He was in his 20s and nudging 18 stones.
Good roles were avoiding him and going to contemporaries who might not necessarily have been better actors.
They were just slimmer. Such is the harsh world of showbiz.
Spall pared himself down to a more acceptable size and trimmed five stones off his weight.
Suddenly, thanks you can’t help but wonder in small part to the dramatic weight loss, he’s the focus of writer/director Dan (Borat) Mazer’s “anti-romcom” I Give It A Year, frolicking naked with co-star Rose Byrne and, ahem, letting everything hang out… Hugh Grant never had to do that.
“Hugh Grant is a really amazing actor and a hero of mine,” says 29-year-old Spall, deftly sidestepping a question about being nude on screen.
“People underestimate what he does. To be able to bring to the screen whatever makes you attractive in real life is no mean thing and he does that beautifully.
“That was what I was trying to do – to bring a version of myself to it.”
But having been ignored in the past due to his size was he nervous about actually delivering? Spall laughs.
“Yes! I was nervous about playing a leading part in a Working Title romantic comedy. I tried to do my best and whittle myself into any semblance of handsomeness. That was hard going, let me tell you. It doesn’t come naturally, my handsomeness.
“And I was also nervous about the fact that I had to not only take my clothes off but get my willy out. There are certain things you can do to make yourself look better but there’s nothing you can do about your willy.
“Your willy is your willy and, no matter what, nothing is going to make your willy any different. You get what you’re given.”
After playing support to Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead and Elijah Wood in Green Street, Spall’s career, like that of his father Timothy before him, has really taken off. And, like his father, the roles seem to be those that an actor can really get his teeth into.
He was in two of the biggest films of last year – Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi – and was mesmerising as a psychopath in TV’s The Shadow Line in 2011.
Next up is The F Word, alongside Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe.
Clearly Spall is on the way up – one to watch. And as his career takes off Spall has cause to pause and ruminate on where he’s at.
“Who’d have thought I’d be in a Ridley Scott film and an Ang Lee film? I watch their films; I don’t know why I’m in them but I’m in them. I shall take things away forever, things that I’ll keep to myself.
“You get a note from Ang Lee, you listen to him and then he walks away and you think ‘Ang Lee just spoke to me!’ because first and foremost I’m a fan of films. I love movies. I love Ang and Ridley’s films so to be able to be a part of them… bloody hell! You do get over it.
“Most actors operate from a place of fear – a fear of getting sacked, of things not working out, getting the dreaded tap on the shoulder. You just want to do your best and particularly with people like Ang and Ridley. I want to make them like me. That’s what links great directors together. You want to please them.”