Doctor Who: Alex Kingston interviewed

She romped as Moll Flanders and sizzled in ER - how's life for River Song when she's not smooching with Matt Smith?

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Doctor Who
Andrew Duncan
Andrew Duncan
Doctor Who: Alex Kingston interviewed

Alex Kingston is talented, beautiful, elegant and experienced enough at 48 not to demean herself by having a publicist as a babysitter, although she remarks, “Interviews usually upset me in one way or another.” 

Her personal life, she insists, is off-limits. “I lead a very quiet life and never court publicity. I don’t go to a restaurant and let slip I’m leaving by the back door, like some celebrities. 

"My life isn’t interesting enough for anyone to hack my phone. I don’t agree with people opening up their lives to the public, but we’ve been brainwashed into thinking this is how it must be. I’m just not interested.”

We’ll ignore, for the moment, her marital status, her interesting way with actors who kiss over-enthusiastically, and the breasts she displayed magnificently in 17 energetic sex scenes during ITV’s Moll Flanders in 1996, which led to worldwide fame as Dr Elizabeth Corday in ER, and discuss Doctor Who instead. 

She plays River Song [catchphrase “Hello, Sweetie”], a time-travelling action hero, who first appeared in 2008 when she was described as “sort of the Doctor’s wife”.

“I wasn’t quite sure about accepting when I was asked to do two episodes. Living in America I hadn’t followed the resurgence of Doctor Who, but I cried when I read the script to Silence in the Library because it was such a sad story – River Song encounters the Doctor in the 51st century. 

It’s similar to Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife – two people who have great love for each other, but are never able to meet in the right space or time. The sadness was of a woman with a close connection to the Doctor who sacrifices herself to save his life. I didn’t expect to be asked back.”

Doctor Who, though, ignores earthly conventions and last year River was resurrected. Time was going backwards, of course: in the earlier episodes this year the Doctor was shot dead by someone in a spacesuit, but then the story continues centuries earlier in his lifetime when he’s still alive. 

In June it was revealed that River is really Melody Pond, daughter of the Doctor’s companions Rory and Amy; she was conceived on their wedding night while the Tardis was in flight, so she has Time Lord DNA.

Is she confused by the plots? “Steven Moffat engineers it so we can’t understand. There are so many threads that tie up later and it’s only then you understand why you did or said a certain thing. 

"You have to trust implicitly he knows where he’s going. It’s clever. He knew River was Amy’s daughter but didn’t tell me because he felt I might empathise with her too much and be tempted to be more close, rather than maternal.”

How long will she remain? “I can’t say.”

Do you know? “I can’t even say that."

Technique must be important? “The stories allow for a heightened form of acting. It’s not kitchen-sink drama and the dialogue can be quite challenging. The humour is very welcome and I love the fact that apart from the basic storylines there are all sorts of things people from different generations can pick up on. 

"They throw in sneaky references that go over the heads of children but parents and grandparents will understand. In the new episode, Let’s Kill Hitler, there’s a camera angle that directly references The Graduate, which film buffs will get immediately.”

Indeed, Moffat calls her Mrs Robinson, after the mother in The Graduate who seduces the son of a family friend, and there’s a bit of the cougar in Kingston’s on-screen relationship with 28-year-old Matt Smith. “Well, I didn’t kiss him in the earlier episodes.”

Smith had better be warned if the kissing doesn’t stop. One actor, who she won’t name, was over-enthusiastic on stage and she bit his tongue, which needed four stitches. “I’m not a toughie, but I’d warned him and it was getting annoying,” she explains, winsomely.

Parts of Doctor Who are terrifying for children. “That’s its power. It’s part of their development, learning to conquer fear, which the programme does in an incredibly safe way. I remember at seven desperately wanting to see it but knowing I’d be terrified, so I’d either have a cushion in front of my face, or watch through a crack in the door. 

"Although I squirm when I see myself – I’m super critical – I watch now with my daughter [ten-year-old Salome]. She’s been on the set so tends to deconstruct it. That’s her safety net.

“To be honest, Doctor Who fans are a mixture of crazies plus solid citizens, but they’re relentless. On ER I’d be asked just once for an autograph. For these fans once is never enough and I find that a little hard to handle.” She’s had a respite recently as the insecure middle-aged mistress of a prince in a brilliant production of Friedrich Schiller’s 18th-century play Luise Miller, at the Donmar Warehouse in London. 

“It was exhausting but also thrilling. I enjoyed every minute of it, although each time I came off stage I’d slump in the dressing room and have to gear myself up for the next powerful scene.”

She has masses of curly red hair which she hated as a child. “It’s served me pretty well, so I can’t be mean about it any more,” she says, smiling. And those of a lubricious nature will remember her body from Moll Flanders and Croupier, a 1998 Channel 4 film which became a modest hit in America. 

A friend told her it was the first time she’d seen real breasts on screen for a decade. “My body is unusual [in Los Angeles] because it hasn’t been altered or chopped about,” she said, and now adds she would never have any enhancing surgery. Not even as a time traveller.

When her first husband, Ralph Fiennes, left her in 1995 for Francesca Annis, 17 years his senior, she found success with ER and moved to America. Now, it is said, her second marriage, to a German journalist, Florian Haertel, is under strain after 13 years. Two years ago she talked publicly about the stress on her marriage over her desire for another child. Two attempts at adoption failed and “my husband isn’t prepared to go down the IVF road again,” she told You magazine in 2009.

Is she now separated? “It’s not appropriate to ask me that. I’m not sure where my home really is at the moment. I’m due to go back to the States, but I return here more frequently because I’m offered work. In America it’s thin on the ground, although I’ve made a film, Like Crazy, which won the grand jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, so there might be a bit more buzz.

“I still consider myself English, and no matter how long – it’s 14 years – I’ve lived in America, enjoy it and have made lovely friends, I still feel an outsider. I understand how this country functions. There’s something in my body and my bones that makes me so comfortable. Just wandering through London I feel incredibly happy and at ease. I let the day take me wherever it leads.”

Well hello, Sweetie. Or goodbye?