependency, obsession and resentment between Lowry and his mother captured by yourself and Vanessa Redgrave…

It’s what happens in any family, I think, that reliance. You can only have the biggest rows and the biggest fallouts with the people you know the most. Because they know you the most. You can end up wanting to kill somebody. I think there will be various examples as we speak of people that grew up being dedicated carers going through the same thing. Just because you’re a carer for someone doesn’t mean they’re necessarily grateful. There’s a mutual thing where you’re a victim of your own condition. Just because somebody’s looking after you doesn’t mean you like them. That’s another factor to their relationship, the fact that he is so caring. She obviously adores him in this kind of abusive, loving way. But he also embarrasses her a bit. That’s how she controls him, by undermining him. And he’s used to that treatment. That’s his natural, genuine condition. He’s got no other mother and no wife to judge it by. And certainly, no other intimate relationships to judge that kind of way of behaviour.

I think that is the interesting part of the dynamic. It is a two-way thing. It’s such an intensely close relationship that is seemingly about this abusive old woman and this doormat. It’s not like that at all. It’s far more complex. And it’s about this two-way street, about his determination to pursue his passion, and try and get her to understand his art, because he really wanted her to, and of course she never does. At the end of the film, after she’s driven him to the point of burning all his paintings, you see a flicker of hope she might just get it. And of course, after she dies, he started becoming incredibly successful.

You said “Elizabeth is a rather monstrous character, but you can understand where she’s coming from. She once had aspirations of her own.” Is part of your job to humanise and get under your character’s skin and to find empathy?

The fundamentals are the same. If you look at somebody who’s held up as a pillar of kindness, marvelousness and beauty and somebody who is a vicious nasty bastard. Nelson Mandela and Hitler. They’re both human beings who were in someone’s arms as a baby. They were both blank pages that were affected slowly but surely through what happened in their lives. And that’s how they end up. If you’re playing difficult characters, like Bruno Ganz does so brilliantly in Downfall, there is something in that performance that I’m feeling a bit sorry for him. That’s really important. It’s really important as a human being. It’s the root, in a sense, to understanding your enemy, understanding the nature of evil, understanding how you counteract it.

I’m not saying, for God’s sake, that “acting bladi blah” is in any way a spiritual antidote to all the shit that’s going on. But it is a part of storytelling. It’s the storytelling. It’s nothing more. And in a sense, as an actor, playing difficult characters, you get an opportunity to learn this.

In this day and age, where division is on the rise, it’s more and more important that we understand where something is coming from rather than just go in and say, “it’s got to be expunged, gotta be obliterated”. We have to understand where people come from. I’m not trying to edify it, it is pure entertainment value, but sometimes entertainment and storytelling within films and drama offers a way of subtilizing these things that have become more and more just a series of very noisy, very confusing outrage, pornographic imagery that it is very difficult to find a humanity in.

The older I get, the more I realise that life is complex and subtle and there’s thousands of different layers in every single moment, and it’s enjoyable to get the chance to capture that in a story. Acting is a bizarre mixture of presentation and wanting appreciation for what you’re doing. What you’re doing is performing for your audience, not for you. All of that energy is channelled into a believable human being for someone to look at.

Did your thoughts on Lowry change during the research?

I liked him before. Before the film I went to a gallery called the Lowry Centre in Manchester, which is a whole complex with lots of restaurants and shopping outlets. But tucked away is actually a gallery devoted to his work. And I went up there and I spent a whole day staring at his paintings and really started to look at them. And then in the process of then excavating them, and bits taken and relating to things, I saw there, what the relationship explores.

At the end of my research, I ended up rating him really, really highly and liking him a lot. There was a screening for the film at the Edinburgh Film Festival. After that, the Lowry Centre, which is right next to it and seats 1700 people, had 1700 people watch the movie. Then they opened the gallery and 1000 viewers went straight to the gallery and looked at these paintings again. That’s exactly what you want the film to do. And in that gallery, there’s also 14 paintings by somebody called Timothy Spall on the wall.

His paintings appear quite uncomplicated and seemingly naïve, yet underneath they have an unconventionally unique style, these elements of complexity and alienation. Did Lowry’s works help you to grasp the intricacies of this character and this world more?

