By Jocelyn Noveck, AP
NEW YORK–Talk about suffering for your art.
Achieving his acclaimed performance as the masterful British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner in ��Mr. Turner�� took so much out of Timothy Spall, the veteran actor found himself kneeling down at the artist’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral when it was all over �X and crying.
��I just knelt down, had a bit of a weep, and wiped it off on my elbow,�� the 57-year-old actor says. ��It was quite a journey, you know.��
A journey indeed. Working with the famously exacting director Mike Leigh, as he has a number of times, Spall was tasked with what he calls detective work, delving deep into Turner’s art to ferret out Turner the man. The artist died in 1851 �X ��pre-psychoanalysis,�� Spall notes. ��And he never really explained himself. He didn’t want anybody to really know what he was up to.��
This meant that Spall, aside from reading everything he could get his hands on, had to learn to paint himself.
��Mike said, `Are you up for it? And I said, `All right, if this is what it’s gonna take,�� Spall recalls. ��And we just went and looked at these paintings, and I kept saying, `What IS that?’ And I realized my job was to look at this massive explosion of genius and implode it all back in, right back to where it started.��
So Spall studied �X still life, real life, drawing in all its forms, even Greek and Roman architecture. ��I even started reading about Goethe’s theory of light,�� he says.
Often, films about famous artists have portrayed them as rarified geniuses. ��Mr. Turner�� is different �X the movie, which has earned raves for both Leigh and Spall, depicts an unassuming son of a barber who simply worked and worked, all the time. Indeed, Turner produced a staggering 20,000 works on paper, and more than 300 oil paintings.
��How did he do that? Well, he just never stopped,�� Leigh says. ��He was just at it all the time. I mean it’s a phenomenal amount of stuff. This is a guy who just does it, and what he does is extraordinary. And HOW he does it remains a mystery.��
The film was somewhat of a departure for Leigh, one of Britain’s most admired directors, who is known mostly for gritty contemporary films about working-class characters. But he says that once he made the 1999 ��Topsy-Turvy�� about Gilbert and Sullivan, he realized he was ��over the idea that I was only ever going to make contemporary films.��
��I started to look into Turner having known the paintings, �� the director says, ��and once I started to investigate Turner the character, I thought, this world is absolutely meant to be dramatized.�� Turner was a man, for example, who had himself tied to the mast of a ship during a huge storm, in order to better understand the force of nature at sea �X a scene recreated in ��Mr. Turner.��