Rafe Spall: ‘It gets on my nerves when actors say they’re nervous – put a sock in it’

Rafe Spall: ‘I’ve still got the same heart. The same soul. The same views. Regardless of what my f***ing waist size is’ (The Other Richard)
Rafe Spall: ‘I’ve still got the same heart. The same soul. The same views. Regardless of what my f***ing waist size is’ (The Other Richard)

Rafe Spall is stalling. He’s got a one-hour window between rehearsals for To Kill a Mockingbird, but for reasons that will soon become clear, he doesn’t really want to talk about the play. “Did you grow up in London?” he asks, dipping an egg sandwich into chicken soup, leaning forward so as not to drip on his blue three-piece suit. “When’s your birthday?” He takes a bite. “You gonna have a party?” Another dip. “Where did you go to uni? What was your X Factor-watching boom period? We’re talking Little Mix, right?”

The actor is so instantly likeable, I find myself going along with it. If you’ve seen I Give It a Year, the 2013 romcom that supposedly transformed him into leading man material (we’ll get to that later), or the wonderful Apple+ comedy series Trying, in which he plays a happy-go-lucky Londoner trying to adopt a baby, you’ll know the cheeky, slightly geezer-ish charm I mean. He is more sharply dressed than either of those characters, though – so sharp that I assume he’s in costume, until I email later to check and it turns out he just enjoys a nice suit. By the time he’s explaining to me why “perhaps the greatest ever X Factor performance was when James Arthur did ‘No More Drama’ by Mary J Blige”, I realise I’m going to have to put a stop to this. We need to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird.

You’ll be familiar with the book, even if you haven’t read it. As Spall puts it, a note of trepidation in his voice, “you could go out in the street and 99 out of 100 people would say they’ve heard of Atticus Finch”, the small-town lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of rape in Harper Lee’s venerated 1960 novel. Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation began life on Broadway, and is now transferring to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre, with Spall taking over the lead role from Jeff Daniels. In his mind, though, the definitive portrayal of Finch is Gregory Peck’s in the Oscar-winning 1962 film. “I’m worried people are expecting some sort of Gregory Peck type,” he says, “’cause I’m not. So getting past that, like, getting past the idea, that sort of worry, that people will be disappointed…” He trails off. If he’s anywhere near as good as his last stage role – in the one-man play Death of England, in which he played a working-class white man grieving the death of his racist father – then we’re in safe hands. In that, he gave such a devastating, at times demonic performance that he ended up shaking, staggering, red in the face, sweat pouring down his head. The reviews were glowing.

I ask why Sorkin’s adaptation resonates now, 60 years after the book came out. Spall makes a game attempt at answering. “This play was on Broadway pre and post the killing of George Floyd,” he begins. “And I think it now has an added significance. This is a play about race. It’s obviously set in America, a country defined by it. And it’s really not…” He stops. Sighs. Puts down his sandwich. “I could bore on about politics and social relevance and s***,” he says, “but not only is that boring, inelegant and cringy, but it isn’t my job. People are gonna come and see this play because they want to see this brilliant adaptation of this masterpiece novel, not ’cause they wanna know what Rafe Spall thinks about race relations.”

The 38-year-old – he turns 39 on the night of the play’s first preview – is not fond of discussing the acting process, either. “It’s quite difficult to talk about acting without sounding earnest,” he says with a grimace, “and it’s tough for me ’cause I’m allergic to earnestness.” Really? “Yeah, everyone is. It’s desperate, innit? It’s desperate. It’s terrible.” Does he ever get nervous before going on stage? He smiles. “Another thing that gets on my nerves – it’s becoming a theme now – is actors talking about how nervous they are.” He puts on a mock-posh accent and turns down the corners of his mouth. “‘I’m terrified, I’m so terrified.’ Put a sock in it! That’s your job.”

Maybe Spall’s pragmatic attitude to acting is because his dad’s in the same profession. At the start of his career, Spall’s name was usually prefaced with “Timothy Spall’s son” – his dad was in everything from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet to Harry Potter – though I would argue that Spall junior is just as famous, if not more, these days. “For most interviews I’ve ever done,” says Spall, “people wanna know about my famous dad, and they wanna know about my weight loss. I don’t begrudge people it.” He shrugs. “It’s all in the game.”

