Oscar Dark Horse Timothy Spall on Finding Humanity in a Holocaust Denier

OscarWrap: “You have to figure out the weakness and fragility,” says Spall of his role as controversial historian David Irving

A version of this story about Timothy Spall first appeared in the “Dark Horses We Love” feature in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

“It never upsets me to not be the cool guy,” said Timothy Spall of his role in “Denial.” “I very rarely am. I’m usually the antagonist, or the insignificant guy.”

In the Mick Jackson drama based on David Hare’s play, Spall’s character is decidedly not cool or insignificant. He plays real-life historian David Irving, who in 1996 sued professor and author Deborah Lipstadt for labeling him a Holocaust denier.

Spall’s Irving is a brash, egotistical fighter who must defend his controversial views in court–and while Spall has no chance of making the guy likable in a film that takes Lipstadt’s point of view, he does give depth to a man who could be a cartoonish villain.

Timothy Spall

“I did it the way I always do,” he said of his approach. “You look at how somebody moves and how they talk, and you try to get some clues to what they’re like inside. And then you do a lot of thinking about what motivated that, where it comes from all the way back to childhood.

“All these little detective things you do as an actor are very important — and even more so when you’re playing someone who’s not everyone’s cup of tea, because you have to play the humanity of them.”

He didn’t meet with Irving, not that it would have helped much. “I don’t think it takes too much of a leap of imagination to realize that he wouldn’t have been forthcoming anyway,” he said. “He would have known that the film was very much from Deborah Lipstadt’s point of view, because it was from her book. He would have known it was not going to be particularly sympathetic toward him.

“And I had to take that on board as well. I ascertained immediately that although I would have liked a couple more scenes to explain his motivations, that wasn’t the film they were making.”

The key for his own performance, he added, was to get beyond Irving’s bluster. “You have to use your imagination and your connection to figure out, what is the fragility under this carapace of determination and stridence? What is the weakness, the softness under that?

“Whether you’re playing a king, a world leader or a schmoe that no one gives a f— about, your job is to strip it all away. Because a king doesn’t wake up not feeling good and go, ‘Ah, Jesus, I’m the king, I’d better go take a dump in a kingly fashion.’ They go to the loo like everybody else.

“Your job, therefore, is to find the vulnerability that you’re not allowed to show.”

He paused. “It always strikes me when I go to a hotel where there’s a business convention, I think about how much work it must take to turn up like a grown-up man in a suit every day. That takes effort, and as an actor you have to find the person underneath that effort.

“But also, the great thing about being in this ridiculous business of acting is that you don’t have to pretend to be grown-up every day. You have to be disciplined and you’ve got to absolutely know what you’re doing, but you don’t have to look like a grown-up when you’re not on screen.”

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