At this point, actor Timothy Spall probably can do anything, and though he’s better known for character roles like playing Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” series, he began his film career as the leading man in many of Mike Leigh’s early dramas like Secrets and Lies, due to his ability to play a British everyman. (Admittedly, the first time I recognized Spall’s talents was when he played a roadie in Mark Wahlberg’s Rock Star.)
It might be hard to take the subject of a biopic about a hangman seriously, but in Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, Spall gives another brilliant multi-layered performance as Albert Pierrepoint, the legendary British executioner who hung 450 condemned criminals in his 20-year career. ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the British actor about this difficult role. Despite the bad pun in the title, Mr. Spall actually spoke to us on the phone from L.A., and sadly, reading this interview doesn’t give one the full effect of Spall’s distinctively charming East London accent.
ComingSoon.net: I know that it’s taken some time for this movie to be released in the States, but how long ago did you shoot it?
Timothy Spall: About a year and a half ago. It took five weeks, which is rather remarkable really.
CS: So that was after you finished all your work on the “Harry Potter” movies?
Spall: Yeah, well my contribution in that wasn’t exactly all-consuming, you know. (laughs) I think my scene in the last “Harry Potter” I was in took about the same amount of time to shoot as the whole film of “Pierrepoint.”
CS: Really? “Pierrepoint” seems like it would have been a fairly intense shoot.
Spall: Yeah, I don’t think it looks like a cheap, low-budget movie. I mean, it is what it is, but the production values are very high, the design and the photography I think are excellent.
CS: Did you actually shoot in a prison where they had the proper set-up or did they have to build something?
Spall: The execution chamber was a recreation of the execution chamber in Wandsworth Prison in South London, which is the Victorian prison built in about 1850, that was built in Ealing Studios in London, and then a lot of the jail gantries, there’s an old jail in Lincoln Castle, which is in the north of England.
CS: He also hung a lot of criminals at Strangeways, a fairly famous prison, so did they have to build that set-up as well?
Spall: No, most of the execution chambers were pretty much the same, and they were that close to the condemned person’s cell and the condemned person had no knowledge that they were that close. That’s what you see at the beginning of the film.
CS: This is a fairly grim subject matter for a movie, as well as one of your darker roles. How were you approached to do this and what about this man interested you?
Spall: I knew about him. He’s a kind of famous figure in England. Not many of the younger generation know about him, but he wrote a book in1973 I think, and it happened to be one of the first serious books I ever read. I remember seeing or hearing about him on television, I was like 17 at the time, and I was absolutely fascinated by this person. I knew nothing about him. All I knew was he was an executioner and I knew this book was out. So I read it then, and then I remember finding it absolutely fascinating, this whole mixture of how somebody can on the face of it, be such a normal member of a normal part of society, a jolly, amiable well-meaning guy, who can end up being something so extraordinary as a state executioner. I forgot all about it, but I’ve always been intrigued by him, and then some people at Granada, which is a television/film company in Britain, the drama department there, which was run by Andy Harris who produced “The Queen” with Christine Langan. They approached me. I knew of them vaguely, and we had lunch and we talked about it. They sent me this script which I thought was fascinating, and it all came back to me. I was immediately fascinated again, sort of based on the book. What I realized straightaway was that I had to try and work out his motivations and how he lived with it. The film to a certain degree is about that in the simplest form. It’s a lot of shifts of mood and change that go unspoken, and it takes place over 20 years. So then we had another few meetings, then we talked about it, and the polished script came and then we shot it. We shot it uncompromisingly and went for absolute reality and followed every single accurate format of how one executed somebody. It was incredibly well-researched. Wandsworth Prison still exists by the way and it’s still used. It doesn’t have an execution chamber, because we don’t have capitol punishment in Britain, and he advised us and we worked out exactly how it was done.
CS: Albert Pierrepoint advised you? He’s still alive?
Spall: No, he died in 1992 at the age of 80 or 85 or something.
CS: Were there any of the executioners from that time to help you figure out how it was done?
Spall: Well, there is one of them still alive. He’s very old and doesn’t talk about it. I couldn’t talk to any of his clients obviously.
