Interview with Timothy Spall, who stars in ‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’ ‘Commuter’ episode
Can you explain a little bit about your episode, and about the character you play?
It’s about a seemingly very normal, very affable, cheerful man who works at Woking station as a ticket seller and station worker. He puts the best slant on everything but actually his home life is very, very challenging because his young son and only child has a mental health problem and its causing issues between him and his wife. He’s always brushing it under the carpet but he tries to act like everything is alright but it’s obviously not. He’s hoping the problem might resolve itself but it’s not going away. He is deeply unhappy and refuses to acknowledge it and then one day a very mysterious woman comes into the station and asks for a ticket to a place that doesn’t exist. She’s disgruntled about not being sold a ticket but then she vanishes. Ed assumes it must be him hallucinating or she’s performed some kind of trick but she turns up again and insists this place exists and she disappears again but this time it’s seen by a colleague. In juxtaposition with this you are seeing his home life, visits to the psychiatrist with his son where things are getting seemingly worse. So one day, on a whim, after a particularly bad day at home he decides to get on the mysterious train. Without announcing anything the doors open and they start jumping out at the bottom of a field. He tries to stop them but he’s then compelled to follow them to this fascinating, strange, idyllic model village. Everything is seemingly perfect there, he goes to a café, enjoys himself and everything seems fine and marvellous there. He goes back home and doesn’t really tell anybody but when he returns again clues are given to him by a woman who works in the café that he can choose happiness or misery and what does he want to do? It’s a science fiction story with a massive personal, emotional, painful story underneath it.
What was it that attracted you to this project?
The story was fascinating as well as having this combination of the mysterious, the outlandish and the emotional; I always think that makes for the best science fiction. The director Tom [Harper], I’d always liked his work and Jack [Thorne] and the combination with Philip K. Dick. Also the character having a chance to navigate and excavate his way through this issue and the psychology of somebody who is in denial is quite an interesting angle. So to see whether we can sustain this imaginative reality through this bizarre journey and make it believable at all times was interesting. Ed is a fascinating, original character that on was the face of it very normal and simple but deeply complex underneath.
Were you already a Philip K Dick fan? Had you read any of his stuff, or seen any of the screen adaptations?
I hadn’t read any of his books but inadvertently I realised that I was a fan of the derivatives of his work through the amazing movies. Everything I thought about him from reading this story is true; he is a master of joining together the emotional with the outlandish. Imaginative science fiction stories are always connected to some form of human emotion which is absolutely implicit in this piece.
What was the experience of filming like?
It was very demanding as I was in every scene but I really enjoyed working with the director and the crew and the rest of the cast were great. It was very challenging as I was always trying to navigate this mysterious journey and also to try and play somebody who’s actively made a choice about how they want their life to be but haven’t, so this juxtaposition between what he does and doesn’t know is quite interesting. It’s a big metaphor for what people go through when they are in denial so on the face of it it’s a simple tale but again, like Ed, there are massive, clever echoes coming out of it. It was difficult but very rewarding at the end as I enjoyed working with the director, cast and crew so much. It was also bloody freezing at the top of this hill in Poundbury but that’s what happens when you film in late winter in England! To be in a joint venture with America and Britain in this new world of television is a very healthy thing on two levels - that some of the stories are filmed in the US and some of them filmed in the UK and that it’s a joint venture between established terrestrial and the digital.
How did you enjoy working with your co-stars?
They were tremendous. What I loved about working with Tuppence [Middleton] and Hayley [Squires] is, that apart from really liking them as people and having massive respect for their talent, I was impressed with their attitude. It made me think if you’ve got young actresses of that quality coming up there’s hope for our industry and I loved that side of it. And Rebecca Manley who played my wife was tremendous, I really got on with her considering we were meant to be at loggerheads. We laughed a lot in between so that was fantastic. Tom Brooke was fantastic and Rudi Dharmalingam who played my boss was great as well. Everybody on it was tremendous and Anthony Boyle who I had worked with before is a real talent. I think he’s a real prospect and a charming fella.
The series is so varied, and his stories are all so different. What do you see as the universal themes that unite Philip K. Dick’s work?
I can’t speak for the other films as I haven’t read the scripts, but I think what always sustains anything of these flights of the imagination is there’s a massive amount of humanity in it and the connection people make between the fantasy and human spirit and condition it seems to me that he is that master of that. However bizarre and outlandish some of the narratives are, you always get a sense that there is an investigation of the human condition within them.
Why do you think so many of his stories are still being made today?
I think people’s imaginations are being neutered by the amount of access they can get to information just by pressing a button. It’s a testament to the originality of what he did way, way before technology ever became so prolific, that this original fantasy speaks to people. People lap it up because there’s so much information out there but this is something that touches the human spirt as well as the imagination. It’s more than just a ride with Philip K. Dick. Take for instance Blade Runner that is an incredible story about dystopian future with robots and androids but even the androids use emotion. I think it’s the emotional complexity with the flight of the imagination which will always be appealing to people especially in a world where we are neutered by too much information.