“I’m sorry I’m in my gym clothes” is the first thing Matt Smith says when he arrives to an empty coffee shop in his neighborhood of North London, a location he later regrets due to its preference for blaring experimental jazz. But the casual sensibility is a compelling juxtaposition to Smith’s on-screen work, where he typically plays edgy, live-wire characters, often drawn from real life. In other words, the actor, 36, isn’t usually seen in sweat pants, casually hunched over a table drinking milky tea.
Today is a day off from filming “Morbius,” Sony’s next Spider-Man villain spin-off, which stars Jared Leto as the blood-sucking comic book nemesis. The actor’s not at liberty to say who he’s playing — a type of secrecy Smith’s familiar with after years of playing the Doctor on “Doctor Who.”
“That’s no big deal,” he confirms. “You just keep your mouth shut.” But he will say that his former “Doctor Who” costar Karen Gillan — who recently broke box office records with both “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Avengers: Infinity War” — encouraged him to finally make the leap into superhero blockbusters.
“Karen’s amazing,” Smith says. “She’s going to end up ruling the world. I can’t tell you her exact advice to me — I’d have to kill you. But she told me that she really likes it, making those movies. That was enough for me.
“And that’s been my experience so far. I really like the director, Daniel Espinosa, on [‘Morbius’]. I’ve kind of waited [comic book movies] out a bit. I nearly did one last year and then I didn’t. This one felt right because of him.”
Spending 12 weeks making a major studio film is a drastic shift from Smith’s recent projects, which include the Robert Mapplethorpe biopic “Mapplethorpe,” out now, and Mary Harron’s re-examination of the Manson girls in “Charlie Says,” which arrives in theaters May 10. The actor took on both after the end of his stint on the acclaimed Netflix drama “The Crown,” in which he played another real person, Prince Philip. He was purposeful in the selection of the projects, which went lightning fast in comparison to the endless production schedule of the first two seasons of “The Crown.”
“It just wouldn’t end,” Smith says of production on the lavish series. “I was ready to leave. I feel very privileged to have been part of it. But I was ready to do something else. And I was signed up to do something else, but then it kept going on and on and on and so that wasn’t happening and it made the end of it quite problematic for me. But that’s the nature of the beast.”
Once he had transitioned the role of Prince Philip over to Tobias Menzies, who will play the royal in Seasons 3 and 4 opposite recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman, Smith jumped ship for New York City, where “Mapplethorpe” was shot in only 19 days in summer 2017. The movie, directed by documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner, was an immensely intense experience Smith describes as “fraught,” because he had to achieve so much in so little time.
By that point, the project had been in the works for more than 12 years, heralded by producers Eliza and Nate Dushku, with James Franco originally attached to play the title role. Timoner became interested in Smith in 2012 after Franco dropped off, mostly because her son was a massive fan of “Doctor Who.” (Smith’s tenure on the beloved British sci-fi series officially came to an end on Christmas Day 2013.)
It took Smith two auditions (the first one he calls “really terrible”) to land “Mapplethorpe” in 2012.
“He has a certain charisma that lights up a room, but in a dark way,” Timoner recalls. “He has a gravitas that I needed to find in that character. His [second] audition was jaw dropping. I’d been looking for my Mapplethorpe for so long, but aside from James, I really hadn’t found anybody who could embody that role. And then, all of a sudden, there was Matt.”
Timoner shot the film primarily in reverse sequence, re-creating Mapplethorpe’s death — which marks its 30th anniversary on March 9 — on the sixth day. She says she was surprised that Smith, who lost more than 20 pounds for the role, didn’t walk off the film after being faced with the extreme pace of the production.
“It wasn’t easy,” Smith admits of stepping into the iconic photographer’s shoes for the movie, which follows Mapplethorpe over the course of his career. “That shoot was taxing, for a number of reasons, but that’s OK. I don’t think it should be easy, the artistic experience.
“That sounds like such a wanky thing, but the process of art doesn’t always have to be genial and nice, with the little blue birds that appear in Disney films. It should feel uncomfortable. It should push you to uncomfortable places. But every process offers something interesting, and having come off something like ‘The Crown,’ I wanted to go and live something. Just go away for 19 days and only think about that.”
