He is a talented young actor who has the career he always wanted, but, as his new play reminds him, life wasn’t always so sweet for Rafe Spall, finds Caroline Bishop.
It must be great for an emerging young writer to get the stamp of approval from Rafe Spall. He is the 26-year-old son of one of the UK’s best-loved actors, who has carved a fledgling yet already much lauded career in his own right and been described by Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington as “one of our most exciting young actors”. So when Spall says your play is “in a different class” to others he has read recently, it means something.
“It’s just smashing,” he says of George Devine Award-winner Nick Payne’s play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which he is starring in at West London’s Bush theatre. “I don’t want to jump the gun but it’s been a really amazing rehearsal period because it’s a bit like driving a Rolls Royce… [the play] demands a lot of you as an actor but it makes it very easy by giving you beautiful words.”
The script grabbed him immediately, he says. “You can usually tell within the first two pages of a play.” He may have just a few years experience in the industry but it is enough to make him a good judge of these things. “I think as an actor that’s all you have, and I think what I have learnt in my relatively young career is that if you have reservations about something before going into it, they usually all come true. I’m very lucky to be able to do the work that I’m really passionate about recently and so if there’s stuff wrong with it I can sniff it out pretty much immediately and those things I’m usually proved right on, and I have been proved right on this one; I knew it was going to be a lovely thing to do.”
So far his ability to choose good work has stood him in good stead; he received glowing notices for playing an ugly bigot in Alaska at the Royal Court, the solitary Johnny in Athol Fugard’s Hello And Goodbye at the Trafalgar Studios and pressurised son Erhart opposite Ian McDiarmid, Penelope Wilton and Deborah Findlay in John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar Warehouse. On screen, too, he has quietly made a name for himself while treading a varied path through contemporary drama (He Kills Coppers), period pieces (A Room With A View, The Chatterley Affair) and cult comedy (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz). A badly received production of The Knight Of The Burning Pestle in 2005 is a rare black mark against his ability to spot a dud. He says he was compelled to take on Francis Beaumont’s 17th century satire because he was named after the character he portrayed, the same role his father Timothy Spall had himself played in 1981. “That was a difficult play,” he laughs. “You can’t win them all. We all tried our hardest. Sometimes things just don’t work.”
“I can directly identify with what it is like to be a 15-year-old overweight child, and it’s very painful”
There was a more specific reason, beyond the quality of Payne’s writing, that Spall was drawn to If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet. In it, he plays Terry, the maverick uncle of an overweight, introverted 15-year-old girl who is bullied and ostracised from her peer group because of her size. Spall was an overweight child himself and, just a few years ago when he had already started his acting career, lost more than five stone. “It’s one of the things that grabbed me about the play. Ailish O’Connor, the young actress who’s playing the part, I find it very heartbreaking to watch her in certain scenes because I can directly identify with what it is like to be a 15-year-old overweight child, and it’s very painful,” he says in his South London accent, a hint of understandable self-consciousness making him speak a touch faster than he otherwise does. Was he bullied too? “I’m not going to give you an ‘I was bullied’ sob story because I think most kids have a bad time, because children are cruel, so yeah I did have a bad time about being fat and I hated it; I hated being fat and I hated being teased for it.”
His health, as well as his happiness, was certainly a consideration in his decision to lose weight, but he says that decision was also influenced by “the kind of career path I wanted to take. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to play the kind of parts that I wanted to if I stayed a certain weight.”
By that he means leading roles, and since losing the weight he has indeed played more substantial parts, from Frank in He Kills Coppers to George Emerson in A Room With A View and William Holman Hunt in Desperate Romantics. “That’s just how it is. It’s difficult to play leading parts if you’re bigger,” he says.
However, he acknowledges that for an example of a larger actor who has been extremely successful he only has to look to his dad, one of the UK’s most respected actors and a bona fide national treasure who has maintained a steady career in film and television since his early days of fame in 80s sitcom Auf Wiedersehen Pet. But while Spall senior’s career has encompassed a huge variety of satisfying characters – from Fagin in Oliver Twist and Eddie in The Street, to Beadle in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films – he has never been the traditional leading man.