CS: So he’s no longer alive and neither are any of his “clients” as you say, so was there anyone you could talk to in terms of his friends and family or did you just get what you could from the script and the research that went into that?
Spall: Well, I think we’re talking about a long time ago. The last execution he did was in 1953 I think, so we’re talking over 50 years ago. There are not many friends or relations left. They couldn’t have children, but they had a niece they were very fond of. He spoke very little about it. In his book, he talked very much about what he did, how he did it, and how he came to the conclusion at the end of his career that he thought it was wrong, that capitol punishment was revenge and not a deterrent. He said that because 90% of the people he executed went willingly to their deaths. He came to the conclusion that most people he hanged were people, who were losers caught on the wrong foot. A few of them were very evil, a few of them were downright psychotic, but most of them were kind of losers that just wouldn’t have done it given another chance. They were so contrite that most of them wanted to go.
CS: Most of us have this image of the executioner or hangman wearing a mask to protect their identity, but we don’t see that here.
Spall: They were never done in public, and that was a cliché I think, that’s come back from medieval executions. Up until the execution of the Belsin war criminals, nobody really knew who he was, and not even friends knew what he did. His father was a very well known executioner, and his uncle as well, so he grew up with it, although it was never really discussed. His dad had a bit of a drink problem, and he’d always feel terribly, not guilty but he would always go on a drink bender after he’d done it, and Pierrepoint decided he would never do that. A, he wanted to be professional and the best, and b, he wanted to make it as dignified and as quick as possible. And still to this day, his record stands as the quickest form of execution. As the film says, his average was between 8 and 22 seconds from the point he entered the cell to the person’s death.
CS: Was there any footage of Pierrepoint actually hanging someone for reference?
Spall: No, we’re not as brutal as it was private. When you take into considersation how brutal, macabre and disgusting that hanging of Saddam was. Exactly what you saw is how it happened. It was quick, there was no goading or contrition. Once you were condemned, you had three weeks in that cell and if you didn’t get a pardon, you went down.
CS: You’d think that with the Belsin hangings of such high-profile war criminals, they would have filmed those executions for posterity. They didn’t even do that?
Spall: No, they didn’t. The only war hangings I’ve seen filmed was an American execution of Japanese war criminals. I don’t think they exist.
CS: There was a certain amount of showmanship or flair to the way he performed his executions, though he was obviously trying to execute them as quickly and professionally as possible.
Spall: I don’t think it was flair. I think he had to go into a zone in his head. Having read other books about himone of his assistant wrote a bookhe was a very amiable guy who liked a sing-song, as we see, and was very personable, but I think when he went into that jail that night before, I think he went into a zone of somewhere else, where he could actually concentrate on the job, but I think he became a different person. I think he went in there and entered a place that only he would be able to tell you, so that was what I tried to find and tried to get in touch with that duality of his personality. How does a person justify to himself what he does when he’s also on the face of it, very humane and an affable person. I think there was a contradictory nature to his character, and I think a lot of it was based on a desire for respect and a sense of him having some absolute, irrefutable duty to king and country and a sense of doing what is right and getting a lot of respect for it.
CS: One of the stronger moments in the movie is when one guy pleads to Arthur that he’s innocent and yet, he’s hung just as quickly and without remorse as anyone else.
Spall: He was innocent. Yes, that was Timothy Evans and that’s based on truth. Do you know about Christie? He was one of our most famous serial killers. There’s a film called “10 Rillington Place,” it’s a great movie, I’d advise you to see it. It’s about Christie, and Richard Attenborough plays the part, and actually, Pierrepoint is in it, because he executed him. He executed the guy who took a rap for one of the murders. It all ties in historically, you see. He wasn’t pardoned until way way later. He executed Evans and then he executed Christie. When he executed Christie, people still thought Evans was complicit.
CS: That must have been tough on Arthur also, knowing he’s doing his job and something like that happening where he executes someone who was innocent.
Spall: I think he said that it never affected him, but I think that’s what the film is about, the fact that his inherent humanity gets the better of him. He can’t do it anymore.
CS: Do you think that incident had anything to do with the absolution of capitol punishment in the UK?
