Timothy Spall stars in Mrs Lowry & Son, a biographical drama exploring the difficult relationship between famed British artist L. S. Lowry and his mother. We spoke with Spall about painting, working with acting legend Vanessa Redgrave, and his relationship to Lowry’s work.

Do you paint?

Timothy Spall: I do. It depends on whether I have the inclination and the time and depends also on where I am… sometimes something can be quite inspiring. And actually, I paint more when I’m working than when I’m not. It’s a funny thing, you get the creative juices going.

And did you do some painting for the film?

Timothy Spall: A very excellent person reproduced [Turner’s] work. I did stuff in between shots, like going back and doing a lot of copies of his stuff. And there’s going to be an exhibition at the Lowry gallery in association with this film, and some of the paintings I did are going to be there! I don’t know if they’re any good, but they’re going to be on display.   

© Joseph Scanlon

What was it like to work with Vanessa Redgrave to bring this story to life?

Timothy Spall: Well it was tremendous, I’ve always been a fan of her. Working with someone like her is one of the great joys of my profession, working with people you grew up watching. We had a real journey together on this, you know, we read, there were things that changed slightly, the whole dynamic changed, because you never know what’s going to happen until two people come together. It was a real discovery.

What kind of crossovers do you see in the skills involved with painting and acting?

Timothy Spall: Well it’s all storytelling, isn’t it? It’s all depictions, dictated by feeling, to try to make sense of something emotionally, or dramatically, or pictorially. Funnily enough, although Lowry’s paintings depict recognisable buildings, a lot of them are made up. And so a lot of what you see are buildings from life, but they’re also coming out of his mind’s eye and are connected to other things. They’re a product of what’s going on with his emotions. So he’s telling a pictorial story, with these buildings and landscapes, the same way you’d tell a story in film. They’re both ways of making sense of what the bloody hell is going on in the world!

How did getting into the character’s mindset change the way you viewed his paintings?

Timothy Spall: I’ve always enjoyed his work from a superficial sense. But looking at it and thinking about it, and identifying this sense of deep loneliness and this tension, this pull within him of his love for his mother, his desire to please her and doing it for her, and knowing that what he was doing was displeasing her… And to discover that it’s more than just these quaint pictures – we all like to think that these matchstick men make it a heritage, but it’s not. It’s deeply, deeply original and deeply interesting. And there are still some artists who are purists, who still find his work on the side of the naïve, but I think there’s a lot more skill in it and a lot more true originality, a lot more actual feeling.  There’s a map of someone’s emotional life within those paintings. I don’t know how anyone can see them and not think that they are striking, and beautiful and bleak, and lonely.

Mrs Lowry & Son is out now.