The TDF Interview: Timothy Spall and Director Nick Hamm
is a fictionalised story celebrating the unlikely friendship of Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. Set against the background of the historic St Andrews Agreement in 2006, it stars Timothy Spall as Dr Paisley and Colm Meaney as McGuinness. Both men travel in the back of car as they journey together across the Scottish countryside towards a local airport, where a plane awaits to take Dr Paisley back to Belfast to celebrate his 50th Wedding Anniversary. John Hurt is an MI5 head, Toby Stephens co-stars as Tony Blair and Freddie Highmore features as a secret agent.
Nick and Timothy were in London this week and were good enough to sit down and share some of their experiences about the film with me.
Thanks for giving us the time to sit down and chat for a while. How are things going on the lead up to the release?
Nick Hamm: Very well. We've had some really positive reactions so far and we're keen to hear what audiences locally think about it.
What has the general reaction to the film been like so far?
NH: We thought that the most important place to take it to, as it opens in North America in a month, was Belfast. We needed to see if it works there with that audience and so far it’s been really remarkable. Because in the end, it’s celebrating something they’ve achieved. This is a relationship that actually happened and changed history, and in that sense that is something that is not trumpeted enough.
One of the challenges you faced was communicating a localised conflict to a global audience, was that an important element for you?
NH: In a way, you don’t need to know anything about Ireland. I’ve seen it play to a 1000 people at the Venice Film Festival in Italy, young people, at 10.30pm at night, roaring with laughter and then give a standing ovation. They knew nothing about the history. What they were reacting to was the simple idea of two grumpy old men, stuck in the back of a car, hating each other and by the end, liked each other. They could make that parallel to their own communities and their own situations. So that’s the simple idea of the movie. You have to root it in something domestic and real, but it travels beyond that if you get the reality right. We didn’t just want to do an education of what happened in Ireland as people would’ve just been bored to death.
Over the opening credits we hear the voices of local people expressing their feelings on the situation. What was the thinking behind that?
NH: They were actually real people who had been interviewed over 25 years, in different contexts. They were speaking about how the 'Troubles' had affected them in the simplest terms, and I didn’t want to show any images. The most powerful for me is the last one where the lady says “Should a Catholic, should a protestant, tit for tat, that’s all it is.” They’re the most plaintive part of the movie in a funny way, because they just put it all into context.
Timothy Spall: Well it’s remarkable when you think that now we watch conflict and images from the war on television and it’s usually unfortunate Arabic people or black Africa that we see suffering. When you think that only 30 years ago, this was going on in streets that could be in London. We forget that. Martin McGuinness has passed prematurely and Ian Paisley a couple of years before and the conflict has become historical but it’s not that long ago. And as we know, the ramifications are still very much alive and the pain and the sorrow are still very much in the whole fibre of the region. These men were very much the last two left standing. But taking into account all the suffering and the conflict, these two men actually achieved this together. They are a shining beacon, in a sense, for what can be achieved over anything. It’s human story because there’s still people suffering.
Ian Paisley is an incredibly iconic figure to take on. An extremely daunting one it would be fair to say. So what attracted you to taking on such a larger than life piece of history?
TS: Well apart from being a completely preposterous notion in the first place, I wasn’t sure if Nick had banged his head! In the end, Nick and I laugh about it because I did try to get out of it quite a lot.
NH: Tim wanted to back out constantly, like a reluctant girlfriend!
TS: Well apart from the fact that people my age lived through it, obviously not as much as the people of Northern Ireland, but you did feel like a legitimate target. People still ask why there are no bins on the tube. Well that’s the reason why! There’s been a little strain of these type of characters put to screen recently, these difficult characters – or maybe I’m a mug to take them on! My personal obsession is always trying to find the humanity of the person.
Who is that 5-year-old inside the huge figure of Paisley? What was that person like when they were 5? What made them who they are? I’ve always thought, we’re only grown up babies. Above that it's just the slices of life; influences and intellect and so forth, but underneath all that, we’re just purely human. I know it’s stating the obvious but I always approach a character in that way. It’s a personal connection between me and the character. Whether they are popular or unpopular, my personal deal with them is to try and understand them from a very fundamental place.