Spall: It didn’t end until 1964 or something, that was ten years after he retired. It’s called “Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman” but he wasn’t the last hangman, he was the last well-known hangman. There were about four main ones at the end, and they were all very much in competition with each other to be the top dog.
CS: As you watch the movie, there’s an aspect of it that seems almost like a Monty Python bit, the way they discuss it”How was it at work, dear? Hang anyone nice?”until you realize how serious it really affected him.
Spall: Yeah, well, I think that’s very much the idea that (no pun intended) there’s a lot of gallows humor in it, literally and euphemistically. (laughs)
CS: It’s nice they found the one actor who read Pierrepoint’s book and was familiar with him to play the part. How has the movie been received by others in the UK?
Spall: It got very, very good reviews, and it only got a small release, but it did very well on DVD. People who wanted to see it, saw it, and it’s still out and about doing various arthouse cinemas.
CS: We really haven’t heard of Albert Pierrepoint here like they might have in England, so is there a certain morbid curiosity about the profession or the life of a hangman?
Spall: I think so. I think people are very surprised when they see the film that it is how it happens. It is most macabre and morbid and blackly funny at times, but also, it’s an investigation of capitol punishment from the inside out. What effect it takes on the executioner, not the executed or the executee’s family, as it were. I think that’s powerful and original, because it sees from his point of view. You would have thought to make a capitol punishment about the people and what they’ve done, but you see it from his point of view. I think people have been very surprised by how moved they are, and quite touched by it on many levels. It turns the table on it, you see. When he has to execute SPOILER, and that’s true by the way, it actually happened, I think a lot of people found that unbearably moving.
CS: Did you do any research yourself into the mechanics of hanging?
Spall: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I had to practice, and there’s an archivist who keeps the archive of Albert Pierrepoint, and he had one of the actual ropes that Albert used. We didn’t use it in the film, but I handled it and I felt quite peculiar when I did. I’ll tell you another interesting thing about it. During the process of rehearsing, pushing that level and the whole ritual of that execution, I realized what an immense sense of power you have when you push the level. Immense. It’s almost like you are a deliverer on the behalf of God, king and the crowd, which I can imagine is an amazing feeling for a person of very small stature physically and socially.
CS: How did that work on the set, did they just have a mat under the gallows and the condemned fell a few feet and landed on it?
Spall: Yeah, there were two stuntmen there, but the noose went on and everybody dropped. They went through those trapdoors, but obviously the rope wasn’t attached to the top, but then the stuntmen had to catch the doors as well. I did pull about 50-60 people down there? It was amazing, and don’t forget that in Nuremberg, he actually executed 40 people in one week, and don’t forget, he also took care of the bodies, which was very much part of his respect. There wasn’t anything perverted, strange or unseemly, he felt like it was his duty to take care of them after they’ve paid the price.
CS: Was that a rarity in those days? I’d think that someone else would usually do that aspect of the execution.
Spall: No, no, that’s absolutely accurate. We totally researched it. Oh, yes, yes, part of the job, most definitely.
CS: It reminded me a bit of “Vera Drake,” Mike Leigh’s last film, so have you kept in touch with Mr. Leigh since the last movie you two did together?
Spall: Yes, yes, we’re good friends. He came to my birthday party recently, and I’ve been working with Mike Leigh as long as I’ve been married, which is 25 years. He’s working on a movie at the moment. He’s shooting a movie at the moment, but nobody ever knows what it’s about until it’s out.
CS: What else have you been doing lately? I know you have a key role as the Beadle in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd.”
Spall: Yes, finished that, done that, it’s in the can, then there’s a big Disney movie coming out called “Enchanted” at Thanksgiving. I saw it the other day, it’s very entertaining. I think it’s going to be great. That’s why I’m in L.A. I did a reshoot on that this week.
CS: You’ve sung in a few of your movies including this one, so how did thing go when performing your musical numbers in “Sweeney Todd”?
Spall: No, the Beadle only has one number, it’s quite a nice little song. Everybody sang, but I think he’s done it in a way that will surprise people. I won’t go into too much about it, but it’s a fascinating and very enjoyable job. Again, another very dark subject. Keep drawn to them, know what I mean? To go back to “Vera Drake,” we were all admirers of that movie. It occurred to me during the making of it, that if Vera Drake had been accused of murder, Albert Pierrepoint would have hanged her. (laughs) It’s the same period. It’s that austere post-second World War British period where the country had no money, the swinging ’60s was just around the corner, but it was still in a sense an Edwardian country.
