28 Oct 2007: The extraordinarily gifted Timothy Spall is a hard act to follow. Yet his son Rafe seems to have inherited the acting gene. Now, for the first time, they are working together, playing a father and son. Amy Raphael meets them for their first joint interview.

I heard about Rafe long before meeting him. When I first interviewed Timothy Spall in 2001, he talked in passing of his three children, Pascale, Rafe and Mercedes. Spall is fantastically talented and without doubt one of our best character actors; he is also the least pretentious actor you could hope to meet. So his children’s names were a little baffling: he explained they all had conventional middle names to revert to if they so wished. The youngest settled on Sadie while the eldest, after a period of wanting to be known as Janet, stuck to her birth name.

And then there was Rafe, named after the title character of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which his father played in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. ‘My 18-year-old son is training to be an actor,’ Spall told me then. ‘He’s about to apply to drama school. He’s a tall, good-looking boy and he’s got real flair. He got some good reviews while he was in the National Youth Theatre, after which I breathed a sigh of relief. It’s going to be hard for him: people will have expectations because he’s my son.’ I met Spall again last spring and we briefly discussed Rafe. After parts in Shaun of the Dead and Kidulthood, he was already making a name for himself as a hip young actor. ‘He’s just started on the next Simon Pegg film, Hot Fuzz,’ explained his dad. ‘He’s having a pretty good run.’

As Rafe slowly proved that he was capable of sidestepping the long shadow cast by Timothy, it was only a matter of time before someone thought of casting father and son together. Andrew Davies, who wrote the original script for BBC Four’s The Chatterley Affair, had been impressed with Rafe in this, his first leading role. When he was working on an adaptation of EM Forster’s A Room With a View for ITV, Davies immediately thought that Timothy, 50, and Rafe, 24, would be perfect as Mr Emerson and his son George: the working-class father desperate for his isolated, detached son to fall in love.

Davies may be master of the period television adaptation – upcoming projects include Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Hill, Brideshead Revisited and Middlemarch – but the 1985 feature film of A Room With a View, directed by James Ivory, won three Oscars. It has, until now, been seen as definitive. The 1908 novel, set in Tuscany and the home counties, is about Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman finding her way in repressed Edwardian England. The Merchant-Ivory cast was impeccable: Helena Bonham Carter, in her film debut, as Lucy (who can forget her impossibly small waist and Amy Winehouse beehive?); Daniel Day Lewis as her tense, emotionally cold fiance Cecil Vyse; Julian Sands as her floppy-haired suitor George Emerson and Denholm Elliott as his father.

More than two decades later, the cast is again faultless, and Davies can always be relied upon to inject a script with extra bite and sexual tension. In his version, directed by Nicholas Renton, the viewer is far more impatient for George to grab Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) and kiss her in a picture-postcard Tuscan field, while Mr Beebe (Mark Williams) is portrayed as a camp vicar. The dramatic, terrible ending, taken from an early draft of the novel, is startlingly different to that of the 1985 film. And Davies was also right about Spall and son: with his winning smile, Rafe gives George a cheekiness and subtle vulnerability, while Timothy is a thoughtful, kind Mr Emerson.

Renton says it was fascinating to work with the Spalls. ‘They’ve both got an aura around them. I enjoyed the ease with which they worked together. They were both watching each other act: although Rafe had occasionally been on set with his father as a youngster, Tim hadn’t seen Rafe at work, preparing for the role and so on. One day,’ Renton recalls, ‘we were filming outside Santa Croce in Florence and an American tourist gasped: “Oh my god! Isn’t that Timothy Spall?” But Rafe isn’t fazed by any of that; like his father, he’s more interested in craft and technique. There’s a wonderful dreamy side buried in him which came out while playing George. He gets lost in the world around him.’

Rafe and Tim (he is ‘Timothy’ for the screen only) always knew they would work together when the right project came along. They were both initially anxious at the prospect, but it all felt very natural once they started rehearsing. ‘It’s always nerve-wracking for a young actor to be around an established actor,’ says Rafe. ‘Even if it is his father.’

They were, in fact, more apprehensive of doing this, their first interview together. Tim is still wary of being seen to open doors for his son, despite the fact that Rafe is now clearly making it on talent and not by association. At the photo shoot they are relaxed and easy around one another: Tim jokes about his son being a good foot taller and calls him ‘Rafey’. They put their arms round each other between shots, chatting in familiar half-sentences.

Later, we sit by the canal outside the east London photo studio. Tim drinks white wine and keeps an eye on the passing barges (he is passionate about his own boat and is learning to navigate in Ramsgate), while Rafe drinks bottled beer and keeps an eye on his endlessly trilling mobile phone.

