Timothy Spall: ‘Cockroaches in your mouth and a bucket of leeches – that’s when you know you’re in a Ken Russell movie’

I’ve heard there’s a module at Rada about becoming the embodiment of an animal. Legend has it you were incredible and people would strive to witness it. What animal were you and what process did you go through? spikeboy

I remember I wasn’t that particularly keen on it, so I think I was a sloth so I could just curl up in the corner and pretend I was on a tree and just shift up a bit every 20 minutes. We had a wonderful teacher but I’d had enough of some of the more modern dance stuff, so I used the animal thing as an exercise in having a bit of a kip.

We really enjoyed the Turner and Lowry films. Did you learn to paint in both of their styles? Which famous British painter might you like to play next? Rextanka1 and DarkAnaemicI

I started painting a couple of years before we even started rehearsing Mr Turner. I had this excellent teacher, Tim Wright, and painted a complete reproduction of one of Turner’s masterpieces that I have on my wall and still can’t quite work out how I did it. It wasn’t until I played Lowry [in 2019’s Mrs Lowry & Son] that I started painting a lot. I couldn’t stop painting between takes. I was doing slightly bad Turners, slightly bad Lowry knockoffs, then all of a sudden I started painting but couldn’t work out who it looked like, and realised it was me. I had my own exhibition last year [at London’s Pontone gallery], which was a massive surprise. So, life imitating art.

William Blake would be a hell of a role because he wasn’t only an artist but a philosopher, a Christian mystic, and an amazing character. There are so many artists, but I’ve had enough trouble with rats. I’ve played a few of those [Scabbers in Harry Potter, Nick in Chicken Run, and in the Mike Leigh play Smelling a Rat]. I’ve played Churchill twice [in Jackboots on Whitehall and The King’s Speech]. So I’m your man for artists, Churchill or rats.

Do you take on a role like that of hangman Albert Pierrepoint (for the 2005 film Pierrepoint) with an accepted measure of risk, or are you confident you can handle the psychological burden? rolleyes

I was confident in as much as that, as an actor, you’re always playing someone else. You’re delving into somebody else’s psychology to tell their story. As a young man, I’d read his autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint, and was struck by the mixture of jolliness, politeness and darkness. So I knew there was something very unusual about this man. One of the first people I had to hang happened to be one of my son [actor Rafe Spall]’s really good friends, who had been staying at ours with his girlfriend. They set up this reproduction of the gallows in the execution room from Wandsworth prison. There were so many people coming in, I’d say: “Good morning, how’s it going? I’m gonna hang you in a minute,” and I had to hang him in the first week. So that was bizarre.

When we went to Norfolk to recreate Germany’s Hamelin jail, I had to drop about 15 people in an afternoon. Pierrepoint was mindful to show respect to the bodies, and would clean and wash them afterwards, so he wasn’t just knocking them off. He took it seriously, as he does in the film.

What are your memories of Danny Boyle’s 2001 TV film, Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise? conor_boyd

That was Danny Boyle trying out his new style with cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle. We had 14 cameras in the car, I had a camera attached to me, so it was a real experiment. I played this really out-there character: vile and vulnerable, Bernard Manning meets Steve Jobs. He was: sell, sell, sell, and would never shut up. And at one point I had to say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious backwards. It was bloody hard work, but I loved doing it.

I’d nearly forgotten how completely crazy, bonkers and inventive 1986’s Gothic is. What was Ken Russell like to work with? GasparGarcao and TheFall2007

Ken Russell was actually very together and organised, given that he hd a reputation of being this extraordinarily wild man. I remember coming to rehearsal and him saying: “This is where we find you dead. Here’s the art director to discuss the cockroaches coming out of your mouth.” I said: “Excuse me? The cockroaches come out of my mouth? There is no way I’m going to have cockroaches coming out of my mouth.” They ended up using a plaster cast of my face. We also had a leech wrangler with this huge bucket of leeches. Ken freaked out and tucked his jeans into his socks because he thought one was going to crawl up his leg. One minute you’ve got cockroaches crawling out of your mouth, the next you’re working with a bucket of leeches. That’s when you knew you’re in a Ken Russell movie.

