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Timothy Spall artfully steps in famed artist’s shoes

With awards season already in full sway, Timothy Spall’s performance as the great 19th Century artist J.M.W. Turner in “Mr. Turner” — which already won him the best actor award at the Cannes International Film Festival and from the New York Film Critics this year — has some thinking the veteran English actor may also snare an Oscar nomination next month. In the film (opening Thursday), Spall showcases the life and artistry of the complicated man who battled personal demons and often mistreated the women in his life as he worked non-stop, creating some of the greatest landscapes and seascapes in the history of painting.

Considering Spall has done seven projects over the past three decades with “Mr. Turner” director Mike Leigh — five feature films, a TV movie and a theatrical project — I asked the actor in a recent phone conversation if, at this point, he and Leigh can finish each other’s sentences.

“I don’t know about that,” said Spall, “Though at this point, I’d say we are very aware of each other’s peccadilloes!”

Yet, Spall quickly added that there is a much more important bond the two men share: “We do share a very similar sensibility about storytelling.”

He went on to praise Leigh’s habit of “focusing on people who are there from real human life — the people other filmmakers don’t make their leading characters but put them in the background.

“For Mike, he is more interested in the guys who deliver stuff. The guys who show up to fix your television, or the girls who do ladies’ hair. Those are the people Mike makes his heroes and heroines, rather than kings or queens,” Spall said. “I often say that Mike is the master of mundane made majestic.”

Related: ★★★★ review of “Mr. Turner’

To that point, Spall said that his own ability to project the common man has worked well for him.

“One of my main advantages is that I don’t look like an actor. I look like a normal human being, and I’ve spent a lot of time playing ordinary people. I’m attracted to playing people like you find in real life, rather than characters you’d want them to be. So often you see me playing someone who is irritating or not very prepossessing or actually downright annoying — just not the heroic types. So, in a weird way, I guess it feels natural that I would have gravitated to Mike, and that he would spend the last 30-odd years asking me to join him on this journey.”

Another thing the actor and director share is a love of improvisation. Spall stressed that anyone making a movie with Mike Leigh has to “get the principles of his formula, which is a very unique, particular way of working, which is not for everybody. … He asks you to be the raw material of the piece, he wants you to be an equal collaborator with him.”

As for portraying Turner the artist, Spall said Leigh threw him a bit of a curveball when he first approached him about making the movie, asking him, “If you don’t mind, I’d like you to learn how to paint like him, during the next two years.”

Calling it “such an outrageous request,” Spall admitted he enjoyed learning to paint and to mimic Turner’s style.

“I got up to the standard of where Turner was when he was about 9 years of age,” he said with a laugh. “But if you get a chance to see his paintings when he was 9 — they’re not bad!”