THE conversation around racism in the UK has been inflamed once again in recent weeks — in part thanks to the actor Laurence Fox’s declaration on the BBC’s Question Time that Britain is not a racist country. By contrast, Rafe Spall wouldn’t presume to assert anything on the subject.
‘To me, it’s always been simple,’ he says. ‘If you’re ever confused about something, then you consult experts. Who are the experts on racism? Black people. So if they deem something racist, it simply is — and for you to disagree with that, I just don’t think it’s very intelligent.’
The subject of racism has come up because Rafe’s new stage project is bound up in it: called Death Of England, it tells the story of Michael, an angry young(ish) man reckoning with the death of his bigoted father.
A hard-hitting monologue, at heart it is both a study in grief and a dissection of white working-class disenfranchisement — which is all the more interesting, Rafe says, for being written by two black men, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams.
‘They’re looking at someone who could be written off as a jingoist and a football thug. They’re seeking to understand what this person is like, which I think is very profound, especially when we live in a very reactionary age, where people are at odds with each other on different sides.’
As a one-man show, in which Rafe gives voice to multiple characters as well as Michael, it is, he admits ‘the biggest challenge of my life’. But at the same time, he says: ‘I get annoyed when I hear talk about actors being nervous. Suck it up, deal with it, that’s your job.’
For all Death Of England’s serious, state-of-the-nation inquiry, Rafe emphasises that it is also very entertaining, both to perform and watch. ‘You see someone going for it and hopefully it’s dangerous, funny and sad, but what I really want is to give people a good time.’
In fact, Rafe’s attitude to theatre is unpretentious. ‘I only want to be in things from now on that I would like to go and see, and that hasn’t always been the case,’ he says. ‘I’ve been in plays where I literally would have preferred to stare at a brick wall because at least that would have been on my own terms.’
Indeed, Rafe has never been highfalutin about acting — he admits he got into it in the first place as a way to impress the opposite sex. ‘As a teenager, I was chubby, so girls weren’t interested in me, but then I did a production of Bugsy Malone at school and this really pretty girl called my house and said to me, straight up, “I saw you in it, will you go out with me?” And I thought, “If this is what I’ve gotta do, then I’ll do it.”’
Another, more profound, inspiration was his much-loved actor dad, Timothy, whose standing in the industry gave him a leg-up, Rafe is happy to admit. ‘I think kids of actors denying that’s the case are in denial,’ he says. ‘But once you get in the door, you’ve still got to do the business.’
Now 36, Rafe has carved out an impressively varied career, mixing leading TV and indie film roles — he recently headed up the BBC’s adaptation of The War Of The Worlds — with supporting parts in big Hollywood productions, such as the most recent Jurassic Park and Men In Black instalments. ‘For all the razzmatazz, when someone calls “action”, it’s still exactly the same — it’s just the coffee’s better,’ he says, of the blockbusters, though he adds, laughing, that he has spent ‘a hell of a lot of time pretending that tennis balls on sticks were something to be afraid of — that gets a bit trying.’
However, Rafe’s upcoming screen appearances are far more down-to-earth. In the next few months, audiences will see him as a policeman in the BBC true-life drama Salisbury, about the 2018 Russian poisonings in the Wiltshire city, and as one half of a couple struggling to conceive a child in the Apple TV+ series Trying. He seems particularly enthused by the latter, though thankfully he has never had to undergo his character’s troubles in conceiving. He has three kids with actress wife Elize du Toit, and it’s clear that he has fulfilled one of his ultimate ambitions.
‘It’s the best thing I have ever done and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was very sort of tiggerish in my views about parenting and that’s definitely gone,’ he says.
‘We’ve been wiping asses for near-on eight years now, but I love it and it’s defined my life.’
■ Death Of England is at the National Theatre until March 7, nationaltheatre.org.uk