You’ve probably seen Timothy Spall. But you’ve never seen him do anything like “Mr. Turner.”

Spall has been one of Britain’s great character actors for more than three decades now. He played Wormtail in the “Harry Potter” movies. He made a great impression as Winston Churchill in “The King’s Speech.” And he’s made a long string of lauded films with English writer-director Mike Leigh (“Topsy Turvy,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Life is Sweet”).

“I like to use the phrase I’ve been regularly tolerated over the years,” Spall says about his long career. “It takes the arrogance out of it.”

Spall’s speaking in a Toronto hotel last September during the Toronto International Film Festival. He’s on the road promoting his and Leigh’s latest collaboration, a film biography of the brilliant but highly eccentric 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner.

In the film, Spall plays Turner as a grunting, self-involved, near-beast of a man who is, at times, tender, inquisitive, loving and socially inept. Spall and Leigh spent years developing the character based on the historic record.

“There’s quite a lot of evidence that he was a deeply incongruous character to be the harbinger of such fantastic genius,” Spall, 57, says. “There’s this wonderful tension between this simian-like character — this man who’d almost come out of the marshes of the river Thames — with this amazing polymathic brain, with this slightly injured soul damaged by his childhood.”

Turner grew up in London, the son of a barber. When he was young, his mother was committed to the mental hospital that would eventually be called Bedlam.

“Eventually, he stayed with some family people in the Bristol area where he was called King of the Rocks. Every day he’d get up, take his pad and go out and paint rocks. And they could see he was this talented boy, a prodigy in a sense,” Spall says.

It’s the tension between Turner’s rough-gruff character and his brilliance, along with Leigh’s painterly visual style, that drives the film, which earned Spall the best actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“We knew, because it’s patently obvious, that what we were doing is a study of incongruity. If you wanted to give it a subtitle you could say ‘Genius comes in interesting packages,’ you know?” Spall says. “This was a working class guy who was given these talents and this unfortunate bruising, scarring of his nature from his mother.”

Spall delivers a bravura performance in “Mr. Turner.” But don’t expect to see him do it again.

“I’ve always been interested in the protean side of acting. You can shapeshift, you can go from playing a man in the gutter to a man in a palace. That’s always interested me,” he says. “I’ve always tried to change.”

And if that means more character parts, that’s fine with Spall.

“I’m not physically or facially built to play a man with a ray gun who gets the girl, so I’ve got to try and give these little guys a certain amount of majesty,” the actor says. “Because however ordinary anybody is, they have the same emotions as the noble and the kingly.”

‘Mr. Turner’

Opens Friday

Rated R for some sexual content

Running time:

150 minutes

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