Tim was born to working-class Tories on a council estate in Battersea; Rafe was brought up in a big but unostentatious house in southeast London with liberal parents. Both speak with distinct south London accents. Tim and his wife Shane, who celebrated their silver wedding anniversary last year, were determined to bring up their three kids in a normal environment: no private schools (Rafe went to Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross Gate), no flash nonsense.

The house overstretched the Spalls; on occasion they were so short of money they almost sold up. Whatever their financial circumstances, the family always had an open house at the weekend. ‘Every Sunday we’d have a big lunch followed by a dance-up,’ says Tim. ‘It was almost an obligation to dance. It was lovely. Lots of mates used to come – Johnny Sessions, Frances Barber – and my brothers. Sometimes my mum came, too.’

Pascale and Sadie had no interest in their father’s profession – Pascale, the older sister, now lives in Melbourne where she runs a children’s clothing label; the younger recently graduated from Goldsmiths in London – but Rafe had wanted to act ‘forever’. He just couldn’t bring himself to tell his parents. ‘I was too embarrassed to say anything. When I was about 14, Dad caught me telling a family friend.’ Tim smiles: ‘I was flattered and horrified; I knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. Shane and I had just seen him in a school production of Bugsy Malone and I suggested he audition for the National Youth Theatre – it’s what I did after my drama teacher at school saw me as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.’

Rafe had a ball with the National Youth Theatre. By the end, he’d developed a swagger; he felt he was a bit special. ‘I was getting big parts. I thought I was pretty cool,’ he says, grimacing. ‘I’ve only realised in the past few days that having an oversized ego is bullshit. It means fuck all. All it comes down to is this: are you any good? Do you have the work to back it up?’ His epiphany came while watching rushes the other night: he is currently filming the ITV adaptation of Jake Arnott’s novel He Kills Coppers. As the lead, Rafe plays Frank, an ambitious detective, over a 20-year period. He’s having the time of his life, but he’s scared, too; when he watched himself on the rushes, he spiralled into self-doubt. ‘All I could see was my big head and all I could hear was my stupid fucking voice…’

Tim shakes his head. ‘I’ve learned never to look at rushes. It’s not a good idea.’ Rafe finishes off his beer. ‘I know, Dad, I know. But I couldn’t help it… Never again.’ It’s clear that Rafe has learned a great deal from his father just by sharing a house with him (he moved out less than three years ago). Yet he was never given a masterclass in acting, rather a feeling for acting: when he was rejected by Rada he was confident enough to make the best of it and decided to learn on the job. Tim, who had a great time at Rada in the Seventies, turning up on the first day in hand-painted platforms, was less easy to appease. ‘I’m still pissed off! But I’m slowly coming round to the idea that all the happy clappy beanbag-throwing stuff at Rada would’ve driven him mad.’

As Rafe points out, had he got into Rada he would only recently have left. Instead he’s spent the time wisely, choosing roles well – as DC Andy Cartwright, part of a double act with Paddy Considine’s DC Andy Wainwright, he was one of the best things about the star-studded Hot Fuzz – and impressing his parents. ‘The final point I have to make about Rada’ – Rafe pulls a face as his father talks – ‘is this: you either can or can’t act.’ Tim remembers the point at which he stopped worrying about his son (kind of): last year, Rafe brought home a rough cut of Wide Sargasso Sea, a steamy adaptation of the Jean Rhys novel in which he played Edward Rochester.

Tim smiles. ‘We watched it quite late, me, Shane and Rafe. I was a bit pissed, but I thought: “I can die now.” Rafe was embarrassed by the sex scenes – he left the room for each one – but I’ve seen his arse many a time.’ Rafe sighs. ‘Not in the past few years.’ Tim ignores him. ‘I don’t know how to say this without sounding egotistical, but I was just grateful. I knew what he was doing was brilliant. But I can’t take any responsibility. He simply grew up listening to me slagging off things on television.’

Just how similar they really are as actors is hard to judge right now. When Tim was 24 he’d had a small part in Quadrophenia and was about to work with Mike Leigh for the first time on Home Sweet Home, a BBC Play for Today. Over the past three decades, Tim has starred as Barry the Brummie biker nerd in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and become one of Leigh’s most regular collaborators (after working together on Life is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and All or Nothing, the director says unequivocally that Spall is ‘one of our greatest actors’). He has quietly carved a career for himself in America without ever selling out (Rock Star, Vanilla Sky, The Last Samurai).

Tim’s skill as an actor is what he calls ‘portraying humanity’. He gets under the skin of his characters to the extent that he almost disappears into them. He says that being ‘funny looking’ is useful as a character actor; it allows flexibility and also credibility. After all, many of the characters he plays aren’t pin-ups or traditional romantic leads. Rafe, on the other hand, is a good-looking boy, tall and lean. He is, perhaps, more likely to play ‘cool’ roles than ones with depth.