Was there anything physically you felt you had to really get down perfectly in order to feel comfortable in his skin?
TS: I studied him a lot as there’s a certain physicality to him and he’s about a foot and a half taller than I am, but he was also crouching down somewhat. There’s also a kind of monolithic softening of his physicality as he grew older. I looked at him a lot, thought about him a lot and listened to him a lot, starting from back when he was younger preacher giving his sermons.
NH: Tim does it very subtly and suddenly he’s the character. He has an interesting process when you watch him on camera, he’s completely unique at it. It’s really amazing. It’s not like he’s in character when the camera’s not rolling, but he’s concentrated. He’s quiet, then you start it and then there’s this gear shift where he suddenly just becomes the person.
There’s no tangible way of describing how it’s done I guess.
NH: The greatest actors make it look effortless and they make everyone else think ‘well I could do that, how difficult is that, really?’.
I think everyone has their own impersonation of Paisley.
NH: Exactly, that's what Tim says, that everyone could do an impression. But the greatest actors are the simplest. And the hardest thing in our business is to be simple because so much is overdone in order to try and get the effect. When you’re just simple, the audience will lean in, rather than moving away from you.
You first had contact with the screenwriter, Colin Bateman, about 16/17 years ago, about turning his Empire State novel into a film but that didn’t work out. How did you end up circling round to working with Colin again?
NH: When you want to make a movie in this way, you want a writer on-board that is funny. Colm or Tim wouldn’t have done the movie if the script didn’t make them laugh. You can’t do 90 minutes with just heavy duty emotion, with two guys in a back of a car constantly going at it with each other. And I get the impression that has slightly offended some people, they don’t get it. I don’t understand why, because if you get people to laugh, they absorb everything else a lot more easily. They probably feel that way because they haven’t seen it with an audience.
TS: It’s a beautifully written script because it doesn’t wear its construction on its sleeve. Anyone that lives with tragedy or trauma also shares this gallows humour. There is always a shared understanding. The bigger the outrage, then actually, one of the only ways to release it is through comedy. And these guys, they are so intractable, they are so passionate and they understand each other’s passion. That’s how they found a connection. There is this real Irish understanding of what is serious and deathly, while being funny at the same time. Which is not to belittle either of them of course. I’ve done a lot of work with people like Mike Leigh and so forth, who create these tragic comedies. Anything that is touched with reality, always has comedy and tragedy within the same breath.
It’s also a very British trait to find laughter in moments of real darkness.
TS: Absolutely, and it’s a difficult thing to do because it has to be accurately human.
Was there anything you learned about either men or the complicated history of Northern Ireland by being part of this film?
NH: Tim has gone on a crash course actually. He learnt much more about Ireland and what has taken place over the years.
TS:: I’ve no idea what either the Paisley or McGuinness family make of it but I’ve read this amazing book called From Demagogue to Democrat?, which is this huge, two volume book covering Paisley’s life from childhood, to becoming a preacher and so on. What I did find, is that because he was such a media figure and such a figure of hate, there was a perceived wisdom that he was too much to take. I myself was guilty of that prejudice too. In a sense I think he courted that objectionableness in a certain sense, telling people ‘well this is what I’m bloody serious about, whether you think I’m nice or not, I don’t care, this is what I believe.’
But then I saw and discovered through Colin’s writing and by reading and using ones imagination about his influences. Then just thinking about what he was like as a child. I always look at pictures of people from when they were children, and there’s a wonderful picture of him where all of a sudden he’s had a big growth spurt. He must’ve been around 11 years old or so. His trousers were a bit too short and there was this ungainly look of a teenage boy. All of a sudden I thought that’s it, I’ve connected. It touched my heart and I looked at him as a man and then I could see him, this big awkward boy. Somewhat isolated by his own religion. Somebody who had grown up very strong in his beliefs, almost isolated by their piety.
