He’s like a prophet; albeit one with a lilting London accent. His words are soft, but also undoubtedly, unfathomably deep. Who is this diviner? This oracle? This great prognosticator on a conference call? I’ll tell you exactly who he is. He’s chummy Rafe Spall — and he’s here to spread the good word.
You know Rafe. He’s the one with the moustache from Hot Fuzz. No, not that one. The other one. That’s right. He’s Danny Moses from The Big Short, Eli Mills from the last Jurassic Park and the guy who got trapped inside an egg timer at the end of Black Mirror‘s Christmas Special. Know who I mean? Good. Now let’s get back to the meaning of life.
Because, surprisingly, it appears that Rafe Spall has cracked it. We’re chatting during lockdown, when everyone’s had too much time to think, and Spall has spent much of his self-isolated time (in the Cotswolds = lovely) pondering the big questions.
“I look like a fucking blancmange,” he laughs down the line. (Maybe the big questions can wait). “I’ve gone to the extremes during lockdown. I’ve done the whole 250 units of alcohol a week thing. But I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, and I’m deciding to get up and be healthy. And to stop reading the news — that was doing my nut in.”
It may not sound like the voice of a great philosopher or thinker, but Spall’s boisterous badinage can turn from rowdy to reflective at the drop of a hat. Case in point:
“But I suppose having weakness is a very human thing,” he adds, shifting tone on a dime. “I think that part of the human condition is weighing up discipline versus weakness — and we all know that, ultimately, discipline will set us free. We know that if we get up at 6AM, go for a run, eat really well and don’t drink — in the long run, that’s going to make us feel good. But also, having a booze, having a lie-in, having a few naughty other things — that’s what makes life worth living.
“I think that’s it,” he announces. “That’s the secret. It’s finding the right balance between those two things.”
Blimey. What a rollercoaster. A Spallian train of thought that began with blancmange and ended with the answer to life’s big question. Finding the balance is what makes live worth living. It makes sense. And it’s a balance Spall’s been trying to figure out for years.
For those of you who don’t know, Rafe is the second acting Spall. His father, Timothy, is a BAFTA-nominated national treasure who has made an indelible impression of both the high and low brows of British culture. Rafe, who doesn’t think the Spalls constitute a dynasty just yet — “I think if one of my children becomes an actor, then we’re talking straight-up dynasty…” — was named after a knight in a 17th Century play, grew up in London and joined the National Youth Theatre at 15.
And, despite having famous parents — a blessing/curse combo that has seen many other high-profile offspring plummet into the gossip columns — Spall the younger promises that he has stayed, for the most part, on the straight and narrow.
“I definitely managed to leap-frog the whole ‘holding up a drug store with a gun’ phase,” he laughs. “Or falling out of the Groucho Club with a bunch of wasters. But that’s just because I didn’t do that in the public eye. I did it on the low-low. I never had any desire to see my stupidity in the newspapers. And — let me tell you — that’s a choice. People who you do see in the newspapers all the time are choosing to be there. I’m not saying that to excuse the behaviour of the press, because a lot of the time that can be abhorrent. But you can opt out of that sort of exposure.”
Fame is not something Rafe Spall is interested in. True, he’s spent the last couple of years cropping up in Hollywood films such as Men In Black: International and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom — “I spent the best part of two years pretending to be scared of a tennis ball on a stick. No way to spend your life…” — but he’s never been one to yearn for the spotlight.
“I think if one of my children becomes an actor, then we’re talking straight-up dynasty...”
“Yeah,” he muses. “Any sort of fame or extraneous adulation has been surplus. And, for me, it’s just a byproduct. That shouldn’t be the stuff you go after. If you want to be good at acting, you can’t be going to big parties and getting mashed up all the time. You just can’t. All of those rose-tinted stories about hell-raising actors of the past are bullshit. Because you can’t play Hamlet on a bottle of vodka. It’s impossible.
“I definitely think there’s a balance to be struck,” he says, dropping the magic, life-meaning B-word once again. “Obviously, part of being an actor is the hijinks and having a laugh, going away on location and having fun with like-minded people — it’s a brilliant way to spend your life. But, really, what’s important is the work. And the work’s great. I wear make-up for a living, man. And I go play make-believe and mess about in amazing places around the world. And I bring people joy. I know that there’s a bunch of people watching my show right now, during lockdown, enjoying it. It’s giving them escapism — and I’m very happy about that.”
Spall’s new show, if you haven’t already binged it all, is called Trying — and you’ll find it on the newly-minted Apple TV+ streaming service. It’s the first European commission for the platform and, although there’s a lot more money involved — “and the coffee is slightly better” — the show is a happy, homely comedy-drama about a young couple hoping to adopt. Expect biting writing, laughs teased naturally from some pretty tricky subjects — and a glimpse at a London with actual people in it.
“I miss London,” says Spall wistfully. “I know that the London I love doesn’t even exist at the moment — and I still miss it. It’s a city I’m extremely proud of, and it’s just such a massive part of my identity. And I loved filming Trying in London. I loved being comedic and real — and playing characters people recognise and can see themselves in. I especially loved that it was a comedy that dealt with some very sensitive subjects. Because comedy is a very human way of dealing with difficult things.”
When Apple TV+ was launched, Spall says, Tim Cook and his army of tech-bods flew everybody involved in the streaming service to Cupertino, in Southern California’s Bay Area, for a ceremonial launch and good old knees-up. It’s an experience that the actor is still trying to get over.
“It was quite the experience,” he says, slowly. “It was mad, actually — just incredible. They’ve got this huge donut of a building and, in the middle, there’s like 400 acres or something of orchards. There’s a river and a lake — which itself has this thing in the middle of that creates a tide, just so it can sound like the ocean.”
He tails off. Perhaps Spall can’t rationalise everything, after all. He’s talking about Steven Spielberg now, who cropped up at the Apple launch — but also questioning why Big Bird from Sesame Street was also on the guest list. This leads to a head-scratching segue to the Oscars. Spall attended the awards ceremony a few years ago — “In the cheap seats,” he laughs.
“But you know what amazed me at the Oscars?” he asks. “The smoking. There’s a bar there, and people are boozing. Lots of boozing. But they’re also smoking. At the bar. Inside!”
“Is that even legal?” I ask the man who, mere minutes ago, seemed to have cracked the meaning of life. He laughs. “God knows, mate.”
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