Skip to main content

If you've spent any time at the art house, you know his face. He's the plump-cheeked everyman in Mike Leigh's films (1996's Secrets & Lies, 1990's Life is Sweet). He's the morally questionable adult in darker kids' movies (he played Peter Pettigrew in the last two Harry Potter instalments, and Mr. Poe in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events). He's the memorable bit player in anything requiring a vaguely creepy Brit ( The Last Samurai, The Sheltering Sky, Topsy-Turvy, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet). His bio on the Internet Movie Database begins, "Best known for his grimy, boorish, highly dysfunctional, often repugnant blue-collars." And he describes himself in a phone interview as "a big, thick-headed git."

What Timothy Spall is, is a working actor. He's 50 now, and except for a period 11 years ago when he had leukemia (he's since recovered), the London native has worked as steadily as the clock at Greenwich for nearly 30 years, since he graduated from Britain's National Youth Theatre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He shows up in classical theatre (he was in the Royal Shakespeare Company for two years) and on acclaimed TV programs - he's about to act in new telefilms of A Room with a View and Oliver Twist (he'll play Fagin). And now he's making a rare appearance as the lead, the title character in a haunting new British biopic, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Albert Pierrepoint, the son and nephew of hangmen, hanged 608 men and women for the British penal system between 1933 and 1955, including dozens of Nazi war criminals - earning him minor celebrity, which he disliked. He was an exemplar of how to execute prisoners as swiftly and mercifully as possible, by adjusting the noose length to ensure that they died from an instantaneous broken neck rather than slow strangulation. He also insisted that execution absolved them of their sins, therefore their bodies must be handled with respect.

Yet the grimness of his profession wore Pierrepoint down, and later in life he renounced it, writing in his 1974 autobiography that, "Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge." (England has since abolished it.)

Coincidentally, Spall had been fascinated with Pierrepoint ever since reading his book at age 17, "one of the first serious books I'd read." His performance is a master class in how to portray a decent man with a vast capacity for denial. "The film is explicit but non-explanatory," Spall said, as if describing his own acting style. "There's a lot of unsaid stuff that viewers have to glean for themselves: his working-class roots, his ambition and Edwardian sense of duty, being a servant of the state. Then segueing into his uneasiness about celebrity and financial reward. There's something about him that was unresolved in himself."

Like his character's, Spall's roots are working class (his father was a postal worker, his mother a hairdresser), and his accent and cadences sound it; he talks like the most colourful cab driver you've ever had. To Pierrepoint, he brings his signature talent: He is king of the slowly dawning realization. In one of the saddest scenes in a sad film, Pierrepoint discovers that the prisoner he's about to hang is a friend whose full name he didn't recognize. The incident is true, and during his research, Spall saw some film footage of Pierrepoint's reaction to it. "All he says is, 'It shook me,' " Spall said. "But there's a look in his eyes."

"Being an actor makes you understand how people can do it [compartmentalize]" Spall continued. "My favourite thing to portray, I very much enjoy that whole sense of, 'Is he good, is he bad? Are we watching somebody that we respect, despise or rejoice in?' What I find interesting about the human condition is that we never quite know, do we? We live according to all sorts of rules and things we look up to, but you never really know, within families or in society, who is a goodie or a baddie. We're always looking for heroes and villains, but often people are both." (Try telling that to the tabloids.) It is a luxury, Spall admitted, to be able to essay a character throughout an entire film, as opposed to the briefer, supporting appearances of which he's a veteran. "As a character actor, your job is to come up with the best possible performance that supports the story," he said. "You do see appalling things, someone with a small part overreaching himself, doing cheap things to draw attention, sneaking into the back of shots. As I get older, I want to sneak out of the back of shots, because I want a lie-in in the morning. But if you take it seriously - the work, not yourself - whatever the part is, lead or supporting, is as important as each other. I'm not going to get snobbish about it and say, 'Oh, no, only give me leads.' But being the lead is a joy, and a great challenge. It is one I'd like more of."

The only "truly dodgy" spell in Spall's career was during his battle with leukemia. "It probably in the long run gives you a more precise view on what is and isn't important to you, and in life," he said. "But there's only a certain amount of time you can stay profound. If you're profound for a long time, it means you never really experienced it, you're just working it, eking it out. The good thing about being alive is, you start getting petty again." He laughs. "Once you start shouting at people who don't deserve it, you know you're well."

Spall has also figured out where work fits into his "really very ordinary" life: somewhere below his home in south London, "an area that you would not accuse of being scintillatingly trendy;" his wife of 25 years, Shane; and their three children: Mercedes, 22, who is just graduating from university in England; Rafe, 24, an actor, who will co-star with his father in A Room with a View; and Pascale, 31, a textile designer in Melbourne and the mother of Spall's only grandchild, Matilda, nearly 3. "It's bloody inconvenient, though, she's too far away," Spall said. "We have a relationship via Apple Mac. All I see is her little bare bum running around followed by a webcam."

About getting work, "you never lose your paranoia," Spall summed up. "But if you get a sense that you might have got yourself into a certain position, the prospect of never working again only becomes a prospect, as opposed to reality." He laughed again, heartily. "Something comes along."

jschneller@globeandmail.com