The weight loss seems to be a particular obsession. Preparing for this interview, I come across the same narrative again and again: it was only after slimming down that Spall found true success. After being rejected from Rada as a chubby teen and deciding to learn on the job instead, Spall landed small parts in “loads of things people have never seen”, which led to small parts in things people have seen: he was Simon Pegg’s dopey colleague, with his half-tucked shirt and skew-whiff tie, in 2004’s Shaun of the Dead; a snivelling broker picked on by Russell Crowe in A Good Year; an idiot provincial cop who sniggers at the word “skidmarks” in Hot Fuzz; a bullied girl’s older brother, who asks Noel Clarke to “give me one f***in’ reason why I shouldn’t blow your head off”, in Kidulthood; and a socially awkward aspiring sports journalist in the Channel 4 sitcom Pete versus Life.

Pamela Nomvete and Rafe Spall in rehearsals for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (The Other Richard)
Pamela Nomvete and Rafe Spall in rehearsals for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (The Other Richard)

He probably would have continued what was already an upwards trajectory, but it just so happened that in 2013, after being pressured by a film studio to lose weight, he landed a role as Rose Byrne’s new husband in the raucous romcom I Give It a Year. From there came lead roles in Black Mirror, The Life of Pi, Prometheus, Men in Black and Jurassic World. As one publication put it, he went from being “the go-to man for feckless losers” to “a lean, mean, six-packed machine”. Other interviews tell the same story. His weight “ballooned” before his “reinvention as a romantic lead”. He was “more character actor than romantic lead material – make that fat character actor” until he lost the weight. Now he’s “less fat boy more dashing leading man”. But doesn’t it play havoc with his self-esteem, having his past self so frequently fat-shamed in the press – even if it did happen when he was no longer big?

“It’s all wrong,” he says quietly. “It’s terrible.” The air in the room has shifted. That cheeky, cynical Spall has gone. “I feel bad every time I’ve ever contributed to that narrative by talking about my weight loss as being extremely positive. It’s a harmful narrative. It’s hurt me. And it hurts others. Anyone reading that with any perceived weight issue, it’s gonna make them feel crap. We shouldn’t celebrate it. Because it’s harmful.” Several seconds pass between each sentence. “I understand why people ask me about it, because it’s fascinating, but I can tell you, it’s meaningless.” His voice is still deathly hushed, his eyes fixed on mine. “The shape of your body is meaningless. It doesn’t mean anything. It hasn’t made me any happier, or any more unhappy. I’m still the same person. I’ve still got the same heart. The same soul. The same views. Regardless of what my f***ing waist size is.”

Most people think that theatre’s not for them – that it’s some elite thing. I always felt like it was for me, but that’s enormously privileged and rare – not that many people have got famous dads

If Spall played into the narrative early on, he regrets it now. He looks back at the things he said – specifying exactly how much he weighed before and after he dieted, and saying that it “took a lot of hard work but I did it and I’m proud I did it” – and wishes he hadn’t. “So much of my identity, privately and publicly, has been bound up in this weight-loss story,” he says. “And I contributed to that early on because I thought it would please people, and because I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I did that. And good on me.’ But I don’t want people to read it, men and women, and feel s***.”

Perhaps it was also because he suffered years of bullying over his weight at school. “I got called fat every day of my life,” he says, “and every time that ever happened, it was like a small cut on me that I still live with now. Awful. Traumatic. But from the time of awakening as a human being, to realise that you have a body, that you are a body, to have that coincide with everyone else realising that that thing you are in possession of is horrible, that your body is horrible… You don’t know that being fat is wrong. You don’t know that just because you’ve got a little belly, that makes you a terrible person. But our culture denotes that. And all of the narrative that we have around weight loss, it all adds to that.”

