Born in West Lothian, David Tennant was a student on the Dramatic Studies course at the RSAMD from 1988 to 1991.
Familiar to millions as the star of Doctor Who, David’s TV career stretches back to the early 1990s, with parts in Taking’ Over the Asylum and Rab C Nesbitt. Since 2004, he’s had a string of high profile roles, including for the BBC He Knew He Was Right, Blackpool, and the title role in Casanova. David has been at the helm of the Tardis since regenerating from Christopher Eccleston in June 2005.
His theatre work includes stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. He was nominated for an Olivier Award for the role of Jeff in Lobby Hero at the Donmar Warehouse and it was while he was appearing in The Pillowman at the National Theatre in London that he was offered the role of Barty Crouch Jr in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
In June David generously agreed to come into the Academy to be interviewed and take part in a question and answer session with students on the BA Acting course.
Q: What do you remember most about your Academy audition?
A: Because I was young – I was probably only 16 when I came in - I did the two most famous plays in the world, Hamlet and Death of a Salesman – probably not the most appropriate roles in hindsight!
Q: What was your least favourite college role?
A: I always seemed to be playing old men. That Willy Loman audition piece must have affected things somehow. I was the youngest on the course but always putting on grey make up and affecting a stoop.
Q: Most important thing you learnt at the RSAMD?
A: I loved the all-consuming nature of drama school. I liked having to fit everything in and juggling maybe three or four parts at the same time. Being slightly too busy all the time is energising and inspiring and it was a great experience especially because I was so green.
Q: Allegedly you auditioned for Taggart many times but were never cast! How did you deal with unsuccessful auditions?
A: Very quickly it just becomes part of the job. If it’s something you’ve had three recalls for then of course it’s a much bigger disappointment but mostly you just move on to the next thing.
Q: What was your first professional job?
A: It was a Brecht tour with 7:84. We toured round Scotland in a van and the company included Ashley Jensen – she was the grown up in the group as she’d already been working for a year and felt like the old hand.
Q: You’ve played quite a few creepy characters: the slimy Rev. Gibson in He Knew He Was Right and even a nasty piece of work in The Bill; was it a positive move to take on a ‘force for good‘ type role with Dr Who?
A: I’ve always been spared the straight-down-the line square jawed types which I’m quite glad about. The slightly left of centre parts are always more interesting to play. Even Casanova was a character role rather than a standard hero.
Q: Accents seem to come very easily to you - do you enjoy using accents and what’s the most obscure accent you’ve had to do?
A: I really enjoy doing accents. The only one I did have a bit of difficulty with was Birmingham which I had to do for a radio play. Luckily when I got to the studio Frank Skinner was there which helped a lot! Accents and dialects are good because they give you a way of changing yourself externally which allows you to key into a kind of internal shift – this helps a lot with building a role.
Q: John Gielgud said the first thing he did when starting to work on a part was to find the right pair of shoes – do you use clothes or anything else tangible when working on a role?
A: Not really, there’s not one thing that is a trigger for me, but physicality is often a way into a part. You’ve got to guard against just going to something in a disguise. You need to find the emotional truth and sometimes something else can take you there.
Q: Are you a physical actor?
A: Hmm, not sure. I’ve never done the amazing stuff that some theatre companies like Théâtre de Complicité use but the physicality of a character is important to me. I quite enjoy stunts and running around – I like belting along and making some poor girl in high heels keep up! If I have a technique then I suppose physicality is part of it.
Q: Which legendary actor would you most like to have worked with?
A: Audrey Hepburn
Q: Favourite film of all time?
A: Twelve Angry Men
Q: Can you sing? Would you ever consider doing a musical?
A: I can bang out a tune, and yes I’d love to do a musical – I’m still waiting for the phone call.
Q: You’re alone in a bothy in Benbecula with only a CD player and 3 tracks to play – what would they be?
A: Definitely something by The Proclaimers, ‘Dignity’ by Deacon Blue for that celtic soulboy vibe and ‘Me and the Farmer’ by The Housemartins.
Q: What Shakespearean role would you like to play?
A: There are so many! I haven’t done Hamlet – it would be nice to do that while I’m still young enough! Iago, Benedict, Richard II, I could go on – they’re all great parts. I don’t particularly covet Macbeth though, don’t think that one is really me.
Q: When you receive a script, what grabs you about it?
A: A script just works or it doesn’t. It’s something chemical. Good writing just is – it’s difficult to define. Sometimes it’s something that plays with a role so much that it shouldn’t work but it does. The story has to take you along and the dialogue has to sound like someone is really speaking it. You just know. That first pure reaction is quite an important one.
Q: What kind of experiences have you had at auditions?
A: All sorts. I met Stephen Fry for the film of Bright Young Things and that was just very straightforward – because Stephen is an actor himself I think he didn’t want to torture us with a long drawn out process. I was incredibly relaxed for the Casanova audition because I didn’t believe for a second I would get the part and therefore felt pretty laid back about it.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: I keep meeting people who inspire me - I don’t have one individual in mind. Among actors I admire are Mark Rylance who is extraordinary – his playing of Hamlet is still something that lives in my mind. He seems to channel something ethereal in his work. Billie Piper has an ability to be completely relaxed and emotionally very open so it seems like she’s not working at all and that’s very inspiring. Some people’s craft is so intricate – Maggie Smith, for example, the way she can turn a line. I’m continually surprised and inspired by the people I work with. And sometimes .
