One day in the summer of 2020, sitting on a horse, bare chested and covered in sticky fake blood, Rafe Spall remembers thinking – just before the cameras rolled and he started barking like a dog – “Bloody hell this is mad”.
It created one of the most arresting scenes in a new series full of them. The English, which started on BBC Two last night, is a visceral, blood-soaked journey through the Old West of the late 19th century. And at the dark heart of the show is Spall’s David Melmont, a character who revels in ultra-violence as a means of taking what he wants.
“I had to work out a way of playing someone who’s a cold-hearted psychopath in an interesting way. I wanted the audience to be repulsed by him but also quite enjoy him,” the actor says. “That cliché of having fun playing terrible people is true, I really did have fun.”
The English is a revenge story led by Emily Blunt as an English aristocrat, out to find the man who killed her son, who is thrown together with Chaske Spencer’s Native American scout, seeking to claim land he believes is owed to him.
The English is a tale of colonialism and imperialism, of class and the bloodshed underpinning America’s creation story, conversations that remain incredibly relevent. “There’s no point in telling a story unless it has pertinence to culture today, I suppose,” Spall says, “and it definitely does – those themes speak for themselves.” On pressing him, he gently directs me to the show’s creator, “I can’t add more to that conversation than he’s written in the show.”
Spall’s character doesn’t appear until a few episodes in, but writer-director Hugo Blick pitched him as a “Colonel Kurtz-type figure”, the iconic character played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. The actor breaks his train of thought with a laugh, “Look I’m certainly not comparing myself to one of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid… but storyline wise it’s a similar thing. You hear about him and you know there’s this dark presence, then you meet him…”
And what an entrance it is, from intense monologue to shocking violence, but more than the acting fireworks (Spall thinks some won’t like it because they’ll see the performance as “too big”) the series also looks at series of pressing issues.
After a brief diversion about his character’s glorious moustache – “all my own work. In a 20-year acting career, one of the things I’m most proud of is that moustache” – he talks about what underpins the character. “I knew what he represented – and I cringe when actors talk in these lofty ways – but he is the dark heart of capitalism. But how do you play that? That’s a theme, not a human being… So you have to give the dark heart of capitalism a voice and a look.”
He previously worked with Blick – who was behind shows such as The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising – in 2011’s The Shadow Line, and when he received the script for The English, even before reading it “I knew I was going to do it”. It is one of several times Spall stops to add, “I don’t want to sound trite”.
Actors are really good at knowing “bits about things” he says. “You know enough to play the character. You might perceive yourself to be an expert about a subject for three weeks, but you have a very dilletante knowledge of everything. So when you start espousing views when you only know half the things about it, you come across as an idiot.” He adds, “It gets turned into a headline and you look like a ninny. Then people write in the comment sections, ‘What the f*** does this bloody idiot know about anything,’ and you go, ‘Well you’re absolutely right but at least I’m not commenting on a Daily Mail piece.’”
He is fascinated by politics (he has said in the past that he “would never consider voting anything but Labour because of my upbringing” - his parents are the actor Timothy Spall and his wife Shane; he has two sisters, Mercedes and Pascale), to the extent that “I got pretty addicted to the news, really badly, so much that I had to pull back on it because it was taking over a lot of my life, especially during the pandemic. Finding myself scrolling for hours. Now it’s less.” But even then he won’t be drawn, returning to the point about his job.
“I am politically interested, but actors talking about it and having a platform to espouse their views is strange. I do have opinions like we all do, but just because I get dressed up and grow a very fine moustache, why is my political view more interesting than anyone else’s?”
As with co-star Blunt, it’s the first time he’s done a Western. “To be perfectly honest I wasn’t that interested in them. At least I thought I wasn’t and then I found myself on the set being totally thrilled by it.”
With the extraordinary costumes, a backdrop of the Old West and a load of horses wandering around, “it’s what you imagine being an actor will be like when you’re a kid. I had that doing Prometheus, when I was in a spacesuit, and then I had it doing this Western.”
During our conversation, he has to draw on his memory of filming several years ago, as he hasn’t watched the show yet. “I do plan to see it. For a long time, I stopped watching stuff I was in, but I’d like to see this.”
Why doesn’t he watch his own work? “Things never turn out how you’d imagine them to. I got no pleasure from watching myself.” His show Trying, heading for its fourth series on Apple TV+, about a couple struggling to conceive, is one he does enjoy. “I don’t know why I don’t normally.”
Blunt, who he calls a “world-class actor”, talked of finding it hard to let go of the intense scenes with Spall, but it was easier for him. “Emily is playing a character that she could perhaps identify with more than me. I had no identification with this character, so it was easy to leave behind.
“It also coincided with England losing [at football] to Italy in the final of the Euros. I watched that game with the crew. That was much more difficult to shed. I was so disappointed, I was heartbroken.”
