Timothy Spall: What I've Learned

"If I can’t get hold of someone I love, I’ll assume they’re being tied to a radiator by al-Qaeda rather than their battery’s run out. I’m quite a worrier."

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I was destined to be a character actor. At the age of eight, I did a play at primary school called The Witches’ Convention, which the headmaster wrote. I played an irascible old gentleman. I didn’t even know what that meant until I was 32.

I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel at all famous. I feel like somebody who needs to go to the toilet and have a wash.

Funnily enough, I don’t eat very much. I’m like one of those Victorian people. You see pictures of slums, you know that nobody’s got any food, but there’s always a fat person there. You think, “Are they eating the cats or something?” I consider myself quite healthy if I stay about three stone overweight. It’s just the way you’re made.

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Your best friends are the people you can fart in front of. I fart quite a lot. Then again, everybody does. They just pretend they don’t.

Have I ever appeared nude on screen? No. I was once asked to do that by Ken Russell but I didn’t want to. There’s a physical thing that happens to my knob when I’m nervous – it goes away, off on holiday somewhere else. And there’s nothing like sitting there naked in front of 40 people to make you nervous.
When you’re doing a film, your agent and manager spend hours – days – talking about contractual obligations. If you turn up for work and ask for a peeled grape on top of foie gras but you don’t get it, you can’t get annoyed. You just ask, “When you were doing the contract, was there anything about nouvelle cuisine? No? All right, then.”

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My favourite smell is a blooming privet hedge, which some people find disgusting because it’s got a slight odour of piss about it. They have this incredible musk that speaks to me of old England and new England. You can find it on council estates and you can find it in the squares in Belgravia. That ­– and bacon – I quite like.

Eccentricity is usually owned by middle-class and upper-class people. If you are working class and eccentric, then you’re just mad.

I’m very good at leaping to the most disastrous possibility. If I can’t get hold of someone I love, I’ll assume they’re being tied to a radiator by al-Qaeda rather than their battery’s run out. I’m quite a worrier.

I had a very ordinary childhood. When I was born, my dad was a scaffolder and my mum worked in a chip shop. Then my mum taught herself how to be a hairdresser and ended up with her own salon; my dad became a postman and then a counter clerk. Our first house didn’t have a bathroom. We were rehoused in 1968 from a London terraced street to a tower block. My mum thought it was great because it had a bath and central heating, which was on full blast all the time. I spent my youth in my underwear because it was so hot.

Politeness and kindness are a currency. If it’s misused it can be ingratiation, or it can be used to hoodwink people; if it’s genuine, it’s there as a form of exchange to make the world a better place.

I don’t know what God is but I believe in something. I talk to the voice within and I like to think that connects to something bigger.

To defeat your enemy, you’ve got to understand them.

I was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1996. I was pretty sure that it was a death sentence so I have definitely had a peek over the parapet. When you’re ill, you’re in a state of profundity; when you start to be a bit petty and unreasonable it means you’re getting better. Sitting and staring at a tree thinking, “That’ll do,” tends to go away when you’ve got life to get on with.

Women look at men differently to how men look at women. They have more of a tendency to be interested in the person rather than the looks. I remember somebody saying to me, “Yeah, he wasn’t particularly handsome. He was charming, made me laugh, but when he turned around there was just a vulnerability to the back of his neck that broke my heart. I had to have him.” That’s what’s interesting; there’s carnality but it’s connected to emotion.

Tom Cruise is a very amiable fellow. All these guys that have been at the top for years – Tom, Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood – they work bloody hard. I wish I could report that these amazing actors I’ve worked with are arseholes masquerading as nice people but they’re not; they’re genuinely nice people. The arseholes tend to be the ones that are either on the way up or on the way down. That’s because they’re scared.

We’ve had some very unusual dogs.There was an Irish Wolfhound, which was so big that when it came in the room you couldn’t watch the television. Another one was a bulldog called Nelly. We had to give her away because she couldn’t swim, so I was forever grabbing her out of canals.

Sometimes I can’t listen to Grace by Jeff Buckley because it’s too affecting. The amount of feeling he gets into it, the poetry, the storytelling and the beauty of his voice... it reaches across the generations. He sounds like some magical minstrel. That and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas are two of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

Timothy is my name. I’m known as Tim. My nearest and dearest are allowed to call me Timmy. As long as it isn’t, “Oi, you fat cunt,” I don’t really mind. 

Mr Turner is out on 31 October


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