I remember you as the idiot boy in Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC back in the 70s. You stole the show. Given the chance, which role would you play these days? jimboy63

Yes, as Peter Simple! If I ever went back to the RSC – which is highly unlikely – I’d like a crack at one of the old kings. At 65, I think my Hamlet days are probably over – Hamlet is 33 – but Ian McKellen just played Hamlet at 82 as a great success, so it can be done. I suppose all actors harbour this unreasonable and slightly preposterous desire to have a go at King Lear, as you have to be invariably old to play him. It’s one of the largest parts in all written drama, so enormously challenging. I’d probably have a crack at that, but I don’t harbour any ambitions to return to the theatre.

I’m worried that I may be living in a computer simulation. Are there any clues, blatant or otherwise, that might help me determine whether I am, in fact, a soulless algorithm going through the motions in the game of some vastly superior intelligence? randomlexis

Um, no I think is the answer to that. But you can never be sure! It’s bizarre, I’m only in one scene in one episode of Red Dwarf, but I was in all 40 episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. It’s a bit like Harry Potter. I’m only in about 15 scenes in total, so I’m hardly in that, either. It just goes to show you don’t always have to play the lead to be remembered.

Which Mike Leigh film that you’re not in would you have liked to have? vammyp

Probably Nuts in May, the brilliant 70s TV film, that’s really a Play for Today. It is one of the funniest, most brilliant Mike Leigh films of all time and I recommend it to anybody.

One of my favourite ever scenes is the barbecue in Secrets & Lies because of the complex choreography. How much rehearsing was needed, and how many takes did it, er, take? boavisteiro

It was very precise. The thing with Mike Leigh is there’s a misconception that it’s all improvised. It’s not. It’s worked out to absolute precision; you are never going to be more rehearsed. I kept having to cut into a steak. We did about 15 takes and they ran out of steak, so they had to stitch these steaks together, and when I cut into it, it had all these stitches, like it had had an operation. It was absolutely disgusting!

I met you when you came to see Rafe perform in my play, Death of England, at the NT in 2020. Have you ever been tempted to give Rafe acting notes? Does he give you any? RoyWilliams

We give each other moral support, but I’ve never given him an acting note and he’s never given me one. He grew up with me shouting at the television: that’s been his lesson. You can’t talk to someone about how to act; it’s something that you learn in rehearsal.

Is acting talent hereditary? I presume. A lot of sons and daughters of actors become actors; the same with painters. Look at all the Dutch, there’s the “generation patch” between older and younger workers. It’s to do with the atmosphere you’re born into. Pierrepoint chose to be a hangman because it was in his family. Had I been a hangman in real life, would Rafe have been one too? Who knows, apart from the fact that we mercifully haven’t had the death penalty since 1961, so we wouldn’t have got much work!

If you could meet Shakespeare, what would you ask him? alexHD

My mind boggles at his genius. His unbelievably prophetic and philosophical poetry touches everybody. Not only is he a great playwright, but he said things in two lines that philosophers are still trying to explain.

So I would like to ask him what he makes of everybody trying to tell him it wasn’t him. So many people say: how can it have been, when he came from this lowly background? He probably had a Midlands accent, he wasn’t an aristocrat. I’d say: “You might have thought you were underestimated when you were alive, but things haven’t changed much, mate.”

Who would you like to play you? BobWoodturn

I would say Rafe, but he’s a foot taller than me. Having just done Hamlet, Sir Ian McKellen could play the younger me, why not? I’ve played Margaret Rutherford, so it wouldn’t even have to be a man. Glenda Jackson played King Lear and she’s 80!

As an actor, whatever you play, whatever you do, even if you spend your entire life playing one character, you play other people. That’s what you devote your life to: playing characters in stories that people can hopefully enjoy. One thing you can be absolutely sure of is that you’ll never know your personal essence. You have no idea how you come across to everybody else. I wouldn’t be able to cast myself. I wouldn’t know. It’s open to anybody, any age, any sex. It depends on the interpretation, the format, so I would happily hand it over. Hopefully they’d want to consult me, but they might not even want to do that. It might even be a musical! But it’s down to the artist’s choice, so I’m certainly not going to pursue it.

• It Snows in Benidorm is in UK cinemas now