By David Tennant’s estimate, he was about three years old when he first decided to become an actor. “I had a conversation with my parents about what actors were and the fact that they were people pretending and telling stories,” recalls the 43-year-old Scotland native. “That you could do that as a job seemed preposterously jolly to me.”
By the time he was 16 years old, Tennant — who took his stage name from the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant (he was born David McDonald) — was regularly appearing in stage and television productions, including a memorable part as a teenaged manic depressive in the 1994 Scottish series Takin’ Over the Asylum. In 1996, he made his film debut as “drunk undergraduate” in Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude. That same year, Tennant made his first appearance with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a production of As You Like It; today, he sits on the company’s board and has continued to be a fixture on its stage, starring as Hamlet alongside Patrick Stewart in 2008 and, most recently, in the titular role of Richard II earlier this year.
His official breakthrough, however, came in 2005. Shortly after coming off the BBC musical crime dramedy Blackpool, he was cast as the younger version of the world’s most notorious lothario in the miniseries Casanova; nabbed Hollywood’s attention as Death Eater Bartemius Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; and fulfilled his destiny when he was cast as the tenth incarnation of the good Doctor on Doctor Who, where he remained for five years. “Doctor Who was a massive influence” on his decision to become an actor, Tennant claims. “I think it was for everyone in my generation; growing up, it was just part of the cultural furniture in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties.”
After a series of film and voice roles, Tennant returned to the small screen in a big way last year when he was cast as Alec Hardy, a former metropolitan detective investigating a murder in a small town in the 10-part British megahit Broadchurch — a series that captured the country’s attention and was quickly dubbed “the Broadchurch phenomenon.” Which meant it was only a matter of time before Hollywood executives began sniffing around for the rights to adapt it for American audiences, with Fox eventually announcing it would be retooling the show as Gracepoint for its 2014 fall season. Then the company announced that this version would also star Tennant, reprising his role former big-city detective (this time named Emmett Carver) investigating a homicide in a tiny town where everyone is potentially a suspect.
Just days before Gracepoint‘s October 2nd premiere, Tennant spoke with Rolling Stone — ironically from the set of Broadchurch, which is currently filming its second season — about tactical thinking, why the most unusual ideas are usually the ones most worth pursuing, and his current bout with onscreen schizophrenia.
How much time did you have between wrapping Gracepoint‘s first season and going back to film’s Broadchurch‘s second series?
Oh, about 48 hours I think. I got on a plane in Canada after finishing Gracepoint and I had the read [pages] for Broadchurch the day after I landed. They had to finish me early on the American series so that I could get back to start the British one. It was all a bit tight.
I assume you had the scripts for the new season of Broadchurch while you were still filming Gracepoint?
I certainly had the first [episode], maybe the first two.
Did you really want to read it at that point?
I didn’t. [But] I read it when it arrived and thought, you know what? I am just going to have to hit the ground running with this, because it was too disorienting. They’re similar worlds, but they actually feel quite different. It’s rather schizophrenic, so I thought: I’m just going to have to deal with that when I get home.
Doctor who was a massive influence. I think it was for everyone in my generation.
With Broadchurch, what was it that initially attracted you to the series?
It was just a great bit of writing. I think that’s what always attracts you initially; the first reaction you have to the script is the most important because that’s the closest you are ever going to be to experiencing it as an audience. The only time you can really be objective and completely honest is when you read it for the first time. So if something really takes you somewhere and gets you excited the first time you read it, then I think you have to pay attention to that. And that happened with this one.
On one level, it’s a fairly straightforward crime drama, which we’ve seen thousands of times before. But the way that [series creator] Chris Chibnall drew the characters, it wasn’t just about a murder and who had done it; the story was also about this brilliantly drawn community. You felt the actual impact of a terrible crime like that, which we can get so inured to with TV crime dramas because it happens three times a week. It was so raw in a way that I wasn’t used to seeing it.
Having spent so many years on Doctor Who, were there certain things that you were looking to do — or not do — in your next television role?
No, not really. I don’t think I behave particularly tactically; I just try to respond to something that comes in. And as it happened, I had worked with both Chris Chibnall, who wrote it, and James Strong, who was directing it, on Doctor Who. I like working with people I know and trust, so that was another reason for me to get involved.
At what point did Fox start talking about purchasing the rights to make Gracepoint?
Ooh, I don’t know if I know that. I think the first season was maybe halfway through or something in terms of transmission, but I could be getting facts wrong here.
When did the idea first come about for you to play Emmett Carver in the U.S. adaptation?
That’s another good question. I have to figure out my dates. This is complicated! I should have a graph in front of me [laughs]. I know there was a moment where it was sort of a notion before it was actually green-lit, and I remember reading that I was connected before I was even aware it was actually happening. I think it sort of dribbled into being an idea. I seem to remember one phone call with somebody, an agent or something, and sort of saying, “Well is this actually happening?” — and someone went, “Oh, yeah! Did we not tell you? Yeah, yeah. We start filming in a few months.”
Obviously it was an unusual idea, and reasonably unprecedented. Shows get bought all the time and they get remade all the time, but it doesn’t happen regularly that someone gets to go with them. By that stage it had been such a sensation in Britain; it really captured the national consciousness in a way that you don’t really expect anything to when you are making it. So the idea that something that you knew works and that you knew had such an effect on the audience was going to be made again, but without that pilot nonsense — none of that torture you have to go through to know if a series is going to be made, just going straight to 10 episodes — it all just seemed too extraordinary.
You have the chance to take a character that you are familiar with and make it different. So how was your approach to the character in Gracepoint different than your original approach?
“Well, I’ve sort of played this character before so I’d better give him a limp this time or have an extraordinary hairdo…” [laughs]. I just tried to tell the story as best I could by reacting to the actors around me. I keep getting asked, “Was it peculiar to tell the same story again?” But as an actor, that’s part of what you do. You often do 14 takes of the same lines; in the theater, you tell the same story every night with all the same actors around you. So really, telling a similar story in a very different set of circumstances wasn’t as peculiar as I think a lot of people imagine it would be. If there’s a story that’s compelling and a script that’s good, then you think: Well, I’ll tell it as many times as people want to hear it, frankly.
Did you ever wake up thinking, “Wait, what accent am I doing today?”
I didn’t! I suppose that what’s been weird is that I’ve spent the better part of this last year with this character. But then it’s not the same character; they really feel quite different in my bones. Though they both look quite similar. And I’m quite looking forward to having a shave [laughs].
So if you’re willing to reprise this role, does that mean we’ll see you return to Doctor Who one day?
Well, they had the 50th anniversary and there was a bit of a reunion for us. You know, never say never. I don’t think that’s the sort of trick that you can pull off too frequently or the novelty wears off. But if I can still fit in the suit for the 60th anniversary, then maybe.