Q: Do you feel trapped by Dr Who?
A: Not at all, the time – nine months filming – is a big commitment and it means that it’s not possible for me to do some theatre, say, in between series, but I’m having a ball, so trapped isn’t the word – it’s very humbling to be seen as part of something that people are so attached to. It’s an experience I’m delighted to have had.
Q: Do you feel tempted by Hollywood?
A: I’m not un-tempted! But I’m in no rush. I’ve never had a great five year plan. I wouldn’t say no if something came by and was worth doing. But I’ve seen friends go out and it can be very tough and demoralising so I’ll just see what happens.
Q: Have you ever had protracted ‘resting’ times?
A: I’ve been very lucky and not really had any periods without work – just a couple of months here and there. Not getting work is the thing about our job which is rubbish – you can’t do it on your own. I think the only thing to do is to keep positive and try not to watch Countdown. Fill your days otherwise you’ll go mad. I’ve sometimes taken jobs just to keep working because I hated not working but that’s not the best way for everyone and sometimes it’s right and proper to turn things down – it’s just I’ve never really done it!
Q: How do you deal with fame?
A: Fame is not something I chase and it takes a bit of getting used to. It’s a bit weird the first time a photographer chases you down the street. But it’s churlish to complain about it. I like being recognised for what I do and I’m proud of what I do – being a well-known actor is a very privileged position. I don’t talk about my private life – I choose to define my own boundaries and not take every available publicity opportunity. I don’t think I would have coped very well at 21 so I’m glad I’ve had a few years working first before dealing with being famous.
Q: Have you been in contact with any of the other actors who have previously played Dr Who?
A: I never met Christopher Eccleston as even for the regeneration scene we were filming at different times, but it would be great to have a chat about the role sometime, though he’s in the US these days. Tom Baker and Peter Davidson both sent me notes on the first day of filming. Tom’s said something like if I had half as much fun as he did I’d have a great time, and Peter Davison asked if there were any spare parts going. Always the working actor. . .
Q: How did you enjoy being part of a repertory company in Dundee?
A: It was fantastic training. I did a whole season – three plays one after the other, rehearsing one during the day and performing in another that evening. It was great because I got to play parts that I might not naturally have been cast in.
Q: How difficult is it playing opposite a sci-fi type creature?
A: Well, actually you get used to it remarkably quickly. It’s not so different from being in a Shakespeare history play and having to imbue someone you just saw in the canteen that day with kingly status. It’s the same imaginative leap – the person you were talking to at the catering van that morning now has seven green tentacles on their head, or whatever. You just get on with it. I love it – it’s just like being in the playground really!
Q: Do you watch yourself on screen?
A: It’s always hard to watch your own work on screen. You have to be careful when you do it. I don’t personally watch rushes as we go because if you watch a performance that’s still developing it can feel a bit bald and raw. So I’d rather see the finished product, if I have to.
Q: What do you do in your downtime when you’re on set?
A: You need to be able to relax, as filming days are long – often starting at six in the morning and going on until eight at night. You can’t be primed every second – you’d kill yourself by week three. You need to chill out but be ready to take the time you need to prepare for a challenging scene. It’s all about choosing your moment: knowing when to get a bit of space to prepare and knowing when you can just have a chat or read the paper.
Q: Did you learn the technical side of filming as you went along?
A: Yes, I had to because it wasn’t part of my course then. There are all sorts of terms that can throw you if you don’t know them when you start out but I found that film crews were always happy to help. You learn a bit about editing too, along the way, learning to save your best performance for a close up and not a wide shot, that kind of thing. It’s about getting the right emotional state as raw as you can make it on the right take which is just something you get right with experience.
Q: Do you have a technique to help you with very emotive scenes?
A: If you’ve got a technique for reaching an emotional point it immediately invalidates itself. You need to take yourself by surprise a little bit. If you need to listen to a certain piece of music, for example, as a trigger I think your reaction stops being potent. I personally just need a bit of quiet . But you know, there are no rules – if it works for you then you should do it.
Q: How much research do you do for your roles?
A: For Recovery, when I played someone with a serious brain injury, I did a lot. If you’re playing someone who has a real and difficult condition like that you can’t just turn up and do your own thing. We had great resources to call on for that drama with unlimited access to carers and experts and that helped enormously.
Sometimes though, there isn’t time to immerse yourself in a subject. I’ve just finished playing Eddington, the astrophysicist. Well, I know a bit more now than I did when I started but with something like neutron physics you’re going to have to busk it a bit and rely on the script to help you out!
Q: What can you tell us that’s coming up?
A: As well as Einstein and Eddington I’ve just done a comedy-drama called Learners with Jessica Stevenson and I’m about to start filming the next series of Doctor Who.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give our acting students?
A: Get in touch with the Taggart casting director now!
Q: Last word?
A: It’s been lovely to come back and good luck to everyone. It’s the best job in the world!