His school years sound tough. Spall went to an inner-city state school in New Cross, southeast London, partly because his parents were “politically opposed” to the idea of private education, and partly because it was the nearest school he got into. “I didn’t have a good time there,” he says. “I hated it. It was just an intense environment to go to school in. It was rough and ready and f***ing… not easy.” He had undiagnosed learning difficulties, and was put in the bottom set for everything – which meant he had to sit foundation papers for GCSE, where the best grade he could get was a C. “That’s really f***ed up,” he says. “That’s crap. That’s not good for anyone, is it? It just made me feel rubbish. And my dad got poorly when I was at school. He got leukaemia and stuff, so it was tough.” In fact, Timothy was given days to live when he was first diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukaemia. Rafe was in his early teens, and although his dad eventually recovered, the experience was “incredibly painful”. It meant he stopped trying at school altogether. “I’m lucky that I was good at something,” he says. “I happened to have a talent for acting.”

Spall and Rose Byrne in the romantic comedy ‘I Give It a Year’ (Studio Canal)
Spall and Rose Byrne in the romantic comedy ‘I Give It a Year’ (Studio Canal)

There’s a knock on the door and a man walks in. “I’m trying to do an interview here,” says Spall sternly. It’s a relief to see that there’s a smile on his face. It’s Bartlett Sher, the play’s director, holding a coffee. “Thank you Barlett,” says Spall. “Thank you so much.” As Sher slips out, Spall sets aside the Diet Coke he’s been sipping on, clasps his coffee, and turns to the positives of his time at school. “Even though my education itself was risible – and it was – my social grounding was far deepened,” he says. He was one of four white children in his class – the rest were first-generation Nigerian kids and third-generation West Indians. “I was around people of different cultures, races, socioeconomic backgrounds… That set me up in a way that I’m incredibly grateful for. You don’t get that really, growing up in the Cotswolds.”

Spall was a contemporary at school of two future England football players, Shaun Wright-Philips and Scott Parker. Back then, when England were playing in the World Cup, Spall would come back into school the day after the team had lost “and just get cussed so badly by all the Black kids who supported Nigeria or Jamaica”. During the last World Cup, in 2018, he noticed a change. “A lot of the Black community were getting behind England,” he says. “What the team represents, the culture that Gareth Southgate instigated, I was really moved by it. I watched that team and I was like, ‘They’re just like boys I went to school with. Those young men out on that pitch, that’s my England. That’s the England that I grew up in.’”

Two years later, he would be espousing the exact opposite attitude onstage at the National. In one particularly searing scene in The Death of England, at his father’s funeral, Spall’s Michael turns to his Black friend and says, shouts almost: “You may sound like one of us, you may act like one of us, but you will never be one of us.” The play was written by two Black writers, Roy Williams and Clint Dyer – “I had to do an accent of a Jamaican woman, and you can’t really get away with that s*** unless it’s written by two Black men,” says Spall – and it was an eye-opening experience for him. “I start that play being very affable, handing out biscuits and stuff and interacting with the crowd,” he says, “and then I would say a racist comment. People would look terrified. Terrified. It’s interesting doing that play to a predominantly white, middle-class audience – because the patronage of most theatres is that demographic. Something needs to be done to address that. I dunno what, but it needs to be done.”

Spall and Esther Smith in the Apple TV+ comedy series ‘Trying’ (Apple)
Spall and Esther Smith in the Apple TV+ comedy series ‘Trying’ (Apple)

It doesn’t help, he says, that theatre tickets are “inordinately expensive”. A number of cheaper tickets are being made available for each night of To Kill a Mockingbird, which he’s glad about. “The reason to do that is to inspire people,” he says. “Because most people think that theatre’s not for them – that it’s some elite thing. I always felt like it was for me, but that’s enormously privileged and rare – not that many people have got famous dads. And so if you can just go to people, ‘This ain’t exclusive. This is for you, too,’ that’s really important.”

When he was still a teenager, Spall went to see a Harold Pinter play called The Caretaker. It starred Michael Gambon, Douglas Hodge, and Rupert Graves, and it was the moment he realised he wanted to act. With any luck, he says, To Kill a Mockingbird will do the same for young teenagers in the audience. “I love the idea of someone having that feeling watching this.” He swigs his coffee and smiles. “Rather than passing down some of my trauma, I’ll see if I can pass down a bit of inspiration, you know?”

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is on at the Gielgud Theatre from 10 March