Esquire magazine article from April 2010
THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW
A 903-year-old alien Time Lord is some role to take on. But, as Matt Smith steps into David Tennant’s shoes, we find he’s bringing a tough, gritty and cool approach to playing the universe’s favourite fourth-dimensional tourist
IF A MEASURE of an actor’s star credentials is their willingness to go that extra mile to nail a performance, 27-year-old Matt Smith’s stardom is incontrovertible. It’s a brave man who volunteers to bound enthusiastically into the Baltic Sea
sporting nothing more than a flesh-toned loincloth, but it requires extra reserves of courage to do so while a film crew and a Hollywood siren observe your every step.
The act in question frames a pivotal moment in the forthcoming film Womb
(a genetically modified tale of love, loss and cloning), and the movie star was blue-eyed, Bond temptress, Eva Green. “It was in St Peter-Ording, on the north coast of
Germany,” Smith recalls. “They said I could use a double, but I’d worked myself up to do it. So I went into the sea three times. It was the coldest I’ve ever been. The next shot we did, we were running along the beach and I was suddenly so frozen I just hit the deck. I couldn’t move.”
It’s a brief, but indicative example of the quiet determination that characterises the young export from the parish of Great Billing, on the outskirts of Northampton. When the BBC announced Smith as David Tennant’s successor in January 2009 — making him the youngest ever actor to assume the role of Doctor Who — the public response was mixed, partly because of the popularity of his predecessor, partly because he was, then, a relative unknown. But when we finally meet in an abandoned East End glass factory, it’s clear why Smith was awarded the title role of the most successful British sci-fi series of all time.
Tall and rangy, a side-parting channelling a mop of brown hair over his right eye, Smith’s every reflex exudes
his onscreen persona’s trademark energy, his long, dancing fingers framing each response with flamboyant gestures. His eyes betray a mischievous streak at odds with the maturity that has come to mark th, actor’s performances in the West End and on TV. A perfect fit, then, for an impatient 903-year-old alien time traveller trapped in the body of a fresh-faced earthling.
In an adjacent room, lighting rigs are being erected to make sense of the gloom that pervades the Edwardian premises, while an assistant has cranked the smoke machine all the way up to 60-a-day, leaving the impromptu photo studio resembling a Hammer Horror graveyard. Back in our fog-free corner, the conversation turns to childhood and his first love, football.
“It would piss off all the neighbours,” he reflects of his daily routine of playing football in the street, but the practice evidently paid off, as the ardent Blackburn Rovers fan went on to captain the under-15 academy team at Leicester City, before competing as a centre -half alongside Tottenham and England midfielder Jermaine Jenas at Nottingham Forest.
Unfortunately for Smith, his pro-football career ended before it began: “Essentially the white tissue in my back wasn’t regenerating, because I was playing too much,” he recounts, “and if I’d carried on, then in my mid-twenties I’d have had to have an operation, and you don’t really want to be having surgery on your spine. It was very tough though. I remember crying, because that was all I’d ever invested in. I hadn’t really considered acting.”
Luckily, his drama teacher Mr Hardingham had, and he was encouraged to fill in the forms for the National Youth Theatre. “That was the turning point,” he explains of the period he juggled sixth form studies with an acting course. His stage and TV work has seen him dabble with challenging subject matter such as incest (That Face, for which he earned a nomination for an Evening Standard Best Newcomer award) and office-based revenge (Swimming With Sharks, in which he co-starred with Christian Slater).
His audition and subsequent success in getting the part of the Doctor are well documented, but looking back, could it not be argued the writing was already on the wall? “I don’t know, it’s funny that,” he smiles. “At university I had a big coloured scarf, and people would often say Alright, Dr Who?’ And I thought, I rather liked the notion.” Then, apropos of nothing, his mum texted him a week before his agent alerted him to Tennant’s departure, to say how she thought he’d make the perfect Time Lord.
“I tried to make it as funny as it should be,” he says of his audition, “but it’s a bit like playing Hamlet. It has to be your version. The Doctor is so committed, whoever plays him. So I tried to be creative and artistic, and silly, and crazy, and also the cleverest man in the world, and part of that is there’s a rapidity to the way he speaks. He’s an intergalactic genius, a superhero-ish, mad, fumbling, bumbling, science geek. He’s everything you can pluck from any universe and put into him.”
Considering his character’s enviable combination of youthful looks, not one but two hearts (a byproduct of his extraterrestrial provenance) and all the wisdom of someone with just shy of a millennium of life experience, is it not odd that the Doctor makes for such a crap lover? “It’s because he’s too busy,” posits Smith. “He
humans fascinating, but imagine if you’d travelled round for 900-plus years on your own with this great weight behind you.He’s an addict — if he stopped saving the world, he’d be in real trouble.”
Another constant in the Who universeis the intense public scrutiny to which his sartorial choices are subjected. But while David Tennant’s wardrobe was allegedly inspired by Jamie Oliver’s questionable penchant for pinstripe suits and ConverseAll Stars, Smith claims the formulation of his new look (a style Esquire dubbed
“geography teacher meets Hoxton clubkid”) was organic. “We went through many stages. Our executive producer, Steven Moffat, was always very keen that we don’: want the costume to be the statement, that the Doctor’s clothes have to come from him. So one day I turned my trousers up and thought that’s good, then I thought an adventurer should have a big pair of boots. I brought some braces in from home, and we tried loads of jackets and settled on this, tweed one. But something was missing, and I said, ‘Can we try a bow tie?’ and everyone in the room went, `Oh, no, God!’ but then we tried loads on, and, well…”
The incumbent Time Lord has also bee- making inroads in the film business. Prior to a 14min short he was involved in last yea- called Together, he made a brief appearance in Martin McDonagh’s poignant In Bruges. as the younger incarnation of Ralph Fiennes irascible crime lord Harry Walters — although his performance didn’t make the final cut. “I’m the young Ralph Fiennes, and it was [meant] to show that I’m mad,” he says, “but Ralph’s performance is so good, you know he’s mad. And I did that the wrong way. I watched rushes of him and tried to imitate him. You have to reinvent.” (The scene is nonetheless a Tarantino- esque masterclass in retribution. Type “Matt Smith In Bruges Deleted Scene” into YouTube to enjoy the rough cut for yourself — dodgy sound effects, arteria and all Then along came Womb — which will tour the festivals this year in search of a distribution deal — and the opportunity to get up close to the inimitable Ms Green. “Eva has such poise and control,” he explains of his co-star. “While my energy bounces around, hers is precise and focused, and I learned from that. She’s in charge of her stillness, which is a real skill.”
His plans, for now, are straightforward. “It’s just to give everything I have to this show. I go in, do 14 hours on set, then come home and learn lines. I’m saying reams of mad dialogue, and you can’t blag that, you have to know it inside out.
“Hopefully I’ll always do work that will stretch me,” he continues. “I like the extremes you have to go to with acting That’s not to say I’d do it gratuitously, but those projects have been worth it. You know
when you read something, and your heart leaps? It was the same when I read the
first Doctor Who script.” So will Smith be a hit with the 10.4m fans who tuned in bid farewell to his predecessor? Only time, as the adage dictates, will tell, but
one thing is certain: it’s a role he’s taken to heart. Both of them, in fact.
The new series of Dr Who starts early April