‘It’s great!’ Rafe Spall on having a baby with his co-star in Trying, the infertility sitcom

<span>‘Will our baby be on the show? Never!’ … Rafe Spall.</span><span>Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer</span>
‘Will our baby be on the show? Never!’ … Rafe Spall.Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

As the fourth season of Trying lands, things have moved on a lot for the sparky everycouple, played by Rafe Spall and Esther Smith. Their painful journey through infertility, from season one, is long behind them. The two kids they adopted tortuously through seasons two and three, Princess and Tyler, are now cranky, wisecracking youths.

Princess, now played by Scarlett Rayner, is especially good. “It’s always surprising how good young people are at acting,” Rafe Spall says, when I meet him in a cafe in London. There’s almost always a self-mocking joke lurking in what he says, if you care to chase it down, here a subtext of: “What kind of job is that, that a 15-year-old can do?” At 41, Spall is chiselled and handsome, maybe surprisingly so if your stored visual memory is from Shaun of the Dead, in 2004, before he totally inhabited his features. He’s amazingly tall, but perhaps only if you’re expecting him to be the same height as his dad, Timothy Spall.

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But hands down the most unexpected thing about him is how much running he does in a conversation – anecdotes, openness, to-and-fro, curiosity, one-liners, funny voices. No offence to all the others, but actors just don’t do that. For the perfectly natural reason that, as he puts it, “once you’re on the telly, you’re not meeting people on an even playing field. People are more interested in you than they normally would be.” And even though he initially jokes about it – “When people aren’t like that, you go, ‘Why are people not being nice to me? Do they not know who I am?’” – he is actually deadly serious (not about actors specifically, just humans). “It’s our duty to make ourselves interesting. Someone that people want to be around.”

Trying is an immensely popular show, the kind whose season finales get written up as news stories, because everyone on X is crying. It is, as Spall says, a lot to do with Andy Wolton’s script: “A depth, a requisite lightness, but there is genuinely a joke on every page. He writes with great elan.” It has also meant a huge amount to people struggling to have kids, who so often find themselves relegated to the narrative margins, the sad barren best friend of the heroine. “In the adoption community, this is a really important show,” Spall says.

The story it has told is raw and realistic. “Usually by the time people get to the end of the adoption process, they’ve been through lots of infertility treatment,” Spall says. “Every aspect of their lives has been looked into. They might have dealt with the heartbreak of not getting a child that they thought they would get, or a child that stayed with them for a while but in the end was kept by their biological parents. It sounds cliched, but families come about in very odd ways. To become a parent of an adopted child is really no different, in the end, to having a child naturally.” Spall isn’t on social media, but Smith gets messages constantly from people saying how much Trying has meant to them.

So those people are going to absolutely lose their minds when they hear what happened in real life: “I really love acting with Esther,” he says, “who’s now my partner. It’s about 18 months we’ve been together.” OK, scroll back five years, to when they were casting Trying. “They had Esther in mind before they had me,” he says. “We had acting chemistry before we had chemistry chemistry.” He was married (to the South African actor Elize du Toit), Esther Smith was in a relationship.

Two years later, his marriage ended, which he describes with that kind of pained, tangential brevity divorcees will recognise. He was playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the role he’s most proud of. “Eight times a week, for six months. Carrying it. It was the first big play straight after Covid. So one felt a certain duty, that people had come out, brushed their hair, spent 150 quid on a ticket. Every single time, you have a responsibility to give them the best. That’s the thing that’s tough about theatre, no matter what’s going on in your personal life, I was getting divorced, but fuck you, it’s 7.30, get out there.”

Eighteen months after that, Smith’s relationship having also ended, they fell for each other. “Not only is she my favourite person to act with, she’s my favourite person to hang out with. And now we’re having a baby so it’s great!” Wait, what? “It’s my fourth child, and Esther’s first. So a lot of amazing things have come from this show.”

He was 27 when he had his first child, his dad was 26 when he was born. “My dad’s working class,” he says. “I don’t know what I am, I can’t lay claim to be that. But when I told my friend recently I was gonna have another baby, he was like, ‘You working-class people really make babies easily.’” He veers off to observe how nice everyone is to pregnant people. “Genuinely nice. You know, she went to buy a doughnut the other day and the guy gave her an extra one. And it makes you think, why not just be nice to people all the time?”

Trying is his favourite role. “There’s lots of different kinds of acting – it sounds so grand when you talk about it, you feel like such a wally – but you get parts like this where you’re bringing an essence of yourself. And it is a relief to not have to do an accent. When you do, your performance is 90% thinking about the accent.”

That natural accent is pure south London, where he grew up, born just as Auf Wiedersehn Pet came out in 1983, Timothy Spall a national treasure by the age of 26 (Rafe’s mother, Shane, is an author). “He’s very beloved. When he was diagnosed with leukaemia, when I was 13, it was on the 10 o’clock news. And that was obviously about six months after we all knew he was sick, and he was really sick; it was odd, but it felt natural.”

He’s been asked often whether he would have become an actor, were it not for hero-worshipping his father – “And of course I can never answer, but I have thought about it. So many people feel like this is not for them. Especially people that don’t come from privileged backgrounds, or go to nice schools. They feel like it’s beyond the realm of possibility. That’s where nepotism came in handy for me.” He pauses, then in mock indignation: “You know the nepo baby stuff? I always think, why am I not getting mentioned? Turns out no one cares about me enough.” (I personally think it’s because he doesn’t look enough like his dad: those nepo stories are 50% “tsk” and 50% “wow, genes, huh?”)

He left school at 15, joined the National Youth Theatre, had made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz by the time he was 21. Those green rooms were where he learned “when to shut up. You don’t want to be someone who’s not quite as funny as everyone else, trying to keep up.” The acting he recalls most vividly is always on stage. “Don’t get me wrong. Most plays are horrible. Horrible. But some of the best experiences I’ve ever had are watching plays, and my favourite actors are all proven theatre actors. Watching Andrew Scott in Vanya. It’s as good as it’s possible to be at acting.”

Every little success I’ve had, I’m pretty quickly smacked back down to earth

In 2013, he was in Betrayal on Broadway, a three-hander with Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig. “It was the most glamorous thing imaginable. They were married by then. On the opening night of that, I was looking into James Bond’s eyes, and the Oscar-winning Rachel Weisz’s eyes, and you realise that you’re all the same. It’s the great equaliser, going out and doing a play. You can see equal fear in everyone’s eyes.” Steven Spielberg was in the audience. Madonna invited them for dinner. “I thought, ‘Everything’s gonna change now.’ But then you finish, and you go for something else and don’t get it, and life has not really changed. Every little success I’ve had, I’m pretty quickly smacked back down to earth, by an equal failure, or a humiliation.” He grins.

Plainly, what should happen now is a fifth series of Trying, with a surprise baby, but would they use their real baby? “No, never.” Oh come on. It was literally created by the show. “There’s such a thing as agency. And anyway, no child has got any business being asked whether they’d like a cup of tea. Now, I used to think that the reason you got picked up in the morning and that people brought you tea was because you were important. But really it’s because they don’t trust you to get there on time.”

• Season four of Trying starts on 22 May on Apple TV+