Spall's well . . .
Game boys: Rafe Spall, left, and Stephen Merchant in I Give it a Year.
Game boy: Rafe Spall with co-star Rose Byrne
From reciting Julius Caesar in the front room for actor dad Timothy to starring in the latest Working Title romcom, life’s been interesting for Rafe Spall. He talks to DONALD CLARKE
If you scrunch up your eyes and look sideways at Rafe Spall you can detect traces of his father in that slightly mournful face. But few people would, without prompting, immediately identify him as the second child of Timothy Spall. He has lost a fair bit of weight over the last year or so. But, even when tubby, Rafe seemed like a very different class of actor. Ah, yes -- class. That’s the word. We’ve brought Rafe to Ireland for promotional duties on I Give it a Year, the latest romantic comedy from Working Title, but he still can’t escape the great British obsession.
It’s a funny thing. Thirty years after Tim emerged in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet he still comes across as a working-class actor. Rafe seems, in contrast, unshakably middle class.
“I know what you mean,” he says without any signs of irritation. “I grew up in an unfashionable part of south London. My parents are both from working-class backgrounds. But it is impossible to be the son of an actor and be anything other than middle class. I went to a state school. My parents would never have sent me to a fee-paying school. But I suppose I am as middle class as the next guy.”
Nothing wrong with that. Over the past decade, Rafe, now 29, has managed to map out territory in the frontiers between charming lead performer and flexible character actor. He was a bumbling Shakespeare in Roland Emmerich’s unreliable Anonymous. He was brilliantly sinister in the underrated The Scouting Book for Boys. He had a minor hit on TV with Pete Versus Life.
I Give it a Year is, however, something of a career boost. Unashamedly gesturing towards the comedies of Richard Curtis, the film details difficulties in the marriage of an apparently ill-matched couple. Rose Byrne plays Spall’s other half. Reliable supporting players such as Stephen Merchant, Olivia Colman and Anna Faris are along for the ride. Spall hasn’t done badly for himself to date. But he now finds himself staring from posters at every second tube station. Working Title Films, creators of Curtis hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, are the masters of this genre.
“We have gone right into the citadel which is Working Title,” he agrees. “We are in the belly of the beast. I have been a massive fan of those films for a long time. And they took a chance on me as an unproven leading man. People hold these films very close to their hearts. I trust I won’t disappoint them.”
Though many of the Working Title tropes are in place – comedy wedding, pretty London locations, silly best friend – the picture does veer in some unexpected directions. Far from being a cosy couple, Byrne and Spall seem, from the outset, to cordially loathe one another.
“In some ways it’s a subversion of a romantic comedy,” he says. “But, putting it plainly and simply, it’s very funny. The different approach was massively appealing. There is no clear antagonist. You don’t know who to root for. No one person is at fault. People have had different views watching it.”
By happy coincidence, Spall arrives in Dublin a few weeks before his performance in a domestic production is put before punters. He stars in Alan Brennan’s Earthbound as a lonely computer programmer who believes himself to be an alien dispatched to Earth while his home planet falls to hostile invasion.
Showing at next week’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival before a commercial release in March, the picture was shot in a snowy Dublin two years ago.
“Oh you’ve seen it,” he says excitedly. “I haven’t seen it yet. I had a real hoot doing that. There was a massive snowfall when were there and there’s no cold like Dublin cold. I can still feel it now.
“I love the city. Everyone goes a bit gooey when they think of Dublin. It’s a great place to film and there are such fantastic crews.”
So, life is busy. It could have been otherwise. Not every actor gets to flit from Ireland to the US to Canada in the course of a year. That insecurity scares away many young folk who harbour theatrical ambitions. But Rafe grew up, of course, in an unusual household.
“Whether I am an actor because of my dad or not is an unanswerable question,” he muses. “I think I would always have ended up doing this. But I think it is significant that I saw my dad making a career out of it. In my innocence, I thought being an actor was a legitimate way of making a living. In reality, it’s the most insecure way to spend your life. I had this very different example before me. So, I felt it was possible.”
He explains that his dad never tried to talk him out of acting. But, after encouraging the boy to join the National Youth Theatre, he did ask Rafe to perform his audition piece in the front room. The younger Spall chose one of Mark Antony’s speeches from Julius Caesar.
“I’m sure he would have encouraged us to do anything in life,” he says. “But that was a daunting experience. You’re doing a Shakespeare speech to one of the country’s great actors and he just happens to be your dad. If I hadn’t been any good he would have been obliged to tell me. ‘Ahem, have you ever thought about writing?’”
Rafe is touchingly keen to talk about his dad. He describes him as “his hero” and confesses that they talk on the phone every day. One can only imagine how traumatic it must have been to learn that the older Spall had contracted leukaemia. Tim was diagnosed in the mid-1990s. The initial prognosis was less than encouraging, but he seems to have come through it unscathed.
“I would have been around 14 or 15. I understand that he wasn’t given a wildly positive prognosis,” Rafe says. “But he got better, and children have an extraordinary way of coping. You tell them awful news and a few days later, they get used to it. I got on with it. I blocked it out of my mind. If we’d lost him, it would have been absolutely catastrophic.”
Rafe was disappointed not to secure a place in Rada. But he never seems to have been short of work. Look hard and you’ll spot him in Shaun of the Dead. He reappeared in the same team’s Hot Fuzz. But he reckons that he didn’t feel entirely secure in his profession until 2011. In that year, we saw Rafe in both Anonymous and One Day.
Then he was cast as the most foolish space traveller in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. That film proved to be both a commercial and critical disappointment. To almost everyone’s surprise, Rafe’s next film, Life of Pi, ended up taking at least 25 per cent more (Ang Lee’s movie is still playing) than its supposedly more commercial predecessor. Spall, who plays the writer who hears Pi’s story, secured the role in unusual circumstances.
“He had shot my entire part with another actor. I believe it was Tobey Maguire,” he says, diplomatically. “And then they wanted to go in a different direction with the character. I was thus in the strange position of being able to watch the whole film. So, I knew we had something special. Mind you, nobody thought it would take €500 million. It’s an art movie, really.”
Life has got complicated for Rafe. Married to Elize du Toit, a star of Hollyoaks, he recently welcomed a second child into the world. The couple live in Maida Vale, some convenient distance from London Zoo and Lord’s Cricket Ground. Having spent most of the summer shooting in Canada, he has had to strive to “make it work”. But he now has a 10-week break before embarking on Owen Harris’s Kill Your Friends.
For now, there is the gamble (for him and Working Title) that is I Give it a Year. On every bus, featured on every chat show (and these pages), the film is certainly hard to avoid.
“Things have got a bit more exciting in recent years,” he confirms. “I am very aware that I Give it a Year is a big deal. It’s all very strange and if this doesn’t do well, then I may not get the chance to be in a romantic comedy again.”
He shrugs philosophically. “But hopefully I will always get to do this job.”
I Give it a Year opens today. The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival opens next Thursday. jdiff.com