For all the standing ovations, Hollywood roles and parties with stars, nothing beats the rough and tumble of real life for actor Rafe Spall

Rafe SpallFor all the standing ovations, Hollywood roles and parties with stars, nothing beats the rough and tumble of real life for actor Rafe Spall
The play was going well. It was going very well, a Broadway production of Pinters Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as a married couple and Rafe Spall as her lover the last thing Mike Nichols directed before he died. It was a hit; so much so that one night Madonna invited the cast round for dinner. So I went to dinner, says Spall.
He is telling the story with relish, leaning into his laptop camera as if were slightly pissed on a Sunday and our families have drifted off to watch telly. And Madonna was dressed as Madonna, a gold grill and fingerless gloves. I was feeling quite confident, because Ive just done the show and I was like, Im going to pretend to Madonna that Im not scared of her. After dinner the tables were pushed to the side to make a dancefloor, and Lourdes is on the iPad playing tunes. So I started dancing and Madonna came up and started, well grinding me. Very close. I suppose dutty wining would be the phrase? My wife was there [actor Elize du Toit, theyve been married since 2010, three kids, recently moved from London to Stroud] And she looked at me like, The fuck? My torso was pouring with sweat. And in my mind I was saying, dont back down. So I looked her in the eye and said to myself, Yeah, this is me. Soon after, a dance circle formed. With Madonna on a literal throne. And all of the dancers from her tour were in a circle around her. And she said, Rafe, get in the circle! So I was like, Dont back down, this is you. So I got in the middle of the circle of Madonna and the best dancers in the world. And I danced in there for three minutes.
Later, I timed three minutes on my phone, and listened to the tape of his story again. I arrived at two conclusions. The first, Ill come to later. The second was: three minutes is a really long time to dance for Madonna. And then, you know, I went home and wiped my kids little bums and made fish fingers again.
Im in the sweet spot: Rafe Spall wears shirt by Jacquemus at; trousers by Raey at; socks by and his own trainers. Photograph: PÃ¥l Hansen/The Observer
When Spall was born, in 1983, the second of three children, his dad, Timothy, was already a household name, playing characters lugubrious and loving, his actor friends coming round for a party every weekend, pouring ideas into the only sons ear. Rafe messed about at school, a comprehensive in south London, and joined the National Youth Theatre in his teens as his dad was recovering from leukaemia. Overweight then, and the class clown, he got the role of Fat Sam in a production of Bugsy Malone, and the next day a girl called the landline. She asked me out! Id never had any interest from girls. But she came over and we watched The English Patient. Which is a weird choice for two 14-year-olds, but she became my girlfriend. So I thought, Yeah, acting, Im going to stick with it.
After a series of jobs where he became, in the Guardians words, the go-to man for feckless losers, he started being offered roles in Hollywood blockbusters like The Big Short and Life of Pi, starry TV dramas (once opposite Jon Hamm in a kitchen that was actually his traumatised mind, in Black Mirror) and on stage in dazzling plays like Constellations at the Royal Court and Betrayal on Broadway. Next year hell play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Star turn: in Constellations with Sally Hawkins. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
All of which means he has become really quite famous. Which is, of course, great, but also, as is clear from his sweet wince, completely awful. Theres an episode of Seinfeld, he says, where George goes to a job interview and he takes a tape recorder in his briefcase, and leaves the briefcase behind after the interview to see what they say. And my whole life is like that. All Ive got to do is put my name into Google or Twitter and I can see what people really think of me. How does that affect him? Acting is essentially this: Ive got a good game guys, lets turn all the lights off in the room and everyone look at me! So you obviously care about what people think of you. And what does it do? What does it do to you? OK, good comments make you feel nothing. And the bad ones make you feel terrible. Its not healthy. Does he always look? Any actors that say they dont read the reviews are lying. But totally avoiding it all takes a massive amount of willpower and emotional fortitude that Im not in possession of. Im working on it, though, because its no life, is it, to get your self worth from strangers thinking youre good at something as fanciful as acting? I mean, really? Then you have this sort of epiphany, like, is that what matters to you?
Its no life to get your self-worth from something as fanciful as acting
I allow a brief pause, because it sounds like he has lived here, in this question about why he does what he does, for longer than the average actor. I really had to examine it. I really had to go, Whats the engine here? What do you really want? To spread joy, I offer, generously. To tell stories that allow us to access our emotions and He interrupts, cackling kindly. Nobody can talk about that sort of thing without sounding odious. Im just a travelling storyteller, plying my trade. No. And when people talk about my craft, fuck off. He slips into the patronising voice of a tired kindergarten teacher. We know youve got your little craft. We know youre holding a mirror up to society. Good for you. You know what I mean? Im sure I have done it in the past. But now I really believe those cheesy thoughts are private. Earnestness gets in the way.
Rafe can check the temperature of a person, a situation, in an instant, says Rose Byrne, who he starred opposite in the romcom I Give it a Year, losing 6st so (he said at the time) it would seem conceivable that Byrne, who plays my new wife, would want to marry me. He is charming and sensitive, Byrne says. All of which lend to making him such a great actor and also friend. He is always in your corner. Its rare to find an actor who is vulnerable and masculine, wickedly funny and painfully truthful. The first time she went to his house, he answered the door with his daughter on his hip and told Byrne she was really proud of her huge poo. And so their friendship began.