And this mixture of the human and the intensity, within all of the things that I thought were connected, were the sum total of his making, the things that some deem as unacceptable. I see the other side of it, and in the end you form this strong connection between you and the character. Despite their politics, which you don’t have to agree with necessarily, it’s always a personal bond between them and I. A connection between my soul and the character.
Sadly, this was one of John Hurt’s last films. What was it like getting the opportunity to work with him?
NH: We all knew that John wasn't in the best of health. I knew that when we first reached out to him.
It was your first time working together, is that right?
NH: Yes, our first time working together. We knew that he was in a terrible state but he always wanted to work. He loved the idea of the movie and the concept behind it. I knew exactly what he was going through, that he had major cancer as we were shooting it. But I personally felt that he was such an extraordinary, powerful actor. He was British cinema. If you really think about how cinema developed here through the 60s, 70s and 80s, John was part of all of that. I think actors get discarded in a way which is horrific, thrown away as they get older. It is our duty to keep everybody present. I strongly felt that we should give this to John, not out of any sympathy, but firstly because he wanted the role and secondly, if John Hurt wants to be in my movie, then I should be grateful that he wants to be in it at all!
TS: And in the movie, John does it mostly through his vocal presence. Nobody has a voice quite like it. It’s gruff and persuasive, riddled with gravitas, warmth and knowledge.
NH: He was a great bon viveur on set, every night he’d have a glass of wine with Toby (Stephens). Van Morrison came down and they were hanging out together and in the hotel he was happy as Larry. He absolutely loved it.
Timothy, I know you shared screen time with John on the Harry Potter films but did you actually get to work together on the same set?
TS: There’s a scene where the parties come together and I was able to have a bit of a chat with him then. I had always been an admirer of John and I remember a moment on the Harry Potter set that had pretty much everyone from British cinema in it. He only had two small lines in the scene and I was watching him - It was the first time I’d seen him close up – and I remember thinking ‘Jesus, you are so good.’ So when I knew that Nick had got John and Toby and Freddie (Highmore) I knew I had to be a part of it. I was so pleased I had the chance to work with John again. The word gets banded about too easily, but I think he was one of the greats. One of our great actors.
Like John, it seems as if you never stop working. Next week you have Away, with Juno Temple, being released in cinemas. Do you have anything else coming up you’d like to talk about?
TS: I think they’re all pretty much out at the moment. You know, you do these things in bursts and suddenly it looks like you’re everywhere. I had a very nice period and they were all very nice roles. Very diverse. Away was actually filmed three years ago, so that has taken a long time to come to cinemas.
It takes longer for your projects to come to fruition Nick, but do you have anything in development you can talk about?
NH: Actually, I’m going to do the DeLorean film next. It’s about John DeLorean, who made the car, and the story of the FBI sting that took down the DeLorean company. Jason Sudeikis will be starring and Colin Bateman will be writing the script. The news has just been announced but you’re the first journalist to hear it directly from me.
You’ve gone behind the camera for the first time Tim, with the unreleased Stanley a Man of Variety, how did that come about?
TS: Yes it’s the first time I’ve written something. That’s being doing the rounds at festivals but hasn’t yet found distribution. It’s travelling round to Oxford, then Manchester…it even went off to some festival in America and won something!
NH: Is that the one where you are playing 30 roles? I came down to visit the set and he was dressed in all these characters. He was acting, writing, producing. Tim was pretty much running the set!
TS: That’s the one! It’s about a guy called Stanley, who’s in his last days in a secure mental hospital. All he has to cling onto is his collection of old movie memorabilia from the 40s, 50s and 60s. He’s lost his wife and begins to manifest himself in these old characters that takes him on a journey through his guilt.
Is that something you’d like to do more of, writing or even directing?
TS: Well it was with a director I’ve worked with before (Stephen Cookson on My Angel). It was something we started talking about, we wrote it and he told me he’d got the money. I thought it wasn’t going to happen and the next thing I know we’re making it and now it’s a finished movie! People have seen it and they like it. But it’s the only film I’ve been in that I really cannot judge because I wrote it.
You can read our review of The Journey here.