Timothy Spall had no qualms playing true-life villain in ‘Denial’

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Timothy Spall as Holocaust denier David Irving in “Denial.” | Bleecker Street Media

The film “Denial” (now in theaters) focuses on a seemingly unbelievable libel case filed in London by Nazi apologist David Irving, who alleged that statements about him in writer Deborah Lipstadt’s book “Denying the Holocaust” had severely injured his reputation and hurt his career as a respected historian.

Irving, a Holocaust denier, sued not only Lipstadt but also her publisher, Penguin Books.

He’s played in “Denial” by Timothy Spall, an acclaimed British actor known for his work as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films and Winston Churchill in “The King’s Speech.”

While Spall had heard news of the lawsuit back when it was making headlines in 1996, the actor said he did not “understand the complexity of the case, until I read the script.”

Irving filed the suit in Britain, where it is the responsibility of the defendant to prove innocence in libel cases — as opposed to the U.S. process putting the burden of proof on the plaintiff.

British historian David Irving in 2000. | Max Nash/AP

British historian David Irving in 2000. | Max Nash/AP

Appearing opposite Spall in “Denial” are Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Tom Wilkinson as her English barrister, who represents her in court.

When asked about the difficulty of playing Irving — clearly a horrible person and not-so-subtle anti-Semite — Spall shared a perhaps surprising answer.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s hard or not — it’s your job,” he said. “Your job as an actor, whether you’re playing the most popular person on the planet or you’re playing someone who holds controversial or even very disturbing views, is not to play the consequences of those actions. You jettison any feelings of that.

“It’s not about sympathy. It’s about empathy. People quite often don’t know the difference, but for an actor empathy is to play it from somebody’s point of view. It’s immaterial whether you sympathize with them, because that’s another thing.

“Empathizing is seeing it from their point of view, and that’s what you have to do if you’re going to effectively portray someone — and make him totally believable for the audience.”

This, Spall noted, is a key aspect of being an actor. In real life, “we don’t go around knowing what the consequences of our actions are, we just go around being ourselves.”

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