Rafe Spall: We live in an age of comparison

Rafe Spall: We live in an age of comparison
As Apple TV+ comedy Trying returns for a second series, Danielle de Wolfe speaks with stars Rafe Spall and Esther Smith to discover more.

Social media’s ability to permeate every part of our lives means we are comparing ourselves to others – and probably feeling bad about it – like never before.

And while the online one-upmanship was restricted by the pandemic, with influencers swapping around-the-world trips and luxury hotel stays for home baking hacks and parenting how-tos, it hasn’t gone away. “We live in an age of comparison,” says actor Rafe Spall matter-of-factly. “We live in an age of measuring ourselves up against other people. That’s really, to me, the sole reason for things like Instagram.”

It’s a staunch reflection of 21st-century life from The Big Short and Life Of Pi actor, whose latest project, returning Apple TV+ series Trying, depicts the vying nature of the digital age. “You’re going, ‘Oh man, that person’s got a rockin’ bod on a beach, that’s made me feel bad,’” continues 38-year-old Spall, son of Bafta-nominated Harry Potter star, Timothy Spall.

“And also, ‘that dinner they’re eating tonight is a bit better than mine; that makes me feel rubbish’. The people posting that stuff are trying to elicit envy. It’s a weird thing – the culture that we’re living in.”

Episode 2. Rafe Spall and Esther Smith in “Trying,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on May 21. See PA Feature SHOWBIZ TV Trying. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Apple TV+.

It’s a phenomenon the actor has had plenty of time to reflect upon, given his character’s ongoing story arc. Together with co-star Esther Smith ( best known for her roles in Cuckoo and Black Mirror), the pair star as Jason and Nikki, a couple battling to become adoptive parents. “They are definitely, like all of us, victims of that cultural comparison,” reflects Spall of the issues faced by the on-screen couple. “We find the characters having been approved by a panel – and now they’re being matched with a child and there is a certain amount of competition for these children, as coarse as that sounds.”

Spall hopes though that the audience will feel supportive of Jason and Nikki, no matter what problems they face. “Whether it’s familial difficulties or difficulties with friends, they’re just two people that you root for, that you care about, that you hopefully identify with,” he says.

Faced with the realisation that adoption isn’t the straightforward process they initially thought, Spall says the forthcoming second series sees the couple pitted against “people who may have nicer houses, may have fancier jobs, and may have ostensibly achieved more”. He adds: “I think we all know how that feels.”

A window into a lengthy process many will never experience first-hand, Trying is a series underpinned by light-hearted storytelling, with writer Andy Wolton (Lookalikes/The Great Travel Hack) diffusing serious scenarios with generous helpings of sarcasm and wit. “He has a brilliant way of offering a very sensitive subject matter” says Smith, 34, with a smile, noting Wolton’s talent for “underpinning [adoption] with humour, which I think elevates the story”.

“He’s just so brilliant with those one-liners as well,” she continues, reflecting on a particularly comical moment in the opening episode where parallels are drawn between adopting a child and successfully securing Glastonbury Festival tickets. “You can relate to it, you know? You instantly know what that means as a viewer, whether you’re going through adoption or not.”

Undated Handout Photo from Trying. Pictured: Episode 1. Esther Smith, Rafe Spall, Sid Sagar, Ophelia Lovibond and Oliver Chris in “Trying,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on May 21. See PA Feature SHOWBIZ TV Trying. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Apple TV+. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ TV Trying.

Although Trying’s premise is every inch a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows, the show, as Spall goes on to note, is about so much more than just parenthood. “Even though we do have an idea about the thrust of the adoption storyline, everything else is up for grabs,” says Spall of the forthcoming second series. “Andy, in this series, has written a lot more for us as well because of what we brought to the characters. So that’s been collaborative and lovely.”

Shot over the course of several months during the pandemic, the show managed to avoid the lengthy shut-downs experienced by many other productions. The prospect of filming during Covid was like “going into the unknown” Smith says, but she explains they soon found a way through.

“It was interesting, going into [production] being like ‘well, we actually don’t know what that’s going to look like,’” she explains. “As human beings, we’re able to adapt to things so easily and even after a few days, it’s just like, ‘this is how we have to do it for now’.”

Trying season two debuts exclusively on Apple TV+ on Friday, May 21.

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