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The Journey: Researching Ian Paisley ‘fascinating exercise’ - Timothy Spall

'I don’t know what the big man would make of this' says actor on late Northern Ireland leader

Award-winning actor Timothy Spall has said researching Ian Paisley for his role in The Journey was a “fascinating exercise”.

Award winner Timothy Spall’s screen career spans right back to Quadrophenia, although he probably first came to most people’s attention in the hugely successful TV series “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”.

Since then he has worked with everyone from Bertolucci (The Sheltering Sky) to Mike Leigh (Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies and more).

Amongst his many other screen credits are White Hunter Black Heart, Hamlet, The King’s Speech, Vanilla Sky, Mr Turner (for which he won Best Actor at Cannes 2014) as well as the Harry Potter films.

In his latest role he plays political powerhouse Ian Paisley in The Journey. The film tells of the unlikely story of the friendship between the late Rev Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

More: The Journey: First trailer as Paisley and McGuinness film premieres at Venice Film Festival

What were your first impressions of The Journey?

It is a fantastic script and a fantastic investigation, particularly of these two men’s motivations and how they come together.

“We all knew there were two opposing sides but not the intricacies or perhaps the personal cost of it. In a sense the beauty of this piece is no one really knows what actually went on.

Having read quite a lot it seems to me a brilliant distillation of what might have happened. It’s your job as an actor to try and breathe life into this.”

Did you do much research on Ian Paisley?

Yes - now all you need is the internet. I watched interviews with him and documentaries from his past, and looked at him preaching in his church and at political rallies. I put all these things together to try to understand who and what he was.

It was a fascinating exercise. In the end though all that matters is that we are telling a story in the best possible way. It’s not for the audience to be worried about whether it’s all true to life.

Hopefully we play these characters and you believe them.

Is it more difficult to portray a well-known figure?

It’s more precious, because everyone knows what they look like and how they were. So the answer is there is more pressure as everyone has an opinion. This particular man is iconic.

Did you have an opinion about him and McGuinness before you took the role?

Like a lot of people, I was informed by received opinion and the opposition to them on both sides. Of course like all things you only know what you know. But as you get older you realise things are sometimes a lot more complicated.

Was it difficult balancing the comedy and the tragedy?

Sometimes the more serious things are, the more heartrending they appear. There is often comedy within tragedy, the way people behave is never the way it would be in an ideal world.

When people are talking about things that are dangerous there is usually an odd humour in that. Now we have to be very careful because we are in an emotive subject, and people will say none of this is funny. Of course it’s not funny when there are killings.

But human life in all of its profundities is always to me a mixture of the comic and the tragic. The best drama always has elements of both. It’s certainly not a knockabout comedy, more a humour that grows out of the profundity of what humans are.”

What do you think Paisley would make of your portrayal?

As the world speeds up there is a fashion for biographies and films about very recent events. Look at Steve Jobs. I don’t know what the big man would make of this; but I can say I’m trying to delve in and understand him rather than impersonate him.

We are talking about a long and very eventful life. He was a man of faith and a man of conviction – one that not everyone liked. The only simple thing an actor can do is try to understand how that human being works and then become it.

Do the two main characters seem alike to you?

To a great extent yes. I think the script is fantastic. It seems to say that the problem lies in the strength of both their beliefs. If there was anybody you could accuse of having the courage of their convictions it was Ian Paisley.

Whether that creates discord or divisiveness, you can be sure he was a man of principles. He was obviously prepared to stand up for them. And I think he recognised that in the other side. I would have not gone anywhere near the film if I thought it was in any way manipulative.

It seems to me an incredibly well balanced, a very well thought through understanding of both sides. The script lays it out for you and lets you decide. They are men of frailty and men of massive texture, so that’s the interesting thing. Of course what we all know is that they came together and became friends.

You only have to look at the footage of McGuinness being told the news of Paisley’s death to see there was this very unlikely connection, personally as well as politically. Have you worked with Nick Hamm before? No I haven’t and he’s so passionate. It’s a very personal project with him. It felt like a very rare and wonderful experience thanks to him.

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