If you look at them deeply, there’s something about them. What a lot of people don’t know is that they’re actually not representational. He didn’t look at a place and go, “I’m going to paint that now”. They’re actually composites. He sketched artworks which came from his mind. They came from his mind’s eye. He actually invented landscapes that he’d been thinking about, taking them through emotionally himself, and the feelings he has about his environment and the feelings he has about himself and what he is. They are to me, self-portraiture. And I think in the same way you look at Turner, who only did one self-portrait; Lowry’s self-portrait is in his landscapes. That sense of sublime, and I don’t mean the sublime as in “what a piece of cheesecake”. I mean sublime as in the horrible and the beautiful in nature.

I think what you’re seeing in Lowry’s paintings is an understanding of something poetic, strange, disturbing, about the juxtaposition of these. These crumbling edifices of powerful industry with these small figures, these little strange figures, there’s something about his understanding of human nature and about people being in thrall to the machinery of industry, how men have been turned into machines in their environment. And also, this melancholy understanding of the bleak, and the beauty in bleakness that I’ve always loved. I just love this juxtaposition of this sense of really, really ugly architecture in the world, which if you look at it in the right way can be absolutely beautiful. I think that’s what his originality is.

What was working with Vanessa Redgrave like, and were your processes different?

We did have different processes, but you just take it as it comes. And considering she’s in her 80s, she still has this fire and this passion about doing it on her own terms. It was a real ride. We had to go on this journey together. We changed some of the bits and pieces. We had to adjust to each other’s work and we really, really got on. We did it and every day there was a scene, we investigated it, we made sure we were on the same page. So, it was a real journey, challenging at times, which is great. Vanessa can’t do anything unless she feels it’s coming from somewhere she can relate to. That’s what I do in my own way, in a different way. So, we both knew, with the director as well, and the crew, we were trying to create something that was evolving as it went along. It was a challenging, but a very, very fulfilling exercise.

You’ve described Lowry as having a seeming ordinariness. When you were growing up you were influenced by actors like Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar), Albert Finney (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) who often portrayed suburban, ‘ordinary’, working class characters. Did this inspire your career?

Yeah. I loved Billy Liar. To me, it doesn’t matter what class actors are. To me, Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins, two of Britain’s best actors, are working class guys. A lot of the actors that people assume as posh, even our modern knights, Olivier, Derek Jacobi, are from the East End of London and Sir Ian McKellen’s from Wigan. Just because they play posh doesn’t mean they are. Same as the artists. Turner was the son of a barber. The wonderful thing about the art world is it’s a broad, broad church. And when you’re involved in it, you can be working with somebody who’s the son of an Earl, or a postman or a hairdresser like me. It doesn’t make any difference where you’re from. It’s a meritocracy, you’re judged on what you do, not where you’re from.

Lowry is seemingly quite reserved and simple on the surface but has many complex intricacies and conflicts bubbling underneath. Do you think seemingly “open book” individuals often have very rich stories within them?

Of course. Lowry isn’t ordinary. Mike Leigh for instance is somebody who puts people at the centre of his films that are usually sidelined. So, he can make a simple story a profound story, like All Or Nothing, or Secrets & Lies, which is about people that you just encounter in a supermarket. And what he does, he makes their lives as interesting as the royal family. They are the kings and queens of their own story. And that’s to do with dramatisation rather than where people are from; whether they be a king or ponce.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?

I’m hopefully making a film early next year with Isabelle Coixet who directed Learning to Drive, Elegy and Endless Night. She’s an interesting character. I didn’t know that was going to come around the corner. I was working on The Last Bus in Glasgow with Phyllis Logan (Spall’s co-star in Secrets & Lies). Isabelle came to see me in Glasgow, then I flew up to see her in Barcelona and we’re going to be filming together in Benidorm. Benidorm is somewhere in between Blackpool in England, the Gold Coast and the wrong end of Las Vegas. It is this bizarre place which has appeared on the South Coast of Spain. It used to be a fishing village 80 years ago, now it’s a huge town of drunkenness and lunacy and fun. It’s an intriguing tale about a man who finds an adventure there. It’s a very interesting story. I believe it’s being made by the Almodóvar group. It’s in the vein of that world.

Mrs Lowry & Son is in cinemas November 28, 2019

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