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Sixty Seconds with Timothy Spall

The Mr Turner actor, 62, on good manners, rats and playing another famous painter in his new film

What was your preparation for the role of LS Lowry?

I started by going straight up to the Lowry exhibition in Manchester and staring at his paintings for a very long time. I bought the biography and started to delve into the facts.

You’re great opposite Vanessa Redgrave as Lowry’s mother…

Oh, thank you. Vanessa’s very, very passionate about getting it right on her own terms and making it her own version of it. It was a very challenging but incredibly fulfilling experience in the end.

There are very intense moments — do you get emotionally involved?

I do, I have to ring-fence it off — it’s the character, not me. I spend a lot of time empathising and sympathising with the character, trying to feel them, become them, in a sense. I get protective of the people I’m playing, I kind of fall in love with them even if they’re not very nice.

Passionate: Vanessa Redgrave PICTURE: GETTY

Did you do much painting during filming?

Yes, between shots I was painting constantly. I went mad with it — every time I got back on the set our make‑up artist was saying, ‘Look, you’ve got paint all over your fingers.’

Did you paint in the style of Lowry as much as possible?

I did, I copied some of his work. My wife was with me in Manchester and before I’d go off in the morning, I’d leave her a note with a Lowry-type picture. Actually, I don’t know what I think about this but they’ve got 14 of my paintings in the Lowry gallery now as part of the exhibition.

How different did Lowry’s physical technique feel from Turner’s?

Very different. He had a much more limited palette, which is always very helpful! Turner is vast, very intricate painting; Lowry’s intricate but in a different way and much more concerned in a particular area. He didn’t get into Greek mythology, Roman architecture and so forth. What they share is that they created their paintings in the studio via what they assimilated — it comes through, their feelings and emotions, on to the canvas.

You’ve played a painter several times, you’ve played Churchill a couple of times — which occupation do you think you’ve had the most on screen?

Apart from being a rat?

Oh yes, so Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films…

And I was a rat in Chicken Run so I think a rat’s my thing. Make of it what you will!

You’ve worked with Mike Leigh on incredible films such as Secrets & Lies. Any moments you particularly treasure?

There are so many, it’s a 35-year relationship. The one thing that always astounds me is how we actually do it. You start with nothing, no script, and then you end up with some amazing piece of alchemy.

Ratty: As Nick (left) in Chicken Run PICTURE: ALAMY

What do you get recognised for the most?

For a long time it was Auf Wiedersehen, Pet then it became that or Harry Potter. Recently, with Hatton Garden, I had lots of guys in the street saying, ‘Where’s all the jewellery?’ Now I’ve got the disconcerting thing of people calling out my name, Timothy, in a way that makes me think I know them.

What keeps you awake at night, if anything?

I’m not very good with a lot of noise around me. And as an actor, you’ve got enormous responsibilities. Say you’ve got six scenes to do the following day, a) you’ve got a hundred people waiting for you to turn up and do it and b) if you get it wrong, it’s there for perpetuity and people are going to be thinking, ‘What an a***hole’ for the next 150 years. So that might keep you up a little bit!

You seem cheerful but does anything get your goat?

No, I’m a miserable so-and-so! I find impoliteness quite annoying. I’m quite old-fashioned in that way.

When did you last laugh really hard?

Just being with my wife and finding talking itself preposterous… saying words that don’t mean anything, like a two-year-old. I couldn’t breathe, I was nearly sick with laughter. It’s the route to lunacy. Everything becomes ridiculous — which it is, of course, but you get on with it, don’t you?

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m doing an independent movie. Here’s a good title for you: The Obscure Life Of The Grand Duke Of Corsica.

And do you have a message you’d like to share with Metro readers?

Just be kind. And look deeper into things than the modern way of pressing buttons — not everything you read on the internet is true.

Mrs Lowry & Son is in cinemas from today