There's acting and then there's losing yourself to a role. Timothy Spall came very close to the latter in bringing legendary British painter J.M. W. Turner to the screen for Mike Leigh's latest, "Mr. Turner," which recently world premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
The biopic marks Leigh's first one in 15 years, following 1999's "Topsy-Turvy," in which Spall, a Leigh regular, played a supporting role. As Spall told Indiewire at Cannes this morning, Leigh first approached him about the project seven years ago. Four years later, Spall found himself "walking around London, feeling a bit enigmatically depressed as actors often do," when to his surprise he sat at a pub where he happened upon a placard that said the establishment marked the place where Turner was born in 1775. Spall called up the filmmaker immediately, and Leigh in turn told him to start prepping for the shoot, which wouldn't occur for another three years. Leigh's first order of instruction: learn how to paint.
Because Leigh has his actors improvise while on set, he's always one to demand a lot of his cast; Spall recalled learning how to properly use a camera as a professional to play a wedding photographer in Leigh's 1996 Palme d'Or winner "Secrets & Lies."
"Obviously I can't paint like Turner," Spall said. "I can paint like he did when he was nine. If you look at his paintings from when he was nine, they're not bad! [Laughs] Mike wanted it look like I've been holding a brush since I was two."
For "Mr. Turner," Spall took an art foundation course, followed by a fine art course with a private instructor. By the end of his training he was at a position where he could copy a full Turner painting in oil, which he did (the painting in question is titled "Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth").
"All my work is rife for an exhibition on how to prepare," Spall said
The actor also read countless books on the man over the three year prep period, to a point where he said he could synthesize everything to understand what made Turner "tick." "It was a bit like building your own Frankenstein," he said. "I had a massive responsibility.
Like Mary Shelley's famous scientist, Spall said the project overtook him at one point. The actor recalled a "rather frightening weekend" in the early stages of his preparation phase, where he entered a pub and started speaking like Turner to the barman. "I grunted in a Georgian way, 'Are you a provider of wine?' I had to go lean against a wall and take a deep breath to go back and ask, ‘Can I have a glass of Pinot Grigio?'" During our interview, Spall confessed to still being a "little bit stuck inside the character."
"This is the only time in my life when the character had bled into me, and I think that's because I knew I had to do this for the character."
For Spall, the intense process paid off. His performance is one of the most lauded of Cannes thus far, making him an early front-runner for an award from Jane Campion's competition jury. Of course along with that comes Oscar-buzz, something Spall's aware of, and admittedly excited for.
"If it comes up, I'll have a go," he said. "Someone's got to win one. Actors always say, 'Oh, competition shouldn't be a part of art.' Bollocks! They're a part of everything."