Rafe Spall, who stars in this December’s one-off Black Mirror special on Channel 4, talks about the highs and lows of acting and his great ambition to work alongside his father, Timothy.
You star in the feature-length Black Mirror Christmas special. It’s all fairly under wraps, but is there anything you can tell us about it?
Yes. Along the lines of other Black Mirrors, it exists in some imagined idea of the not-too-distant future. There are two guys in an outpost in the middle of nowhere, in the Arctic, telling their stories about how they got there. Those two guys are played by Jon Hamm and me. I thought the script was a phenomenon, I couldn’t believe it. It was extraordinarily detailed and original and mind-blowing, and I had no hesitation in saying I wanted to do it. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
So some of it’s set in the Arctic, but does it have more explicitly Christmas theme at all?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a ghost story, but I think Charlie was inspired to write it by the idea of ‘spooky Christmases’. He grew up with Christmas ghost stories, A Christmas Carol and things like that. There is a definite Christmas theme, some of it is set at Christmas, and I think, when you see it, you’ll realise what it has to do with Christmas.
What was it like working with Jon Hamm?
I’m a huge fan of his, I think he’s a tremendous actor. Not just his work in Mad Men, but also in some of the comedy films he’s done as well, like Bridesmaids and Friends with Kids. I think he’s an excellent actor, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the film as well – besides the brilliant script – was to work with him. It was a real delight, and he’s a super guy and lots of fun.
Oona Chaplin is in it as well. Did you stories overlap at all, or did you not get to act with her?
No, our stories are completely separate. Jon is the only one who’s in all three parts of the story.
Had you ever seen Black Mirror before?
Honestly, no! I’d auditioned for one, and I didn’t get it. But funnily enough, it wasn’t one that Charlie had written, it was the one by Jesse Armstrong. So I knew the sort of tone of Black Mirror already.
What was it about the script that really excited you?
It was just wholly original, and how often can you say that about any piece of screenwriting? It was strange, funny, human and moving, and absolutely, totally original.
You mention it’s funny. Some if the Black Mirrors have a vein of comedy running through them, but others are pretty much just dark all the way through. This is one of the former, then?
Oh sure it is; It comes through the Channel 4 comedy department. But it’s definitely very dark, there’s lots of emotional stuff in it as well. It takes you to all sorts of depths. But I think anything worth its weight has got some humour in it, no matter how serious it is.
Black Mirror often seems like a cautionary tale about the direction our society could take. Do you feel that’s the case here?
I think you’d have to ask Charlie about that, really. I’m not sure it’s my place to talk about whether things are cautionary or not. I don’t know what he intended, you know? All I can do is go about trying to play a human being, in anything that I do. So the idea of it being a cautionary tale – if that’s Charlie’s objective then great, so be it, but it’s separate from what I do.
You’ve just been nominated for a BIFA award for your role in X+Y. You must be thrilled?
Yeah, I am. It’s a film that I’m really, really proud of. It’s a really wonderful movie, and it’s got a really talented young director. And I got to work with Sally Hawkins again, who’s a great friend of mine. And she’s been nominated too. So I’m really thrilled.
And your dad’s been nominated too – unsurprisingly – for his turn as Mr Turner.
Yeah, I know. As you say, it’s no great surprise, because it’s a simply phenomenal performance. It’s one of the great performances, if you ask me. I’m just made up. We’ll both be there at the BIFAs. It would be quite fun if we both won.
You do theatre, film and TV, and both comedy and drama. Do you have a preference for any genre or medium, or is it all about the individual roles in each project?
Oh it’s all about whether the script is any good. You can do a big film one minute, and then a series for BBC Four the next. It doesn’t matter. I’m never going to count myself out of any medium. They’re all difficult in their own way. In some ways I feel like theatre is the test cricket of acting, but in many ways screen acting is the ultimate challenge. I know that sounds contradictory, but they both have their own challenges to surmount. But I love doing both of them.
For your role in I Give It a Year, is it true that you went 16 weeks with no wheat, dairy or sugar?
Yeah. I had the part already, but they wanted me to be as good-looking as is humanly possible working within the parameters of my bland physical features. It was pretty hellish. It was a pain in the arse in every possible way. And a waste of time. But it was what they thought I needed to do, and it was an experience, and I’ve done it, and I know what’s possible. But what’s depressing is, when you go back to the real world, you know how much you have to do to make a real difference. You know that if you really want to change your body, exercising three times a week and only eating five biscuits a day isn’t going to cut it. If you have the body type that I do, you really have to flog yourself. I hated it.
Would you do it again, for the right role?
Of course, yeah.
You also had to show off your penis in the role as well. How was that?
It was as embarrassing as you’d imagine. You sort of go “Wow, this is how I pay my mortgage – I get my penis out for money. What does that make me?” I don’t think I’ll do that again. I’ve had enough of that. I think the world’s had enough of that.
Speaking of your penis, you’ve used it to produce two children…
…Good bridge. Good link!
Thank you. With acting parents and grandparents, do you think either of them show a performer’s temperament?
They’re too young to show any temperament at the moment apart from being tiny, crazy toddlers. But if they did, then, similar to what my parents did for me, I’d encourage them to do whatever made them happy. My dad has always said to me that it’s not so much that you want to do it, almost that you have no choice but to do it. That’s the only way you should pursue something like acting, or any artistic work. It’s whether you literally have no choice but to do it, you really feel that you have to. And that’s the advice that I’ll give to my children.
Do you think parenthood has changed you?
Yeah, I do. I was on this set recently, and there was an actor, and I’d unintentionally offended him somehow, and I said I was sorry, and he was sulking about it. And I just thought “Do you know what? I’ve got two kids. I’m a grown up. I’m not going to worry about you.” Whereas before, you’d maybe get into a petty argument with someone. Now, when you have that feeling that “I actually make my own people,” you have less time for silly arguments and things like that.
What have been your favourite roles that you’ve had in your career?
I had a very thrilling time on Broadway last year in Betrayal, with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, directed by Mike Nichols. That was an extraordinary experience. And I loved doing a TV show called The Shadow Line, that was brilliant. I enjoyed doing I Give It A Year for lots of reasons. I did a comedy show for Channel 4 about five years ago called Pete Versus Life, which was just the most fun I’ve ever had on anything ever, and I was heartbroken we couldn’t do a third series. I just loved it. It had gorgeous people, and I had a lovely time. That’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything. But artistically it would be Betrayal and The Shadow Line.
Are there any specific ambitions you have, roles you’d like to play, or people you’d like to work with?
I’d like to do more Pinter. I’d love to do The Homecoming, and I’d love to do The Caretaker, and I’d love to do a play with my dad. I’d love to work with him, that would be a real ambition.
The Black Mirror Christmas special, starring Jon Hamm, Rafe Spall and Oona Chaplin airs on Tuesday 16th December 2014.