Tag Archives: David Tennant

The Cumberbatch tapes, #4: Spielberg v. Madonna

11 May

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This is the final part of my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, told as far as possible in his own words. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and my review of Star Trek Into Darkness here.

On how he got the part in War Horse (above): “I got told that Steven Spielberg was a fan of my work! And that was just… I mean I can’t say it without laughing. I made one of the archetypal actor’s jokes when someone said Oh you must be having a break after this because you’ve just come straight from Sherlock to this play, and I said yeah, I’m going to definitely have a two-week break – unless Spielberg calls! And then Spielberg did actually call! I had to read the script, sign a confidentiality agreement, and that was it, he gave me the part.”

…And how he didn’t work with Madonna: “There’s another rather famous woman, who will remain nameless, she’s doing a film at the moment [putting two and two together, that woman was Madonna and the film was her directorial debut,W.E.], who demanded almost a dress rehearsal with her operating the camera. And, er, being an actor you jump through the hoops, and I came out going Wow… the difference between a confident director who knows what he’s doing and someone who hasn’t got a f***ing clue is just miles.”

On Doctor Who: For once, Benedict was reluctant to talk. When he finally came out with it, it was as though imparting some great State Secret. Matt Smith had recently taken over from David Tennant as Doctor Who, and I wondered, had Benedict ever been considered for the role? Long pause, then: “Possibly yes.”

That and Sherlock are quite similar roles, in some ways, I probed. “Aaaaaah… possibly. Well. The idea of Sherlock came along before David’s recasting, we did the pilot over a year ago, that was just about when David was going to announce he was going to stand down. And David and I talked about it, but to be honest, it had to be radically different from him, and I’m not sure I’m interested in doing something… you haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century before, and that was much more appetising. And Doctor Who is a ‘Bond role’ in the sense that each incarnation puts his own stamp on it, but I didn’t really like the whole package, I didn’t want to be doing school lunchboxes, I didn’t want to be known for that and nothing else.”

On meeting former Tory leader William Hague to prepare for the role of William Pitt the Younger: “It was great, a real privilege, I went to see where Pitt would have stood in the Chambers, I went to dinner with William Hague and talked about his book [about William Pitt], it was a fantastic evening, really special.”

Hague seemed too young to be a plausible leader at the time, I say. “Like a precocious Mekon, wasn’t he, like a possessed child. But he’s charismatic, very intelligent, very good company – he’s fit, focused, he doesn’t talk down to you, a very smart man. I’d like to see more of him, especially now he’s Foreign Secretary, it’s a great role for him. It is absolutely intoxicating being in the House of Commons, there’s such a feeling of power about the place.”

Finally, what does he think of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes? “I really enjoyed it, it’s fantastic, he’s an extraordinary actor… but it’s really not Sherlock in my mind. He’s not Sherlock, he’s Robert Downey Jr!”

I’ve had some great feedback on Twitter (@DominicFilm if you want to Follow me) regarding this interview series. Benedict is lucky to have so many appreciative fans! Thank you, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Come back next week, when I will be reporting from the Cannes Film Festival.

What’s up, Doc: So just Who is Matt Smith?

30 Mar
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“A wild ride”: Matt Smith with co-star Jenna-Louise Coleman in The Bells of St John

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