Timothy Spall has the kind of face you don't always see on the movie screen every day. The sandy-coloured hair on a round head, the jowls, the sloping chin, deep-set sad eyes under bushy brows. In person, he looks smaller, with a garden-gnome roundness. Today, he's dressed in a pinstripe suit jacket, high-waisted blue jeans and is wearing a mouse-sized brown mustache on his upper lip.
"It's for a role," he explains, without being asked. "A seventies part I'm playing. Sort of goes with a comb-over. I don't go for this American Hustle look all the time."
No matter. You can't disguise Timothy Spall. Among his more famous roles are the wizard Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail, in the Harry Potter films, Beadle in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Winston Churchill in The King's Speech.
The 57-year-old actor is one of England's consummate character players, a beloved national figure who has earned an Order of the British Empire, and starred on a reality show in which he and his wife sailed his 50-foot barge around England.
But his latest role, in Mr. Turner, his seventh collaboration with director Mike Leigh since 1981, is the role of a lifetime. A tour de force of tragic-comic acting, Spall plays Turner as a man portrayed as having the form and social graces of a gargoyle and the burning soul of an angel.
The role earned Spall a well-deserved best actor prize at Cannes last May, an event that had a particular personal meaning for him.
"I'm quite superstitious and spiritual about all this," he says. "Cannes was a wonderful sense of a chapter coming to a close. Turner had been a long haul, five years, and a massive group effort. The way Mike works, you make it together, doing your own research and bringing it to the final script. It's a bit like giving birth to yourself."
For Leigh, it was something of a resurrection.
Raised in a working-class home (hairdresser mom, postal worker father) in Battersea, Spall got his first taste for acting in an amateur production of The Wizard of Oz where he played the Cowardly Lion. He went on to the National Youth Theatre, which led to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and on to the Royal Shakespeare Company. He earned national attention in England in an ITV series, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (in the early eighties) about a group of English bricklayers in Germany.
In 1996, Spall was a key member of the ensemble Leigh drama, Secrets & Lies, as a mild-mannered photographer who delivers the film's defining speech: ("Secrets and lies! We're all in pain! Why can't we share our pain?") The film won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, European film of the year and went on to earn five Oscar nominations.
Spall, then 39, wasn't there to celebrate. "What happened was two days before we were due to go to Cannes, I had everything I needed and the suit and all that; I hadn't been feeling well and thought I'd better get it checked out. I was doing a big commercial at the time and I was in my trailer and I got a phone call from my doctor saying I'd better come in. I said, I can't – just tell me what it's about. And he said: 'I'm sorry old boy. You've got leukemia.' I said: 'Two questions: Am I going to die? And if not, is it going to screw up my career?'"
The doctor told him that there were "wonderful things" that could be done nowadays, and as for the career, that was up to Spall. Shortly after, he found himself with a tube inserted in his chest for his first dose of chemotherapy as he watched on a hospital television as Mike Leigh and the rest of the cast walked up the red carpet at Cannes.
"And I thought to myself: 'Well, life can be ironic, can't it?' But apart from all the concomitant joys and horrors that go with all this, because of the way the film succeeded, and the fact that I had the audacity not to die, I found myself with a film career."
It was two years before he returned to work. The parts have been frequent and varied: Vanilla Sky, The Last Samurai, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and a rare leading role in Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.
"I've never been a snob about my career. I've spent a lot of time playing supporting characters, but to play a lead, the eponymous character, was something. Mike has always given the best shots for the most unlikely characters. That was true of Dickens and of Shakespeare. The profundity of tragedy creates a sense of the absurd."
He pauses a moment, remembering back 33 years ago. In fact, a lot of things happened 33 years ago. That was the year he met his wife, Shane. It was the year he first worked with Mike Leigh, to whom he serves as a kind of alter ego. And it was the year he tended to his father at his deathbed.
"When my father died in our house, there was a knock at the door and then a whistle and a cheery voice: 'Hello! Milkman!' At that moment, my mom was putting my dad's ring on my finger, and she said: 'Can you come back later?' And the voice said: 'Right-O.' It was like a Monty Python routine.
"But that's the thing, isn't it? Tragedy and comedy, the beauty and the horror, are very close. For Turner, the sublime was about the futility of man's existence and our deep connection to nature. Nowadays, we say 'sublime' to a nice piece of cheesecake."