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Acting can be a long and winding role

Times Staff Writer

Timothy Spall once described himself as a “decent, jolly fat guy.” But the British character actor is being unduly modest. As one of the most versatile members of Mike Leigh’s stock company of actors, Spall has played everything from an outrageous chef in “Life Is Sweet” to a decent, working-class husband in “Secrets & Lies” to an effervescent star of Gilbert & Sullivan musicals in “Topsy-Turvy.”

In “All or Nothing,” Leigh’s latest examination of the working-class denizens of contemporary England, Spall creates another indelible character, Phil -- a despairing taxicab driver with two overweight grown children and a common-law wife (Leigh favorite Lesley Manville) who has grown out of love with him. It’s a heart-wrenching performance in a film that is considered grim, even by Leigh’s standards. Spall, 45, has little dialogue in it -- he records Phil’s anguish and pain through his silence and the hangdog sadness in his face.

In person, Spall is sweet and a little shy -- very much the kind of decent bloke Leigh makes films about. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, the actor recalled the screening of “All or Nothing” in May at the Cannes Film Festival. “For this film to reveal itself to that kind of chichi, chic crowd and to hear the Prada handbags opening and the tissues coming out because they were moved, it was wonderful,” he says. “He’s immensely versatile,” Leigh says of Spall. “He has a huge sense of society. He can play any sort of people. He has a sense of where they are coming from and if they are accurate.” Leigh recalled that he and Spall immediately clicked when the actor walked into an audition for his 1981 BBC movie, “Home Sweet Home.” “He particularly responds to the way I work,” says the director. “He goes on the adventure. The thing is I [say to actors,] ‘Be in this film. I can’t tell you what it is about or what the character is. You will only know what the character knows and you won’t have an overview of the film.’ ”

Working on a Leigh film, says Spall, takes about a year, with the rehearsal procedure lasting about six months. “Each actor chooses a character usually based on someone from your life,” he says. In the case of Phil, he was based on three people Spall knew. Working with Leigh one-on-one, Phil takes on a life of his own. “You start inventing their life,” says Spall. “It’s almost a parallel universe.”

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Eventually, Leigh brings all the characters together and puts them into scenes. “You log every single moment of their development and you develop in minute detail every aspect of their lives,” Spall explains. “You do improvisations, but you never get into an improvisation unless you are completely in character. It takes 20 minutes to warm up before you enter an environment Mike has set up. Sometimes improvisations go on for three or four hours. You could just be sitting in front of a television or reading the paper or just living as if you are these people. It’s a very, very pure way to put these characters in real time.”

Spall did a fair share of research into the life of cabbies in London, speaking with them to find out about their day-to-day existence. “I had to know about insurance and what you pay, all of those specifics. Otherwise you are just inventing.”

Most of the characters who inhabit Leigh’s movies, says Spall, are people others would just ignore. “They definitely wouldn’t be the center of the drama,” says Spall. “That is a unique side of Mike’s work. This character in another film would only have one line. He’d be the guy who’d pick up the star of the film. Mike chooses all of these people who are representative of most of humanity and dramatizes that.”

Spall hasn’t had any problems going from a Leigh film to working in a more traditional method. “You always take some elements of what you have learned in this process about creating multilayered characters, knowing where they came from,” he says. .

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For a long time, Spall didn’t talk about his bout with leukemia six years ago. “I can talk about it now freely because it was something that happened to me,” he says. The actor was about to go with Leigh and the rest of the cast of “Secrets & Lies” to the Cannes festival when he was diagnosed.

“The day they walked up the carpet [into the screening] at Cannes, I was getting my first chemotherapy. What happened was I was about 18 months out of work. I had to recover, I was weakened. But when I came back, ‘Secrets & Lies’ had been out there, so not only was I still alive, I had a film career.”


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