Instead of finding something less intense, Smith followed “Mapplethorpe” by embodying Manson in Harron’s film, which shot last year in California (Smith’s scenes were done in only two weeks). Harron met the actor at an Emmys afterparty, introducing herself because she knew he’d played Patrick Bateman in the musical stage production of her cult favorite 2000 film “American Psycho” in London. She was looking for an actor to play Manson who could be believable to this specific story, which deals with the psychological states of three of his female followers after they were imprisoned for the Manson killings.
“I know it must seem like a strange idea initially, because physically, he is so absolutely unlike Manson, who was very small and weedy,” says Harron, who describes Smith as “kinetic.” “But I was very impressed with what I’d seen of Matt. When he did the audition, we just let him range all over the room, and he was just improvising and changing scenes. Afterwards, my casting directors both said, ‘This is why we got into the business. To be in the room for a reading like that.’ After that, there was nobody else.”
She adds, “There are certain actors, of which Christian Bale is one, who are chameleon actors. So when they play a role, they completely enter into it. They transform.”
Smith, who stands more than 6 feet tall, is equally aware that he’s not the most obvious choice to play Manson. “I’m too tall,” he says, shrugging. “I’m not American. I don’t look like him. I mean, it’s terrible casting in many respects. But I did it because I sort of had to. I really like Mary, but I did it because of the real people that I’ve played, like Robert Mapplethorpe or Prince Philip or Christopher Isherwood. I’ve come away from those people having a sense of who they are. But with Charlie Manson, I had no idea. I have no idea where the truth begins and the bull ends.”
Besides, he says, the point is to create something less obvious than just an imitation of a real person. “The sort of actor that I like to be is that you want to be unpredictable, even to yourself, on set,” Smith says. “Sometimes if you’re involved in mimicry, it can make that quite hard.”
Finding those unexpected moments can be challenging when portraying people with a specific public perception. For Smith, the key is to do a lot of preparation, including reading and watching as many videos as possible, and finding small entry points into each character.
With both Manson and Mapplethorpe, Smith stayed in his accent while on set, something he’s less inclined to do when filming in England. He learned guitar, somewhat poorly, in two weeks ahead of shooting “Charlie Says.” But once that preparation is done, it’s necessary to let it all go in front of the camera.
“It’s a leap of faith where you have to forgo control, which comes from doing loads and loads and loads of work, in my case before,” Smith says. “And then not really thinking too much on the day and not trying to control the outcome of things. You’ve got to take a leap of faith and just ignore everything and just listen to what’s going on and not try to control it. Because people, from one second to the next, don’t really know what they’re going to say. I mean, I don’t really know what I’m going to say.”
While both “Mapplethorpe” and “Charlie Says” were directed by women, Smith says that is just a coincidence. Still, he doesn’t need to take on the Time’s Up 4% Challenge, because he’s already been living it out his entire career.
“I’ve worked with a lot of female directors,” the actor says. “But that had no bearing on it. I like working with female directors. I’ve always had good experiences. It’s interesting seeing a woman in that space, in what is still, ostensibly, a man’s world. There’s just men everywhere. It brings a whole different sort of energy and quality.”
Smith doesn’t think of his work as television versus film either, although he’s focused on the latter at the moment. After “Morbius,” he’ll go straight into production on Edgar Wright’s thriller “Last Night in Soho,” which will shoot in London this spring.
He’s not in the next “Star Wars” film, despite reports to the contrary (“As far as I can tell, I’m definitely not,” he says) — although he is practiced in keeping secrets. Smith has also considered the idea of writing and directing his own projects (he previously directed a short called “Cargese” in 2013). But ultimately, he sees his career as a marathon, not a sprint — a logical conclusion for someone who has already gone from Doctor Who to Prince Philip to Charles Manson to the Spider-verse — and he expects there are still decades to figure this all out.
“However you get there, you get there,” Smith says of acting. “As long as you have a laugh and it’s good in the end — it’s such a long period, your career. There’s such pressure to do this, and then you can do this and then you can do this and then you’ll be able to do this and then you’ll win this. And then you’re [screwed], because all you’ve got to do is look down.
“But actually being an actor is really interesting, and if you do it over such a long period of time, you can take your time. I’m keen to maintain a level of surprise, even to myself.”