“When you become an actor you become an actor because you want to play leading parts; I wanted to play leading parts and it’s worked out since I’ve lost the weight,” says the younger Spall. “[I’m] not saying that I didn’t work when I was bigger as well because I did, but it was different.” Spall’s early screen work included playing shop worker Noel in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s hit zombie spoof Shaun Of The Dead.
I wonder what his dad thought about his decision to lose weight. “He’s just very supportive, you know. They would love me whatever I looked like, whoever I am,” he says simply.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever shown any flair for”
The Spalls are known for being a close family. Rafe and Timothy worked together on Andrew Davies’s 2007 adaptation of A Room With A View, playing father and son, which Rafe says “was like having your best mate on set”.
Unlike some young actors who follow their parents into the profession, Spall, refreshingly, seems to feel no need to distance himself from his father. It is testament to both the confidence he feels in his own achievements to date and the strength of their relationship. “I was more pressured when I first started out but in the last eight years or whatever I feel like I’ve gone part of the way towards proving myself as an actor in my own right. I’ve done lots of work that I’m proud of. But obviously it’s there, that I’m aware that my dad is not only an actor but a very loved actor, but I’m incredibly proud of it, that’s all really. I’ve gone through other emotions with it but now I’m just very proud.”
He also appreciates the great resource he has in having Spall senior for a father. “He’s a mentor, he’s always there at the end of the line, which is amazing, to have one of the best actors of his generation at the end of the line to answer any questions you might have.”
It was always likely that Rafe would follow in Timothy’s footsteps, after growing up in a household imbued in the profession. “There were always actors around and I think the biggest thing my dad, being who he is, has given me is that I’ve never really been intimidated by it all, because I’ve seen it as something that can be succeeded in, the whole industry, you know. I’ve always been relatively at ease in it.”
His sisters may not have felt the call of the industry – the youngest Spall is training to be a teacher while older sister Pascale is a textile designer – but their brother says he “literally can’t do anything else. Lots of people say that, but I can’t. This is the only thing I’ve ever shown any flair for.”
“I love my life, I love my job. It sounds a bit soppy but I do”
That flair was revealed during his time at the National Youth Theatre, where he spent each summer from the age of 16 to 19 receiving the only kind of training he has had. “I was able to do courses and brilliant productions there and everything I learnt really came from there and I hold it very dear to my heart. I think it’s a fantastic, worthwhile, necessary organisation.”
He had intended to go to drama school, but was turned down by his dad’s alma mater, RADA. It turned out not to matter at all. He would have applied again, but when the time came he didn’t need to, having already secured an agent and, soon after, jobs at the Royal Court, the National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse. That must feel sweet, I say, but he is too good natured to agree. “It would only feel sweet if I was bitter and I’m not because it worked out lovely. I got to learn on the floor as it were and I just took a different path to other people, you know.”
Since then, his talents have kept him in work, and he is now in the enviable position of being able to keep his standards high, only choosing work he believes to be of a certain quality, which says much for Payne’s new play. “My dad’s got very acute taste and generally only associates himself with things that he believes in and that’s something that I’ve taken to as well; I won’t just do anything. I’m very lucky to be in the position where I can do work that I believe in.”
He is not being snooty or ungrateful; on the contrary Spall comes across as a grounded, humble person who simply wants to do the best he can, and he is sincere in his appreciation of where he is now. “You’ve just got to ride the crest as long as you can, because there’s a lot of fantastic actors out there who aren’t lucky enough to be in the position I am. I love my life, I love my job. I do; it sounds a bit soppy but I do.”
As our conversation comes to an end he compounds his soppiness by saying – thankfully accompanied by a self-conscious laugh – that he wants to carry on “living the dream”. It may be a cliché but I’ll let him off, because for him it is entirely true. The unhappily overweight teen who dreamt of being a leading actor has come a long way.