Matt Smith is not your typical leading man. Even his co-stars say he looks “odd”, “alien”, “like a mad scientist”… “everything about him is just weird”. He’s over six foot tall, yes, but thin as rake, and with a head like a shovel. You’d be more likely to use him on your garden than cast him in a drama.
And yet, as Doctor Who, he has turned his distinctive features to advantage: it’s not hard to convince viewers that he really is a super-sentient alien time-traveller with two hearts.
When Smith was first announced as the 11th Doctor, viewers didn’t know what to make of him. David Tennant was a hard act to follow: handsome enough to have Casanova on his CV, he had made the part uniquely his own. Benedict Cumberbatch once told me he’d balked at the suggestion that he might step into Tennant’s shoes, taking on Sherlock Holmes instead.
Matt Smith had no such fears. He threw himself into the role with such physical intensity and raw charisma that he became the first Doctor to be nominated for a BAFTA, and I’m not alone in thinking he is the best Doctor there has ever been.
Strangely, he is only an actor by default. As Doctor Who would tell you, there is an infinite number of parallel universes, and in most of them Smith is a professional centre-back on even more than the £250,000-plus a year the BBC is said to pay him, employing those God-given gifts of gangly height and gigantic forehead to nod the ball to safety.
In this universe, however, Smith’s career in Nottingham Forest and Leicester City’s youth teams was cut short at 16 by a back injury. His doting father, the boss of a plastics company, ferried him to Leicester for treatment every day for a year, but Smith never fully recovered.
Smith was pressured into joining the National Youth Theatre by a school drama teacher, and went on to study Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. The fearless way he threw himself into his roles, as he might tackle a speeding striker, got him noticed. An agent signed him even before he’d taken his finals.
Until 2008, Smith was still playing teenagers: he acted in The History Boys at the National Theatre, and won rave reviews as Lindsay Duncan’s son in That Face. And then, suddenly, he was playing a 900-year-old Time Lord.
Smith was still only 26 when he became Doctor Who, the youngest ever. He’s turned it into a plus: on him, tweed jackets and bow ties look more chic than geek. He’s made the series into a US hit, too, tapping into a particular brand of Britishness that appeals to Americans: eccentric, bumbling, intelligent, more likely to challenge a woman to a game of chess than make a pass at her. Smith might have modelled his Doctor Who on the famous photograph in which Einstein playfully sticks out his tongue, but Americans are more likely to think of him as a younger, livelier, space-age Hugh Grant.
So what’s next for our Matt? He made Bert and Dickie, a mismatched-buddy-movie for the BBC about two Brits who took rowing gold in the 1948 Olympics. He’s going to be filming a US movie opposite Ryan Gosling, and he keeps hinting that he’d love to be cast as a young Macbeth. He recently directed a Sky Arts drama, Cargese. But otherwise, it’s still not so much what, as Who.
Smith is soon returning to Cardiff to film the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who, and is clearly in no hurry to hang up his sonic screwdriver just yet. “It’s a wild wave when you get to surf it,” he smiles, “and I think you have to make the most of it while you can.”
A longer version of this post first appeared in Sense magazine