David Tennant: ‘Doctor Who’ role was ‘impossibly fortunate’
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Robert Lloyd recently interviewed ‘Doctor Who’ star David Tennant for a lengthy piece in the Los Angeles Times but there still wasn’t enough room for all of the good stuff that came out of the lively conversation. So, Lloyd has given the Hero Complex a deeper transcript of his chat with the soon-to-expire ‘Tenth Doctor.’ Tennant is expected to regenerate into replacement Matt Smith in the two-part finale ‘The End of Time,’ which begins Dec. 26. The actor has been in Los Angeles filming his first American pilot, ‘Rex is Not Your Lawyer,’ for NBC.
RL: American series television seems to have become a regular career path for British actors.
DT: I think British actors have always aspired to that because there’s an international market in America which isn’t quite the same at home. We have something of a film industry and we have some television product which travels internationally, but it’s limited. So I guess we are fortunate in that we speak the same language as America -- it’s always there as a possibility, I suppose. And you’re always wanting to see what’s out there in life, make sure you haven’t missed an experience, make sure you’re not 82 and looking back and thinking I wish I’d done that then. We shall have to wait and see whether America’s interested, but at least I can say I tried. You never know from any year to the next how things are going to pan out, and I think you just have to treat it all as a bit of an adventure so that you’re neither crushed nor overwhelmed by what may occur.
RL: When you began to meet with American producers, did you find that they were familiar with ‘Doctor Who,’ or did you need to explain yourself?
DT: At one end you have huge fans who are getting you to sign their DVD box sets when you’re in having a meeting, and on the other end you’ve got people who don’t even quite know why they’re meeting you -- somebody’s told them, ‘There’s this guy over from Britain and he’s in a show so maybe you should take a meeting,’ and they’re slightly bewildered at the whole prospect. ‘Doctor Who’ clearly doesn’t have the ubiquity it does at home, and yet there are some people who really get it and are very enthusiastic about it. But it’s certainly easier to get around out here -- I just put a baseball cap down over my face and go to the shops.
RL: How hard is that at home?
DT: Well, ‘hard’ makes it sound like a terrible sufferance, which it’s not. But one is recognized fairly regularly there, whereas here it’s about once a day.
RL: How did ‘Doctor Who’ transform your career -- are you a different actor, or a different commodity, now than you were before?
DT: I don’t know if I’m a different actor. That’s an interesting question, I don’t know that I’ll know for a few years how it’s altered what I do. ‘Doctor Who’ has a level of popularity, in Britain certainly, which allowed me opportunities I probably didn’t have before, and I think it was almost all positive from that professional point of view -- which I wasn’t necessarily sure it would be. It’s a bit of a gamble going into any kind of long-running series, especially one that has such a high recognition factor. You’re never sure if that will work against you, this notion of typecasting that gets bandied around among actors. But I get a sense that we’re in a kind of world now where if you’re popular for one thing then people are interested in having you for another, which maybe wasn’t always the case. And ‘Doctor Who,’ which perhaps once was slightly derided as a piece of popular culture, currently -- certainly in Britain -- is seen as a sort of quality product, so I’ve benefited from that. Any slight nervousness I had about it having a negative impact on me professionally has proved not to be the case, I think.
RL: You made the decision to leave some time ago.
DT: Yes. Myself and Russell T. Davies, the show runner, and Julie Gardner, the executive producer, the three of us talked about the prospect of all leaving together, which means the show can kind of reboot a bit with a whole new team and a couple of leading actors. Steven Moffat, who is now the show runner, was a big part of the show we made, but now he’s in charge and will be putting his own stamp on it. But I’m sure it’ll still be recognizable as the same show.
RL: Was it hard to go?
DT: It was hard because I felt very fondly toward it. I’ve always been a huge fan of ‘Doctor Who,’ so to find myself in the middle of it was always impossibly fortunate, and to walk away from something that you love and are having a great time doing is sad. But I think it’s the right thing to do, and that we did it for the right amount of time. It’s been such a big hit in Britain, and every year we did it, it seemed to get bigger, and although it’s wonderful and thrilling to be part of it, you also feel the pressure of not wanting to be there when it ... turns a corner. You want to hand it over in rude health. It’s the sort of show that takes a lot of energy and a lot of commitment and a lot of inspiration and a lot of ... attack. You can clearly give it as much as it requires for only so long before you start repeating yourself, and I was keen to make sure we didn’t get to that point.