I think Im saying too much: Rafe Spall wears shirt by; trousers by Raey at; socks by and his own trainers. Photograph: PÃ¥l Hansen/The Observer
Its his openness, that makes him such a unique actor, says Jamie Dornan, who welled up making a speech at Spalls birthday party. Youre just drawn in and onboard with whoever it is he inhabits. His most recent work has focused on fatherhood and its many tender horrors. There was the one-man play Death of England, created by two black writers about white Englishness, where Spall played a man reeling from his racist dads death. I dont think Ill ever forget Rafes performance in Death of England, says Anne-Marie Duff, who worked with Spall on the BBC dramatisation of The Salisbury Poisonings. His capacity to play with, provoke, charm and disarm an audience is mighty. Then theres Trying, a gentle Catastrophe-esque comedy series about a couple trying to have a baby, the second season of which follows them through the adoption process. Spall had two children before he was 30, and a third shortly after filming a show about infertility, he says, reminded him of his luck every day. And then the memory of a year of school-less lockdowns scurries in through a crack in the interview and with it, the bleak honesty of someone who hasnt really slept for at least five years.
You have an idea of what its like to be a parent, sitting in a wingback chair, imparting pearls of wisdom. Maybe reading bits of poetry. But thats not my experience. Ive had a good nine years of wiping someone elses bum. And then, if Im lucky, I get, what, 10, 20 years before Im wiping my parents bums? Im in that sweet spot now. He smiles and sighs darkly, and I lower my voice, too, as we talk about parenthood in these trademark unprecedented times.
Its difficult, he says. Youre constantly presented with your own fallibility as a parent and you go to bed aware of all of the ways you failed in the day. And so that feeling of perpetual failure, coupled with broken sleep and zero time to yourself It may well be the optimal experience. But that doesnt also mean that its not extremely, well trying.
Spall world: in Death of England. Photograph: Helen Murray
In January, like many people, he was feeling particularly low. I mean, my children are some of the most privileged kids on earth. And I could still see that their mental health was suffering. And it really upset me. So what did he do? I called my MP. Ive never done that in my life, but the doom was relentless. And I felt desperate. I just felt the need to speak to a grown-up. He pauses, thoughtfully. I dont think thats really what MPs are meant for, actually. I think I wanted an agony aunt, but still, she reassured me that everything was going to be OK. He looks straight into the camera. Its going to be OK.
So, the other thing Spalls dancing story made me think about was how, despite being on stage with James Bond and despite having Madonna smear herself against him and despite growing up with a national treasure for a father, he clearly doesnt see himself as one of them. Its all a ridiculous novelty, the way he tells it, that he has ended up where he has. Somehow, he has always remained on the outside. First, as a child growing up in the middle-class family of a working-class film star, one of five white kids in his class at school. Then as a young man when, rejected from Rada, he decided to learn on the job. His is an unusual privilege, straddling worlds. He mingles with famous people and yet he is able to come home and shriek about it.
I remember on The Big Short, I was in a scene with Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell, he says. And I was desperate for someone else to turn to like, Oh my God, look! Thats how I feel. Im not immune to dancing with Madonna. Obviously, Im going to tell everyone about that. Like, in the BFG, they did a closeup on me in a helicopter. And I looked down and there was Steven Spielberg, and I burst into tears. Tears? Tears! Like, did you know, looking at Brad Pitt is a bit like looking at the sun? Some movie stars have this natural wattage.
New stage: with Daniel Craig in Betrayal. Photograph: JGA/ZOJ/Joel Ginsburg/
Could he ever see himself as a movie star? OK, I did Betrayal, right, and there were three of us in it, and hes James Bond and shes won an Oscar. So there was a piece on the front of the New York Times and Mike Nichols had given a quote, and it said, This is a play about sex. And were very lucky to have two very sexy stars. He waits, grinning for my laugh. How is his ego? He chuckles. Do you mean my ego in terms of, like, the duality of experience? Are we talking Eckhart Tolle here? Or, like, I want like blue M&Ms in my trailer?
M&Ms, I mumble.
I try to be nice! Well behaved. I try. I try not to get carried away. He thinks. I did Death of England, which was a big thing for me 140 minutes, 16,000 words, very physical and every night a standing ovation. But it sent me a bit loopy. A standing ovation eight times a week. Thats not natural. Thats not good for you. We could all probably do with one a week, maybe two. Yeah, its like a bottle of wine. One, lovely. Eight, pushing it. So that took a period of recalibration. How do I go out, get all these people clapping at me, then go home to normal life?
There was a small news story at the time about Spall falling off the stage mid-performance he went on with the show so seamlessly the audience assumed it was on purpose. In terms of an acting experience that play had a big effect on my life. I didnt think it was physically possible to do it. I had to put all of myself into it. And we got the reviews Ive always dreamed of. But then? But it didnt make me feel any better as a human.
Generation game: with dad, Timothy. Photograph: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock
We spend our lives going, If I just achieve that amount of success, status, financial security. If I just lose 10lb, then Ill feel OK. This was a big, powerful reminder of the fact that this isnt the case. You realise theres no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Its just ashes. Oh. His expression ripples. I think Im saying too much. But it was good. It was good. Because I realised no amount of adulation is going to be enough. No amount of success will ever make you feel good. Its such a cliché, but you realise what matters. The kids, the quotidian drudgery, the nappies, the night times. Thats where the love is. Hes talking low, a ragged edge to his voice, and as hes telling me hes reminding himself.
The love isnt in grand statements, applause. The love isnt in imparting pearls of wisdom from the wingback chair. The love is in being there. Thats the stuff thatll spend Christmas with you when youre in your 60s. Thats the stuff that will be looking after you when youre poorly. And the good reviews and the standing ovations will be long gone by then. Its not a huge revelation. But it was for me. He chuckles, suddenly. And it only took a one-person hit play at the National Theatre for me to work it out.
Trying series 2 premieres on Apple TV+ on 21 May
Styling by Hope Lawrie; grooming by Jo Jenkins using Hourglass, Sunday Riley, Bumble and Bumble; shot at Big Sky Studio
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