David Tennant is having a serious case of déjà vu.
It was just two years ago when Tennant, the actor best known as the 10th Doctor in the "Doctor Who" cult franchise, began work in South West England for his non-Whovian role as Alec Hardy, one-half of a detective duo (i.e., the prickly and broody half) trying to solve the small-town murder of an 11-year-old boy in the taut British crime drama "Broadchurch." The series was met with high praise from critics across the pond and in the U.S. (when it rolled out on BBC America last year).
Now, without even a TARDIS to step into, he's doing it all over again.
The 43-year-old Scottish actor is reprising his role as the cantankerous detective in Fox's remake of the drama — only this time his character is named Emmett Carver, the show is set in a Northern California small town, and it's called "Gracepoint." The series premieres Thursday.
"It's such an odd thing to be asked to do," Tennant said. "To kind of reshoot something that was in many ways the same, but not really. I don't even know how to relay it. I'm not aware if this has ever been done before — therefore, I think it would have been churlish to say no to doing it, don't you think?" (It's not, in fact, unprecedented. AMC's "Low Winter Sun," which was adapted from a British series, featured Mark Strong reprising the lead role.)
The 10-part drama is part of Fox's focus on limited-run, or "event," series meant to help drive appointment viewing to the struggling network. The initiative, launched under the network's former Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly, kicked off earlier this year with the reboot of "24," and will continue next year with the rollout of M. Night Shyamalan's "Wayward Pines."
The question is whether the bloom has fallen off the murder-mystery rose. "Gracepoint" launches at a favorable time for the atmospheric whodunit, which in recent years has attracted critical acclaim along with a modest audience. Think AMC's "The Killing," the Sundance Channel's "Top of the Lake," "Rectify," and of course BBC America's "Broadchurch."
Tennant said the genre remains vigorous because audiences tap into the humanity of the gritty dramas.
"The sense of normality being ruptured is sort of terrifying to us all," said the animated actor in a brief moment of calm reflection. "It's about understanding how you cope with the extremes of the human experience. And a child dying is so against the natural order of things. It gives us a chance to explore people at their most vulnerable, their rawest — that's where drama thrives."
And Tennant apparently can't get enough of it.
The idea to have Tennant revisit his role came from Chris Chibnall, who created "Broadchurch," when he and producer Jane Featherstone were in talks with Shine America, the production company behind the American redo. With Fox onboard, the actor had no hesitation about doing it.
Tennant, who is currently filming Season 2 of "Broadchurch," admits he can't exactly pin down what the nuances are between Hardy and Carver — aside from the American accent he adopts in "Gracepoint." "It's weird because it's just instinctive. It's not like I can say, 'Oh, when I embody Hardy, I perspire about 25% less than when I embody Carver,'" he said.
Dan Futterman, who adapted the series with his wife, Anya Epstein, stresses that "Gracepoint" takes a different path than "Broadchurch" after a couple of episodes. And given that the series unfolds over 10 episodes versus "Broadchurch's" eight, the American version allows for more character exploration.
"It's kind of a weird experiment, but an interesting one," Futterman said by phone. "There are personal background things about David's character that are not in the original that is partially the result of the fact that we had a little bit more time do that."
Tennant, in his rolling Scottish accent, said his outlook was to be a "virgin" to it all.
"I tried not to think that I was doing this for the second time. I just thought, 'Well, what are the circumstances of this moment and how is that influenced by the people around me?' Because that is inevitably going to be different."
His partner-in-crime-solving is Anna Gunn, in her follow-up to "Breaking Bad." She plays Det. Ellie Miller in the role originated by Olivia Colman, and her character is at odds with Carver from the start.
"It's a very different central relationship," he said. "Although they are both called Ellie Miller, Anna and Olivia are very different actresses and bring such a different energy that I can't help but be pushed in a different direction by that. Hardy finds Miller rather more exasperating, whereas Carver has a bit more of a combative relationship with Miller. There's a slightly different power structure there."
Gunn said there was comfort in knowing Tennant had walked the path before that allowed for some deviation.
"He did some different things with his own character that were very interesting, and it helped color the relationship differently," Gunn said by phone. "He likes to joke that we are the new Cagney and Lacey. I said to him at one point, 'Does it feel like you're cheating on Olivia?' And he said, 'You know, I had that feeling at the very beginning, but now we've become our own thing.'"
It's not something Tennant is too concerned about.
"We're not making the show for people who have seen it before," Tennant said. "We're not apologizing for the fact that it's been told before, because it's a great story to tell — and 99% of America hasn't seen it yet."