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Timothy Spall's New Role As Leading Man


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Timothy Spall is a well-known face, not always, at least yet, a name actor. You may have seen him in "Secrets & Lies," "The King's Speech," or in "Harry Potter." Here he is, summoning Lord Voldemort.


TIMOTHY SPALL: (As Peter Pettigrew) ...The servant, willingly sacrificed - blood of the enemy. The Dark Lord shall rise again.

SIMON: But now Timothy Spall is a leading man. He has just won best actor at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his role in Mike Leigh's latest film "Mr. Turner," where he plays the great 19th century British artist, JMW Turner. So who is this Timothy Spall, now? Rajinder Dudrah is a senior lecturer in screen studies at the University Of Manchester. He joins us from the BBC studios in Birmingham. Rajinder, thanks for being back with us.

RAJINDER DUDRAH: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So, who is Timothy Spall?

DUDRAH: He's always been someone who's kind of under the radar. Some of his performances have gone understated or he's played the every man just bumbling along. And because of this, he's not really been in the limelight other than this huge Cannes award that he's just got.

SIMON: He is a character actor. What makes a great character actor?

DUDRAH: What's interesting with Timothy Spall is when you watch his performance, he's often snorting - almost grunting. Ugh, ugh, ugh - you know? So it was no accident that somebody like him gets the part of the ratty-like character Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. His face is bland, so he might be on the tube or the metro next to you and you'd never know that he was this huge star now. And I think that's really what catches you by surprise because you're just expecting him to be there in the background or just kind of being blended. That's when, I think, the extraordinariness of his ordinary persona, if you like, comes across.

SIMON: Let's remind folks of a couple of his most notable performances in recent years. Here he plays Sir Winston Churchill - I think before he was prime minister actually - speaking with Colin Firth, of course, who is playing - I guess he was the prince then - about the marital problems King Edward VIII is experiencing. He's in love with - egads - an American divorcee.


SPALL: (As Winston Churchill) Parliament will not support the marriage. And there other reasons for concern. He was careless with state papers. He lacked commitment and resolve. And there are those who are worried about who will stand when war comes with Germany.

COLIN FIRTH: (As King Henry VIII) We're not coming to that.

SPALL: (As Winston Churchill) Indeed we are, sir. Prime Minister Baldwin may deny this, but Hitler's intent is crystal clear. War with Germany will come. And we will need a king who we can all stand behind united.

SIMON: Now that's a good Churchill.

DUDRAH: Absolutely. This is a Churchill who has given stature. And I think that Timothy Spall there is wonderful at delivering those kinds of lines. That clip demonstrates his versatility. So, on the one hand, we've just been talking about the villainy of him as a rat-like character as Peter Pettigrew, and here he is taking on this big bio role of Winston Churchill. And then he does that in the full feature for the film he's just had the accolade, Mr. Turner.

SIMON: Speaking of the versatility of Timothy Spall's voice, here he's singing in Sweeney Todd.


SPALL: (As Beadle) (Singing) Excuse me my Lord, may I request my Lord, permission, my Lord, to speak? Forgive me if I suggest my Lord, you're looking less than your best, my Lord. There's powder upon your vest, my Lord. And stubble upon your cheek.

SIMON: Singing Stephen Sondheim. Some very great musical artists can't do it. He does that very well.

DUDRAH: What's coming across there is, he's almost a creep. He is literally the kind of side man, almost a pimp-like character to the horrible judge, played by Alan Rickman. So, you've got almost these two huge, villainous character actors there on the screen. And he is almost doing it in such a way that he's - I'm lower than you, but at the same time, I'm able to call the shots here as well. And he's able to sing. So what this does is it demonstrates one, his acting ability, taking us right the way back to his radio roots, his stage roots, television and then obviously the musical on the big screen, "Sweeney Todd."

SIMON: Rajinder Dudrah, he is co-author of "The 1970s And Its Legacies In India's Cinemas," also a senior lecturer of screen studies at Manchester University. Talk to you later, thank you.

DUDRAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.