Timothy Spall’s once wayward son is as comfortable playing a goofy sidekick as he is a psycho killer. Now Ridley Scott has cast him in this summer’s sci-fi smash Prometheus. Amy Raphael meets rising star Rafe Spall
25 May 2012
Rafe Spall turns up at Soho House furiously out of breath. He dumps a battered brown holdall on the floor and orders chicken with broccoli and a bottle of sparkling water. Sorry, he says, for being late. He’s a terribly flat-footed runner, especially in these pointy shoes. Sorry for eating in front of me, he adds, but he missed lunch and is starving. He pushes back his wavy hair and flops on the sofa. There is nothing remotely starry about Spall. He has good, old-fashioned manners, is chatty, self-deprecating and easy to be around. His plain grey T-shirt is tucked into his jeans as though to emphasise his trim torso. I’ve met him a few times now and each time he seems to get taller and fitter
‘Actors are expected to look buff these days. Even a comedian like Ben Stiller has a ridiculously ripped body.’ He glances down at a newly bulging bicep. ‘I’m working out a lot. I’m trying to do as much as humanly possible to make people conceivably think that Rose Byrne, who’s really hot, could fancy me.’
Spall, 29, has just landed his dream job as the lead in Working Title’s romcom I Give It A Year in which he plays the husband of Rose Byrne (the prissy one from Bridesmaids). Written and directed by Dan Mazer, writer of Borat and Brüno and Sacha Baron Cohen’s partner in crime, it could do for Spall what Four Weddings did for Hugh Grant. ‘It’s properly scary playing a leading man. Growing up I always wanted to be a character actor. Since 2004 I’ve lost nearly six stone and it’s taken me in a different direction.’
I Give It A Year, which he is shooting in London, is certainly a big deal for Spall. He has been quietly making a name for himself with roles such as an eccentric cop in Hot Fuzz, a creepy idiot savant in the BBC drama The Shadow Line and – becoming the supporting actor who upstages the lead – as Anne Hathaway’s hopelessly clingy boyfriend Ian in One Day. He is just as good at being the funny everyman in the Channel 4 comedy Pete Versus Life as exploring free will and death in the much-applauded Royal Court production of Constellations earlier this year.
Spall shudders as he remembers the build-up to the opening of Constellations, in which he performed opposite Sally Hawkins in the tiny Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. On press night he said to his wife Elize du Toit – he married the former Hollyoaks actress in 2010 and they have a one-year-old daughter Lena – that he’d never do another play. ‘When you do a film you get picked up in a car, lunch is free. Theatre is really hard and you get absolutely no money. But in the end, it was the most rewarding acting experience of my life. Apart from the night my mum and dad came. The space is so small you can see everyone in the audience.’
It’s tough enough that Rafe’s dad is the great character actor and Mike Leigh favourite Timothy Spall (who is fiercely proud of Rafe; he once spent almost an hour telling me how cross he still was that RADA turned his son down when he was 17). ‘Constellations is effectively about dying of cancer. And my dad… when I was 13 he was diagnosed with leukaemia and he nearly died. I’ve put that experience away in a compartment. I have completely blanked out that period of my life. My mum’s book The Voyages of The Princess Matilda, which is basically a diary of the time my dad was desperately ill, came out recently. It’s an extraordinary book, but it was so hard for me to read.’
Despite his father’s illness – Timothy has been in remission for 16 years – Rafe grew up in a joyous household in Honor Oak Park in South East London with his sisters Pascale and Sadie. ‘I had a golden childhood. By the time my dad was 28 he had three kids. My parents couldn’t really go out so everyone went to them. I wasn’t a gregarious kid, but I loved watching Frances Barber and John Sessions drinking and dancing at our house on Sunday afternoons. My mum and dad have always enjoyed life and it’s something that’s been instilled in me. I wake up in a good mood most mornings.’
Spall stares into space, lost in a moment. Unexpectedly he laughs. ‘My parents gave me unconditional love. They were completely supportive even when I mostly got Ds in my GCSEs. I was a bit naughty and disruptive at school [Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross]. I thought making the other kids laugh was more important than listening, but I was encouraged to be whatever I wanted to be by my mum and dad.’
He spears some chicken. ‘I never mind talking about my dad. I’m proud of who he is and being his son is one of the things I’m most proud of. To be constantly compared to someone so brilliant, who happens to be your dad, is cool. He taught me always to play the truth in a situation. To not show off for the sake of it.’
When Rafe first started acting professionally around a decade ago – after a stint at the National Youth Theatre, which he joined at 15 – he knew that casting directors would see him out of curiosity. To see if he was a chip off the old block. He admits that he had some cockiness back then. ‘Growing up with my dad around I’ve never been afraid of this industry. Perhaps that gives you a skewed swagger when you first go into acting. But I soon realised how important it is to be nice to people. As an actor you come from a place of ego and fear. Most actors are frightened when they’re on set.’
He giggles. ‘I’ve done so many embarrassing scenes that I’m immune to them now. I’ve done sex scenes with David Walliams, for God’s sake.’ Of course: in the brilliant TV drama Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me, Walliams was Howerd and Spall his lover Dennis Heymer. ‘I find it easier to have sex with a bloke than a girl; I feel bad for girls, it’s not nice for them. Whereas with David I was like, “F***ing come here and get in the bath with me!” ’
Spall would like to be fearless both on screen and on stage. He admires big, over-the-top acting and actors willing to make fools of themselves: ‘I just wanna see people chuck it about a bit.’ He namechecks Gary Oldman in State of Grace, Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Daniel Day Lewis in anything. Spall himself can certainly take characters to the limit – his portrayal of the psychotic Jay in The Shadow Line was perfectly judged yet could just as easily have made the audience wince – but it is his wit and humanity that set him apart from many actors of his generation.
It’s hardly surprising that Sir Ridley Scott, who gave Spall a small role in A Good Year in 2006, came calling when he was casting Prometheus. As the prequel to Alien, the seminal 1979 film also directed by Scott, Prometheus is generating a feverish sense of anticipation. Spall, who wasn’t even born when Alien came out, says he didn’t believe Scott wanted to call him. Then every time the phone rang he was sent into a spin.
Finally the call came. ‘I was on set rehearsing. I didn’t know what to call him. “Ridley. Sir Ridley. Riddles. Mr Scott.” Anyway, he said he’d been following my work and he’d like me to be part of Prometheus and he told me the whole story. Bloody hell! What an amazing conversation.’ Spall hasn’t seen the film and there have been no advance screenings save a 15-minute clip that looked hugely ambitious, suitably dramatic and fantastically intriguing.
‘I’m not allowed to say anything, but there are eight crew members on board a spaceship. I play this guy Millburn who’s not particularly happy about being on an expedition into the depths of space. And I wear really stupid glasses that make me look like Dame Edna.’ He raves about working with Michael Fassbender, who plays the bleached-blond android David, and Noomi Rapace, the scientist leading the expedition.
Prometheus may be ‘the biggest thing I’ve ever done’, but I Give It A Year will really test his leading-man ambition. Nil by Mouth made him want to act, but, surprisingly, it’s romcoms that he loves as much as any other genre. When Harry Met Sally would make his top five, while Crazy Stupid Love elicits a big, soppy grin. So, I tease, with his newfound physique he’s clearly set to be the new Ryan Gosling. He strokes a bicep, raises an eyebrow and beams. ‘That would be amazing!’ ES
Prometheus is released on 1 June; I Give It A Year is released on 14 February 2013