‘There’s an entire generation whose first exposure to sex was depraved’
Rafe Spall grew up during the lad culture of the 1990s, and there’s little doubt in his mind how the likes of Harvey Weinstein were allowed to flourish
‘When I was a kid walking into a newsagents, there was a naked woman on half the magazines. That’s got to come out in the wash somehow,” says Rafe Spall. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Portrait
One might reasonably imagine that, as a veteran of all three instalments of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy and the star of the incoming creep-out The Ritual, Rafe Spall would be something of a genre aficionado. But no.
“I’m not a fan of horror at all,” says the 33-year-old. “I enjoy watching the silly ones; something comic I can sit through on an airplane. I don’t really like the ones that are just horror. But this film isn’t that. It could exist without the horror element.”
The Ritual was largely shot in the Carpathian Mountains where stout boots were a must and the actor racked up what he suspects is a record-breaking six layered pairs of trousers just to stay warm.
“There were bears in those woods,” he says. “There was a man with a gun hanging around in case the bears came out. I didn’t see bears in the woods but I did see a bear raiding the bins by my hotel. There were metal bars on the bin store and it just ripped them open with its paws and raided the bins. There were also wolves in the forest. And we had an earthquake. Not a place I would necessarily go on holiday. But if you want proper wilderness . . . ”
Adapted from the August Derleth Award-winning novel by Adam Nevill, The Ritual sees Rafe Spall and his old college mates head off around a hiking trail in a remote Swedish forest. Even before the gang encounter a ritually disembowelled elk hanging from the trees and freaky pagan markings, this classy folk horror brings interesting textures to a rather voguish genre.
Spall’s character, Luke, as the most childish man-child of the group, is the one cheering for the lads to go on tour, preferably on a non-stop stag party.
“Luckily, my friends are all married, because I hate stags,” says Spall. “I might get a second round when the divorces come in. But that dynamic is what interested me: modern masculinity, male friendship in groups, how those groups drift apart. My character is that sort of person trying to rekindle past glories. Very laddish. Wants to get the boys back together and go to Ibiza and have a terrific time not being a grown up. He’s a wanker, to borrow a phrase.
“And then he gets in a situation which challenges his received ideas of what masculinity means. What does it mean to be a badass? No more than being a girl is about being a princess and marrying prince charming. It’s not real.”
All the characters are about the right age to have grown up during the years when lad culture went mainstream: that terrible Britpop-soundtracked era when FHM and Maxim graced every newsstand.
“The fact that when I was a kid walking into a newsagents, there was a naked woman on half the magazines, which then led to a massive proliferation of pornography: that’s got to come out in the wash somehow,” says Spall. “There’s now an entire generation of young men and women whose first exposure to sex was depraved. Pornography is about the brutalisation of women. Those images encourage misogyny. Look at Harvey Weinstein. There are people who think women are theirs in some way. I only hope his case is a tipping point. That men realise there will be repercussions if you think and behave that way.”
He pauses, apologetically: “But I digress.”
In an industry where most men are choosing to remain silent on the former Miramax boss, it’s refreshing to hear such a viewpoint. Then again, Spall, a down-to-earth, dryly humorous, Crystal Palace supporter is not your average thespian.
His dad, Timothy Spall, had already appeared in Quadrophenia and was a TV regular on the wildly popular Auf Wiedersehen, Pet when Rafe – named after the eponymous hero of Francis Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle – was born.
Aged 15, as a not entirely successful GCSE student at a south east London comprehensive school, Spall decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. They’ve since worked together in the 2007 adaptation of A Room with a View.
“Once he ascertained I wanted to go into it for the right reasons he was very supportive,” says Spall the younger. “I didn’t go to drama school. I learned on the job and by watching my dad shouting at the TV.”
Was the surname a curse or a blessing? “It definitely opens doors,” he says, frankly. “Don’t listen to any man or woman who says otherwise. If you’re calling in a list of actors and you see that Timothy Spall’s son is on the list, you take notice. It’ll get you in the door, but when you get through the door you still got to do the business: nepotism might get you an opportunity, but it won’t get you the job.”
The tall, svelte-looking Spall claims that his weight still goes up and down (“There’s a margin of about 20lb”). He is, nonetheless, approximately 30kg lighter and only vaguely recognisable as the younger Rafe Spall, who played Simon Pegg’s chubby co-worker in Shaun of the Dead, or Elijah Wood’s sturdier hooligan chum from Green Street.
“People always ask about it and I understand why,” he says. “We live in a culture that’s fascinated by weight and weight loss. I’m reluctant to talk about it in a way. I’m a symptom of that culture. I used to be fat and then I got thin and got successful. What message does that give? A bad one.
“I had an idea in my mind that I wanted to pay lead parts. And I worked toward that. If you have a certain body shape, you get cast as characters who have that body shape. And I had to lose some weight to broaden the range of parts that were available to me. And it was bloody hard work.”
That transformation has, despite his own reservations, paid off, with leading romantic parts and Hollywood call-backs. A family man, he has three kids and got married to the former Hollyoaks star Elize du Toit in 2010. To date, Spall has featured in such big studio properties as The Life of Pi, Prometheus, Steven Spielberg’s BFG, and The Big Short. Next year he’ll be wrestling dinosaurs in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
“Do you know what? The work in front of the camera is exactly the same. If doesn’t matter if you’re freezing in the Carpathian Mountains or in front of a dinosaur puppet. The only thing is that the coffee is a lot better with the dinosaurs.”
The Ritual is on general release -
FIVE BEST FOLK HORROR FILMS
Folk horror is (appropriately) the genre that won’t die. Scary stories that come out of the land have been with us forever. Here are five that matter.
THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)
Ingmar Bergman’s nasty drama sees a good man taking revenge on passing thugs for the murder of his daughter. Inspired Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. Yes, it is horror.
BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971)
Compiled from two interlinked tales, Piers Haggard’s great, weird classic imagines Satan oozing up through the soil in the aftermath of the English Civil War. Bad sex. Nasty rites.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968)
KILL LIST (2011)
Ben Wheatley pulled apart the British folk horror tradition in this tale of a hit-man being lured into a rural cult.
THE WICKER MAN (1973)