Rafe Spall: ‘Madonna came up and started grinding me. A circle formed’ | Rafe Spall

The play was going well. It was going very well, a Broadway production of Pinter’s 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 we’re 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 I’ve just done the show and I was like, I’m going to pretend to Madonna that I’m 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, they’ve 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, don’t 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, ‘Don’t 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, I’ll 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.”

‘I’m in the sweet spot’: Rafe Spall wears shirt by Jacquemus at matchesfashion.com; trousers by Raey at matchesfashion.com; socks by newandlingwood.com and his own trainers. Photograph: Pål 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 son’s 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! I’d 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, I’m going to stick with it.’”

After a series of jobs where he became, in the Guardian’s 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 he’ll play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Sally Hawkins (as Marianne) and Rafe Spall (as Roland) in Constellations
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. “There’s 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 I’ve 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: ‘I’ve got a good game guys, let’s 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. It’s not healthy.” Does he always look? “Any actors that say they don’t read the reviews are lying. But totally avoiding it all takes a massive amount of willpower and emotional fortitude that I’m not in possession of. I’m working on it, though, because it’s no life, is it, to get your self worth from strangers thinking you’re good at something as fanciful as acting? I mean, really? Then you have this sort of epiphany, like, is that what matters to you?”

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, ‘What’s 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. ‘I’m 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 you’ve got your little ‘craft’. We know you’re ‘holding a mirror up to society’. Good for you. You know what I mean? I’m 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. It’s 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.

Rafe Spall studio shot, sitting on the arm of a red sofa, his feet on the seat
‘I think I’m saying too much’: Rafe Spall wears shirt by amiparis.com; trousers by Raey at matchesfashion.com; socks by newandlingwood.com and his own trainers. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

“It’s his openness,” that makes him such a unique actor, says Jamie Dornan, who welled up making a speech at Spall’s birthday party. “You’re 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 dad’s death. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget Rafe’s 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 there’s 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 hasn’t really slept for at least five years.

“You have an idea of what it’s like to be a parent, sitting in a wingback chair, imparting pearls of wisdom. Maybe reading bits of poetry. But that’s not my experience. I’ve had a good nine years of wiping someone else’s bum. And then, if I’m lucky, I get, what, 10, 20 years before I’m wiping my parents’ bums? I’m 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”.

“It’s difficult,” he says. “You’re 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 doesn’t also mean that it’s not extremely, well… trying.”

Rafe Spall in Death of England
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. I’ve 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 don’t think that’s 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. “It’s going to be OK.”

So, the other thing Spall’s 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 doesn’t see himself as… one of them. It’s 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!’ That’s how I feel. I’m not immune to dancing with Madonna. Obviously, I’m 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.”

Opening night of the play “Betrayal” in New York City with Daniel Craig and Rafe Spall sitting at a dining table
New stage: with Daniel Craig in Betrayal. Photograph: JGA/ZOJ/Joel Ginsburg/WENN.com

Could he ever see himself as a movie star? “OK, I did Betrayal, right, and there were three of us in it, and he’s James Bond and she’s 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 we’re 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. That’s not natural. That’s not good for you.” We could all probably do with one a week, maybe two. “Yeah, it’s 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 didn’t think it was physically possible to do it. I had to put all of myself into it. And we got the reviews I’ve always dreamed of.” But then? “But it didn’t make me feel any better as a human.”

Rafe Spall and his dad Timothy at the British Independent Film Awards
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 I’ll feel OK. This was a big, powerful reminder of the fact that this isn’t the case. You realise there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s just ashes.” Oh. His expression ripples. “I think I’m 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. It’s such a cliché, but you realise what matters. The kids, the quotidian drudgery, the nappies, the night times. That’s where the love is.” He’s talking low, a ragged edge to his voice, and as he’s telling me he’s reminding himself.

“The love isn’t in grand statements, applause. The love isn’t in imparting pearls of wisdom from the wingback chair. The love is in being there. That’s the stuff that’ll spend Christmas with you when you’re in your 60s. That’s the stuff that will be looking after you when you’re poorly. And the good reviews and the standing ovations will be long gone by then. It’s 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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