I ask him about the controversial World Cup set to kick off shortly in Qatar. “Like everyone I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. It’s just weird. I’m not excited as I would be by a World Cup, for all the reasons one would imagine.”
Major tournaments are normally big moments, he continues. “You think 1990, I was eight years old. I watched Euro ’96 with my dad in hospital. France ’98, Michael Owen’s goal… These things, you map your life with them.”
Spall grew up in south-east London – “I love my city, I really do. There are certain parts of this city that just make me feel excited, been though I’ve been here all my life” – as his father was building his reputation as one of the country’s finest character actors.
At school, he had a tough time – facing bullying for being a bigger kid – but then Spall found his people in drama. He joined the National Youth Theatre at the age of 15, and despite not getting into RADA started learning on the job, winning a string of roles on stage and screen.
He is often asked about the time when he was pressurised to slim down for a role, he says, and it’s something he doesn’t want to talk about anymore. “I don’t want to contribute to that anymore. People are fascinated in it but it’s harmful. I don’t want people to read it and go, ‘He’s lost loads of weight and now he’s really happy and successful.’ And they’re going, ‘I’m carrying what society perceives to be extra weight, does that make me less?’ No I don’t want that. Those narratives are rubbish, that’s why I don’t want to speak about it, I don’t want to contribute to people feeling bad.”
The English arrives after Spall’s run of 185 performances in the West End as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. “If you’re doing a long run like that it has a big impact on you. To do a three-hour show, eight times a week for that long takes a lot of endurance and a lot of discipline. You have to go out and give it 100 per cent at every show including a wet Wednesday. You do that and it’s very demanding and very rewarding.”
He once said after Death of England, an extraordinary performance in a one-man show about racism at the National Theatre, that even getting eight standing ovations a week didn’t make him happy. “We also got a standing ovation after every show of To Kill a Mockingbird too and it’s wonderful, and I was lucky enough to be well reviewed… But it’s not like it changes your DNA, like you go, ‘Now I’m complete. You still have all the same problems you did before. The standing ovations are lovely, but they don’t answer the bigger questions in your life.”
Spall has an extraordinarily varied screen career from blockbusters including Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to The Big Short and Life of Pi to Hot Fuzz, Trying and romcom I Give it a Year. “My dad is a character actor and is incredibly versatile – he was my biggest influence, and that’s always why I’ve had pride in my versatility playing lots of different characters.
“I was also keen early on that I wasn’t pigeonholed in playing Londoney geezer parts. Even though my parents are working class I wouldn’t consider myself working class by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have a London accent so I’m really pleased that I avoided that.”
He adds that he’s probably most proud of his theatre work, and looking at his CV he’s put in a string of extraordinary performances in a string of extraordinary plays. “I’m really proud of my theatre work. I know that when I’m an old man, you can never take away that I played Atticus Finch in the West End.
“When I was 15, to imagine I would be in To Kill a Mockingbird and I would have done a one-person play at the National Theatre [Death of England] and worked with Ivo Van Hove on Hedda Gabler and been a part of, to my mind, one of the greatest British plays of the century, which is Constellations… it’s really amazing. Because the most incredible experiences I’ve had watching art, a lot have been in the theatre. To have a moment that is both ephemeral and immortal.”
I wonder whether he talks to his father about acting or they give each other notes on performances. “Can you imagine me giving Timothy Spall notes?” he laughs. “I’m not only his son, but I’m a huge lover of his acting prowess.
“He doesn’t give me any acting notes. We talk a lot about stuff around the business: directors, writers, people, gossip, but the actual nuts and bolts of acting is very private, we don’t talk to each other about that. All he does to me is be unbelievably encouraging and kind. It’s as simple as that.”
Looking forward to turning 40, he says, “I’m pretty happy. I have three beautiful kids, I’m paid for my acting.”
We talk books and he brings up two he has just read on fame – Matthew Perry’s recently published autobiography and Jeannette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died, about a young starlet with the ultimate stage mum. “It’s really distressing, thought they are two really interesting cultural documents.”
He had the opposite, with down-to-earth parents (even if one is a national treasure) who were adamant he wouldn’t act professionally before turning 18. He’s never really seen the toxic side of fame. “I don’t consider myself famous. Perhaps semi-famous. I get a couple of nice people a day come up to me and say, ‘I like your work’ which is nice. I go about on the tube anonymously. It doesn’t negatively affect my life in any way.”
He adds, “No aspect of fame, status, adulation or money really, when you’re sat on your own, makes you feel good. The only thing that makes you feel good is connections to people and being kind. Those are the only things that really matter. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true.”
The English is on BBC Two on Thursdays at 9pm and all episodes are available on BBC iPlayer