RL: What was your feeling when you first read the final scripts -- trepidation, anxiety, a sense of impending loss? Excitement?
DT: I was nervous they would somehow disappoint, but of course they didn’t. I read them in my trailer and had a wee cry. They are so beautifully written. I was just delighted to be going out with such a bang.
RL: When the show returned to the air, with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, were you already on board for as his replacement or did you first see it as just another fan?
DT: I was campaigning for a guest spot! I knew Russell and Julie because I was working with them on ‘Casanova’ [a 2005 miniseries] at the same time as they were making the first series. I was actually quite brazenly trying to get a guest spot on one of the episodes, so it was all news to me that Chris was only doing one year when they asked me to step in. It was strange -- the first year hadn’t broadcast when I had that conversation, so when it came on air I knew what was happening, and that if the series went for a second year I’d be involved.
RL: How did the fan in you react to the new series?
DT: I was thrilled that it was back, delighted that it was being done with such love and attention and taken so seriously by all involved. But again, it’s all slightly mixed up in the fact that I got shown some episodes by Russell and Julie in what I thought was just a social night, at the end of which they said, ‘And we’re also looking for someone to do it for year two.’ So I can’t really separate out my experience of watching an episode for the first time with knowing that it might become a bigger part of my life.
RL: Did you have a moment of adolescent glee at being offered the role?
DT: I had a couple of weeks of indecision, actually. Russell said, ‘I know you’re probably having some sort of surprisingly conflicting emotions about this,’ because he had that experience as a fan suddenly asked to be involved, and it wasn’t an immediate rush for him either. You’re being asked in a way take on the expectations of your 8-year-old self, and that’s quite an undertaking. So I was surprised at how difficult I found it to say yes -- you had to wonder if this was a clever idea. I knew that the episodes that they made were good but you don’t know what that capricious, critical, public reaction will be. This kind of drama was not being made in Britain at the time. We hadn’t made a science fiction drama for I don’t know how many years, or for that kind of family audience -- it wasn’t a children’s show but neither was it a gritty adult drama. So it was a huge gamble. I knew that with Russell at the helm it was going to be a quality product, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into something that will be taken into the nation’s heart, as ultimately it was. And so I vacillated a bit, and then I just woke up one morning and thought, ‘What are you doing, you can’t let this opportunity go by.’'
RL: Where were you in your career at that point? Where were you were headed?
DT: I never felt like I was headed anywhere; I’ve always sort of bumbled, to be honest; I’ve always just gone from one contract to other; I’ve been mostly fortunate that I’ve been able to join them up. And that’s all I ever really hoped for.
RL: The film of your ‘Hamlet,’ which you played for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2008, will air here on PBS in 2010. What was it like playing that role in the midst of becoming a pop-cultural phenomenon?
DT: It’s very difficult to imagine oneself as a pop cultural phenomenon. When I did ‘Hamlet,’ I did it, well, because it was ‘Hamlet’ at the Royal Shakespeare Company -- who wouldn’t? To me it was a logical step, ‘cause I’d done a lot of work at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I slightly underestimated how noteworthy that might be to those who weren’t perhaps aware that that was a large part of what I did, so I was slightly taken aback by how much attention that got and how people were rather surprised that the same person who played Doctor Who would also play Hamlet. It just made it all the more alarming, because it’s a nerve-wracking enough thing to do, but when you realize that everybody’s watching and waiting for you to fail at it, it doesn’t really allow one to cut loose and feel emboldened. On the opening night in Stratford when outside my dressing room window the BBC News 24 truck pulled up, I realized that if I failed at this it was going to be on a fairly international level, which wasn’t really the plan. [Laughs.] So, yes, it was nerve-wracking -- but also thrilling, that it got so much attention and was, broadly speaking, very well-received.
RL: Is it a role you would have gone to in the normal course of things?
DT: It was always an ambition, certainly, and certainly to do it somewhere like the Royal Shakespeare Company is kind of the pinnacle of that flavor of ambition; I’d played Romeo for them the last time I’d been there, so maybe there’s something of a natural progression. But it’s difficult to know whether without the celebrity of ‘Doctor Who’ it would have come my way quite as quickly as it did.
RL: Though I guess there’s an age limit with that part.
DT: Well, exactly, yes -- you’ve kind of got to get there before you’re 40, really, so I couldn’t have hung around much longer.
-- Robert Lloyd
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