CS: Getting back to other things you’ve been doing, You also appeared in the Houdini movie?
Spall: Yeah, “Death Defying Acts,” I don’t know when that’s coming out. Gillian Armstrong directed that. I play Harry Houdini’s manager who takes care of him and it’s about him and Harry Houdini in Edinborough, Scotland. It’s about him and a lady medium who he challenges to find his mother’s dying words. Harry Houdini was very fond of his mother, and it’s about the intrigue and the love affair that ends up between Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character, and my character gets sort of stuck in the middle. There’s a fantastic young girl in it as well, called Saoirse Ronan, who’s going to be in “Atonement.”
CS: You haven’t done many leading roles since your days working with Mike Leigh
Spall: That’s true. That’s another reason why I liked doing it. (laughs)
CS: I was curious about how you felt about the fact that often actors are cast for their look rather than those who might be the strongest actors.
Spall: I think that’s pretty much the same everywhere really. It’s about appealing to a mass demographic, isn’t it? It’s about wish fulfillment. It’s about going to the movies to see people that you can be intimate with who are very attractive. They may not be right for the part sometimes, but it’s about an engagement of intimacy and fantasy. People want to be like the people they see, so they’d rather see beautiful people, I suppose.
CS: One would think that they’d want to see people onscreen more like themselves.
Spall: Well, the French are very good at that, and we’re quite good at that, bung in the ugly ones, giving the ordinary looking people the biggest bite of the cherry, we’re quite good at that.
CS: Do you consider yourself a character actor?
Spall: I suppose that I have been given that title. I suppose I am because I try to play different you see there’s two categories or two ways of calling it. Sometimes, a character actor is just an ugly actor who plays small parts. The other version of it is a character actor who changes every part he plays. I like to think I might be in the second. (chuckles)
CS: As far as “Harry Potter,” you’re not in this upcoming movie, but if J. K. Rowling writes a big part for Peter Pettigrew in the 7th book, which noone’s read, are you optioned to return?
Spall: There’s no option. I’m not on contract on it.
CS: But if you learned there was a big part for him in the seventh book and movie, would that be something you’d like to return to?
Spall: I think so, yeah. It’s an amazing series of movie, isn’t it? It’s historical really, and it’s quite especially good, and I think they get better and better. People are absolutely fascinated by them, they adore them! All over the world I go, and it’s hardly a huge part. I mean, it’s an important role, Peter Pettigrew/Scabbers, but everywhere in the world, that’s the thing I get noticed for the most.
CS: Nowadays I’d assume that’s the case whereas before, you were more known for the Mike Leigh movies.
Spall: Well, it’s nice to be able to do the two. It’s never lost on me that it’s a privilege. I like to think that I can do something like “Pierrepoint” and then I can go and do the Disney film where I play a very eccentric hapless buffoonish character that’s a cartoon character that comes alive. It’s one of the great joys of my life that I’m given the opportunity to do both.
CS: Well, the “Harry Potter” movies have all of those great British actors, so it’s not something to be sheepish about. Maybe in 20 years, that will be the thing to perform on stage rather than Shakespeare.
Spall: I know it’s like a repertory theatre of all the good character actors. I suppose it’s a bit disgruntling if you’re not in it, I would think.
CS: I guess we’ll know in a little over a month if your character is going to be in the seventh movie.
Spall: Well, my daughter will tell me. She’s a big fan. She makes my executive decisions on “Harry Potter” for me. She’s already ordered the book.
CS: I’m going to embarrass myself by admitting that one of my favorite roles of yours was in “Rock Star.”
Spall: Oh, thank you. I really enjoyed that film, I had a great time. If you like music business films, have you seen “Still Crazy”? I think you’d enjoy that. That’s with Bill Nighy, that’s the first time he played an old rock star, it’s a very good film actually.
Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman opens in Los Angeles on Friday, June 1, and in New York on June 8.