By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
TO CELEBRATE THE END OF A LONG DAY OF PROMOTING HIS NEW FILM, Mike Leigh's All or Nothing, an elegantly dressed Timothy Spall, 45, is sitting in the empty dining room at the Chateau Marmont, treating himself to a $12 glass of merlot. How did the junket go, Tim? "I've said nothing but shit all day long," the actor admits, followed by an explosive laugh and a light shrug. "But, hopefully, it was interesting shit."
In England, Spall is famous. But over here, only fans of imported British television and Mike Leigh movies would know his specialty: tubby, mouth-breathing gasbags who are filled with big, crazy dreams and are equal parts repulsive and oddly touching. (If you're looking for a comparison, think somewhere between Charles Laughton's dramatic heft and John Candy's big-man affability.)
Last month, BBC America reran a Spall slob-o-rama tour de force -- a 2001 TV movie directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) called Vacuuming Completely Nude in America. In it, the actor plays Tommy Rag, a chain-smoking, whiskey-chugging, totally amoral mountain of flesh who would con a homeless person into buying a Hoover.
"He's one of the most absymal people I've ever played in my life -- and I loved it," Spall cheerily says. "He was almost regal in his nastiness, wasn't he?"
Spall has thought a lot about his creative niche. "What I find attractive about these characters is that there's a certain poetry in their lunacy. They're out on a limb. Particularly Tommy Rag. He couldn't give a fuck about what people thought of him -- he was on a personal insane quest heading a thousand miles an hour toward a brick wall and was relishing the fact. He was not only vile, cursory and bizarrely poetic in his language, in a visceral, mad, blank verse way, but also knew he was going to burn out -- which he does at the end. He dies on the beach in his underpants. A very nice image, don't you think? I don't advise anybody to be eating when they see that." With that, Spall jumps up from his chair so abruptly that he almost knocks it over.
Hey! Where are you going?
"I'm just taking my coat off," Spall explains, and begins punching his way out of his lovely black suit jacket. As it turns out, he's only half dressed-up. Beneath his crisp white shirt with the long, starched Oscar Wilde cuffs are wrinkled pale-blue drawstring cotton pants. He sits back down and decides that he's not done having fun with his misinterpreted gesture. "I'm so sick of the sound of me own voice, I'm going to leave," he jokes.
Instead, he settles in and begins talking about his performance in All or Nothing, one of Leigh's more depressing films. Even something that sounds like it should be funny, a glimpse at the working life of Spall's character -- a sad-sack minicab driver, Phil, who lives in the projects of east London with his common-law wife, who has nothing but contempt for him, and two enormous teenage children -- is decidedly grim. In a montage that looks sort of like a highlights reel from Taxicab Confessions (but without the glaring key lights and skeevily goading driver), various passengers go about their back-seat business, each of them behaving as if they're in the car all by themselves.
"People aren't really interested in Phil," says Spall, who is the son of a beauty-parlor owner, was raised in Battersea, London, and has the juicy working-class accent to prove it. "And why should they be? He's just this rather fat, greasy-haired guy getting them from A to B in this rather tacky old cab. He's just the back of a head."
Harder to ignore was one of Spall's most celebrated fools -- Aubrey Furlong in Leigh's Life Is Sweet (1990). To this day, any self-respecting, art filmgoing foodie can still recite by memory the items on this horny chef/new restaurant owner's ultimate loser menu: Chilled Brain Mousse, King Prawn in Jam Sauce, Bacon Consommé . . . "My favorite one was Pork Cyst," says Spall of the series of mock nouvelle cuisine entrées co-invented with director Leigh during an improvisation (you know, part of the five-month-long technique that Leigh uses to create all of his movies). "We actually went to a flat and cooked all those hideous things up to prove they could be eaten."
Disgusting food aside, by the end of Life Is Sweet, Aubrey has trashed his own customerless restaurant in a drunken rage and lies passed out under a table (again) in nothing but his underpants. With typical Spall flair, he turns the moment into something much deeper than a joke about a fat guy in skivvies. "If you play these kinds of characters in a three-dimensional way, the audience, despite themselves, feels a bit sympathetic towards them," says Spall. "Aubrey is so vulnerable at that point. The image I like to think of is King Kong. In the movie, everybody is so terrified of him and they want to get him killed because he's terrorizing the place. But when he's up on the Empire State Building and being attacked by those planes, as much as you've feared for your life, you can't help but feel sorry for him."