Spall studied painting for 2 years to take on titular character in 'Mr. Turner' - InfoNews

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Spall studied painting for 2 years to take on titular character in 'Mr. Turner'

Timothy Spall is shown in a scene from "Mr. Turner." THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Cannes Film Festival
December 22, 2014 - 5:33 AM

TORONTO - When acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh was 14, he plastered postcards of Picasso on his wall and immersed himself in surrealism and the work of Salvador Dali.

He most certainly wasn't obsessed with the subject of his new film, J.M.W. Turner, noting that he associated the Romantic landscape painter with "chocolate boxes and biscuit tins."

"When I was a teenager, I don't think I really thought about Turner," Leigh said during an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival. "I don't think I really appreciated Turner until I was at art school in the '60s ... and then once you start visiting the London galleries you kind of start to look at Turner as part of your culture."

Opening on Christmas Day, Leigh's "Mr. Turner" has already been garnering Oscar buzz for Timothy Spall, who plays the titular character as a grunting, emotionally detached oddball. Co-starring Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey, it also depicts Turner's conflicted relationship with critics and art buyers, who frequently misunderstood Turner's work.

To Leigh, the material was irresistible.

"There hasn't been a feature film about Turner and I thought it was a good idea to make one for that reason," he said. "But also ... the tension between this flawed eccentric but passionate individual and the sublime epic nature of what he created ... was in itself potentially fascinating."

The director — whose long list of film credits includes "Secrets and Lies" and "Another Year" — is known for his unique movie-making method, which usually involves casting from a trusted stable of actors and developing a script through months of improvisation.

But like 1999's "Topsy Turvy," the historical epic "Mr. Turner" required a bit more planning.

"Obviously this film has been a long-term project," said Leigh. "I've obviously been a Turner fan for a long time. And then after I made 'Topsy Turvy' I got the idea that Turner was maybe an interesting subject."

Spall's participation also proved to be a long-term endeavour. The actor, known as Wormtail in the Harry Potter movies, studied painting for two years to prepare for the role.

"They arranged for me to go and start learning to paint," said Spall. "I worked with this wonderful guy ... In the process, we started literally just still-life drawing, real-life drawing ... we eventually started using the materials Turner used. We eventually got to the point just before we started shooting where I did a full-scale copy in oil of (Turner's 'Snow Storm — Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth')."

Added the actor: "I still don't know how I quite did it. I've got it on my wall at home and I say: 'How the hell did I do that?'"

Spall was the only actor Leigh ever considered for the role.

"He just seemed right," said the director. "I knew he had some artistic leanings. More importantly, I knew he could do the sort of character I understood Turner to be. And also, Tim is a Londoner, which Turner was. Tim has read his Dickens, he's got a sense of period — you know he knows how to get into all that stuff. So it just seemed right, really."

Leigh's hunch paid off. Kudos for Spall's performance have been steadily growing since he received the best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

But the veteran performer is accepting the praise with a dose of caution.

"It's nice when people start saying nice things about you, but I'm still a little bit wary about it. I was genuinely surprised when I won best actor at Cannes ... I'm delighted for the film ... I'm just trying not to get whipped up in it. Although I'm playing the eponymous character, to me it's a joint effort."

Some critics are calling "Mr. Turner" the best film to date for Leigh. The director — known for his gruff, plain-spoken manner — seemed bemused by that assessment when asked about it at the fest.

"I think that's wonderful and I'm much delighted and flattered by it," he said. "Whether it is my best film is open to some (debate) ... I mean I thought probably (2004's) 'Vera Drake' was pretty good. But I don't know really. ... I've made 19 films. You hope that each one's good, but I don't know."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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