Adrian Shergold, who directed Tim in Pierrepoint a few years ago and is currently directing Rafe in He Kills Coppers, is not so sure. ‘Rafe has got an extraordinary actor for a father, but he’s a chip off the old block. He’s a special talent. They are both spontaneous, organic actors. They inhabit their characters so successfully you don’t have to waste time telling them what to do. They both work very hard, too. It’s no longer relevant that Rafe is Tim’s son: he’s clearly a good character actor and also a natural leading man.’

Yet Rafe had to make a huge effort to get this far. When he started acting he was as large as his father, which he felt put restrictions on the roles he could go for. So over the past three years he has lost five-and-a-half stone. ‘It was a real fucking bore,’ he says, absently stroking his muscular arms. ‘Eat less, exercise more… It had to be done, though. There are four or five parts I wouldn’t even have been considered for had I not lost all that weight.’

Tim points to his smart pinstriped jacket. ‘This used to be yours,’ he says. ‘Do you remember? It used to fit you! I think losing all that weight was a smart move.’ Has either father or son been asked to lose weight for a role? Tim: ‘No, never. They just cast someone else!’ Rafe: ‘No.’ Long pause. ‘Dad, I never told you this, but when I auditioned for Starter for 10, they told my agent I was too big. It hurt my feelings, yeah. Of course. Fuck. Too fat for a role!’ Tim: ‘Better to be slim and fit. I went up and down as a young man and then decided not to worry about it.’

Tim used to worry about a lot of things. About being out of work, about being found out as a fraud (common actor paranoia), about being no good. Then in 1996 he was diagnosed with leukaemia. For 18 months it was touch and go. Pascale was 20, Rafe 12, and Sadie had just turned 11. ‘There were periods when the prognosis wasn’t good,’ says Tim, quietly. ‘It wasn’t the illness that was making me feel awful but the treatment. Yet the only really unbearable thing was thinking about my family: what would happen if I didn’t pull through? Shane dealt with the kids wonderfully but… I just felt so fucking bad about being ill.’

Rafe continues: ‘It’s weird how children adapt so quickly to awful situations. The first three or four days are horrible, but then it becomes the norm: Dad’s in hospital. I was probably lucky being that young because I didn’t have a real sense of what was going on. I’ve got a massive amount of ambition, but I learned from Dad that this job isn’t worth taking too seriously. It’s a cliche, but life’s too short.’

For a dad who claims not to take acting too seriously, Tim has an impressive list of projects coming up: he plays Beadle Bamford in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton’s ambitious take on Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical thriller (he found the director ‘charming, personable and completely open to ideas’), and Fagin in Coky Giedroyc’s much-anticipated Oliver Twist. Rafe isn’t sure what he’ll do after He Kills Coppers. He doesn’t seem worried: he’s happy to see what comes his way.

Tim finishes his white wine. Rafe checks his phone. There are two cars waiting on the street to take them home. Tim is going back to southeast London, then on to Ramsgate with his wife to continue his navigation course. Rafe is going back to the Shoreditch flat he shares with a friend (he has a girlfriend, but will only reveal that she has nothing to do with his profession; his last relationship, with actor Alice Eve, ended last year after two years). Tim and Rafe stand on the pavement, chatting about nothing in particular. It’s time to go. They hug, long and hard, patting each other’s backs. ‘I love you, son,’ says Tim. ‘Love you, Dad.’ They kiss, hug once more and leave.

· A Room With a View is on ITV1 on 4 November at 9pm

Five acting dynasties

Laurence Fox, 29 The third son of James. Laurence plays Cecil Vyse in the new adaptation of A Room With a View. His sister Lydia, 28, has recently had parts in The IT Crowd and Secret Diary of a Call Girl

Jaime Winstone, 22 The daughter of Ray, Jaime starred with Rafe Spall in Kidulthood. Her sister Lois, 25, has appeared in The Bill and Holby City and is moving into feature films

Rebecca Hall, 25 The daughter of theatre giant Peter and American actor Maria Ewing. Rebecca co-starred with Rafe Spall in Wide Sargasso Sea. Upcoming projects include Einstein and Eddington (Woody Allen’s follow-up to Cassandra’s Dream) and the film of Frost/Nixon

Alice Eve, 25 The daughter of Trevor Eve (Waking The Dead) and Sharon Maughan (Holby City). Alice met and started dating Rafe Spall while they were filming The Rotters Club. Her next project is Crossing Over, starring Harrison Ford and Sean Penn

Rupert Penry-Jones, 37 Acted with his mother Angela Thorne in Cold Comfort Farm in 1995, but is now best known for his roles in Spooks and Persuasion. Father Peter is also an actor, as is brother Laurence