Matt Smith is sitting in a rather glorious BMW on his way to the ExCel Centre in London's Docklands. He's sporting a neatly cut crop, wearing jeans and a jumper from ACNE, a leather jacket from D&G, a scarf from Marc Jacobs and some slightly alarming socks.
As the car gets closer to the gleaming glass and grey steel hall playing host to thousands of fans – marking their hero’s 50th birthday at the three-day Doctor Who Celebration – the current incarnation of the last living Time Lord looks more like his next big role: Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Which way is he going to play it when meeting the fans? He laughs. “You just have to be yourself. Whatever that is nowadays...”
He can be forgiven for his confusion. This Christmas, when he hands over the sonic screw-driver to Peter Capaldi, he’ll be leaving the Doctor in the best of health – a pain-racked regeneration notwithstanding. On air in over 50 countries and counting – it’s on three channels in the USA – the show has a global audience of some 77 million. When he west cast, as the youngest actor ever to play the part, newspaper headlines were mocking - "Doctor Who?" In the UK, at least, he's answered that questions.
Since he announced he was hanging up this Tardis keys earlier this year, however, he's gone for roles so different from the good-hearted saviour of the universe that you assume he’s making a Daniel Radcliffe-style statement: “Don’t think I’m just the Doctor.” He’s already filmed Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, How to Catch a Monster, and tabloid shots from the set showed him lifting weights like a marine, his much-loved floppy fringe razored off.
This month he’s on stage at the Almeida Theatre in American Psycho, a London stage-musical version of Bret Easton Ellis’s bestseller about a powerful Wall Street banker who moonlights as a serial killer. “It’s a bizarre challenge, especially as I’ve never sung before,” Smith explains. “I thought, why not give it a stab... foolishly. I mean, it’s not like other musicals – which is why I took it. It’s difficult and challenging.”
We’re conducting this exit interview the day before his barnstorming performance in the 50th birthday episode. He only has what remains of the year as the official Doctor. While we’re talking, you can almost feel him moving on.
What’s it like playing the Doctor? “Everything changed. It’s all consuming – and that affects the rhythm of your life. Now, however, it’s settling down a little.” What can we expect from the Christmas episode? “I can’t tell you. It was a great shoot – a sad one for me, but I think it’ll be a fitting send-off and a fitting introduction for Peter.”
Any regrets? “None. I think if I was going to choose to spend a couple of years in anyone’s body, why not live it as the Doctor? He’s going to have more fun than almost anyone else alive.”
The rest of the team is going to miss him desperately. “You will not find anyone with a negative story about Matt,” the show’s writer Steven Moffat tells us. “The producer, Marcus Wilson, gets him on set as quickly as possible because the crew literally works faster when he’s there. He’s the life and soul, greeting the guest actors like the perfect host, even when he’s feel- ing broody, unhappy, tired or sulky.”
Moffat thinks Smith is the most successful actor yet when it comes to capturing the enormous age of the Doctor. “Matt is a youthful envelope but he has an old soul,” he muses. “In real life Matt is very cool. The Doctor would like to think he’s cool, but he isn’t. The Doctor probably thinks he can hang out with Matt and go to the same clubs, but I don’t think Matt would have him along on a night out.”
Certainly, Smith is looking to make some cool choices. He’d love to do a movie with 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen or Morvern Callar director Lynne Ramsay – who shoot cutting-edge, offbeat, disturbing films. He’d also like to direct, having tried his hand for Sky Arts’ Playhouse Presents. In January, however, it’s “back to the drawing board – the auditions, the life of an actor,” he puts on a slight American drawl, “because that’s the life we choose.”
He tells us this as the car waits at traffic lights near the convention centre. While he’s talking, a man walks past wearing an impressive Tom Baker scarf. Smith checks it out then winds down the window: “Hey mate... over here... nice scarf!”
The man smiles sheepishly at his friend in a Captain Jack jacket then realises who it is. He dashes over, stunned and gabbling, but can’t seem to make up his mind whether to ask for a photo or an autograph. “Hey man, quick,” Smith urges, hanging out of the window as the driver puts the car in gear. “He’s going to leave, mate,” but the man is almost frozen in shock. It’s not often, after all, that the actual Doctor admires your Doctor costume. “Oh dear...” Smith is stricken as the car starts to move. “We gotta go, dude... bye... see you later.” He flops back on his seat. “That was weird.”
The moment shows the fans’ devotion to Smith. Will that help with his cool young movie star ambitions? Some people aren’t sure. “In he UK we love to talk up how big Doctor Who is in America, and it’s definitely bigger than it’s ever been,” says PR guru Mark Borkowski. “But it’s not on primetime television over there – so millions of Americans have never heard of him. He’s entirely at the mercy of the scripts he chooses – America is all about what’s hot now.”
A couple of years ago Borkowski worked with a young British actor – equally young, equally well known on TV – who made a big splash when an equally hot American director selected him as his lead in a new movie. “I was getting five or six calls a day, he was interviewed by everyone and he was offered tickets to the American Open tennis when we were over in New York for the premiere,” he recalls, refusing to name the actor in question.
“But the film was badly reviewed – not a turkey but not a hit. As soon as the first Variety review appeared online, the phone calls stopped. Literally went dead. He had a week to go before the American Open and he couldn’t get anyone to even answer his emails about the tickets he’d been promised. He was devastated.”
Does Smith fear such a rejection? “Of course,” he shrugs. “If you criticise my performance, in the papers or an audition, I can try to convince myself it’s the character you don’t like or the interpretation. The truth is it’s me you’re criticising. It leaves you exposed. That first 30 seconds in the room at an audition – no actor is beyond that.”
Looking for precedence, it’s tempting to compare Smith’s chances with the careers of David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch – both made a stab at Hollywood after playing quirky, supersmart men in TV shows penned by Moffat (to a US casting director the Doctor and Sherlock could almost be the same role). Tennant returned to Blighty and Broadchurch, while Cumberbatch has two big films lined up for 2014.
Steven Moffat is sure of Smith’s success. “Benedict and Matt are both fascinating actors – they’re never going to play James Bond, they’re not leading men, they’re not Brad Pitt,” he explains. “They’ll always choose the interesting script over the glamorous part. But that’s good. Stars tend to have very short careers, while Ian McKellen will be working until he’s 80, and they have that quality.”
Smith thinks his footballing experience will help – he played for Nottingham Forest and Leicester City youth teams until injury steered him into acting. “I’m a firm believer in the parallels between sport and acting,” he explains. “Practice is important. Frank Lampard practises sprints his entire career. An actor might work on his voice. But then it’s about expression in the moment – preparation and dedication are fine, but you have to deliver spontaneously.”
It being the time of his passing as the Doctor – of a little death no matter how the soul of his character lives on in another body – we feel it appropriate to ask if he’s had any profound existential thoughts as a result. Does an on-screen death teach you what’s important in life? Is there a point to our existence? He thinks for a moment. “That question starts off on the wrong foot... I think the point is the endeavours we make towards the discovery of our existence through art or love or family. They are at least the things that make us realise we exist.”
He’s declared himself an atheist, but if there was a God and they met – what would he like to say? He laughs. “If there was a God, what would I ask? I’d ask – can I have my money back?” And he bids a warm farewell as the ExCeL swallows him up, moving on into his unwritten future – with no Tardis and no option of ever coming back.
Doctor Who is back on Christmas Day at 7:30pm on BBC1