Peter Capaldi shares the strange “relief” of leaving Doctor Who – and why he was happy to go darker in The Suicide Squad

As The Thinker, Peter Capaldi goes full supervillain, and he says he feels more like himself than ever.

Peter Capaldi exclusive

After spending years taking on sci-fi supervillains and mad scientists in Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi has finally become one himself for James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. As The Thinker, Capaldi is a darker, more dangerous take on a super-genius with a penchant for unusual clothes – but despite the shared genre, apparently the inspiration for the character was less the Doctor and more Malcolm Tucker, right down to a few key lines of dialogue.

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Recently we caught up with Capaldi to talk about his role in the new DC movie, how it feels to leave Doctor Who in the rearview mirror and what he’s got coming up next – including his apparent quest to be the next chart-topping Scottish Capaldi.

Hi Peter! James Gunn has said that he sought you out specifically for the role of The Thinker –what was your first response?

Well, my first response was the fact that I didn’t really believe it – in the sense that I just woke up, and opened my phone, and there was an email with the script, saying, “We’d like you to do this.”

It seemed a rather uncomplicated way to find yourself in a huge DC superhero movie. But there it was. And I guess that’s because of James, because I think he’d seen In the Loop, which was the movie spin-off from The Thick of It. He didn’t even know that The Thick of It existed, and that there was a TV show. That’s like seeing, you know, Mutiny on the Buses, and not realising that there was a show called On the Buses!

I think people think that because he has Karen [Gillan] in Guardians of the Galaxy, and me in this, that he’s familiar with Doctor Who. I don’t think he’s ever seen Doctor Who. I think he has no interest in it, or knowledge about it. I think Karen just incredibly impressed him when he met her.

For some reason, he just felt that I was right for this part, and I’m deeply grateful to him for that thought.

Watching the film, it did seem like The Thinker has a bit of Malcolm Tucker in his DNA. There’s a bit where he says “yankee-f***in-doodle-dandies”, which felt pure The Thick of It.

Yeah. I made that up. That was one of mine.

The Suicide Squad
Peter Capaldi as The Thinker with Idris Elba as Bloodsport (WB)

Oh, really? That was something you added?

Yeah. James’s script was great, but then occasionally he would terrify us all by suddenly saying, “OK, you just make something up now.” Which is always terrifying, because it means you’ve got to try and be funny, really.

But I heard him laughing, so I knew that would be kept in.

Not everything made it in– there’s a bit in the trailer where you have this great speech about supervillains. But that’s not actually in the movie, is it?

Yeah, I was very sad about that, because… you know, I find this happens a lot with stuff I’m doing. We do lots of quiet scenes, or emotional things, that somehow don’t make it into the final cut, because they like to have all the explosive stuff.

But, yeah, there was a scene where I kind of sort of “Hannibal Lecter” David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man character, and take him to pieces which we shot, but we lost from the movie. David is such a brilliant actor. I love Polka-Dot Man. I think that’s a brilliant character. He’s so lame. He’s just this awful superhero.

Obviously The Thinker gets up to some pretty dark stuff in the film. Was it interesting for you? Because you obviously had to be quite squeaky-clean when you were in Doctor Who.  

I mean, I think with any project that I do, I just try to be faithful to the script. I just don’t think much of it. I try to bring that to life as powerfully as I can.

But in a comic-book movie like this, you know, as much as The Thinker is going to dark places, it still is in that kind of graphic-novel kind of world. So it has less of an emotional cost than if you were doing a genuine part – you know, a character who genuinely had conducted experiments like The Thinker had. He remains a comic-book evil genius, and I’m quite happy with that.

The Suicide Squad
Peter Capaldi as The Thinker in The Suicide Squad (WB)

You’ve talked recently about how the experience of making this was different from Doctor Who. Was it just the scale of the film, versus the scale of Doctor Who?

It’s a completely different thing. I think that people who are outside of these genres, think that they’re all bunched into the one thing. As I say, James had no idea that Doctor Who exists. You can go to places in the world, including America, where people don’t know Doctor Who exists. Which is a relief sometimes!

So, yes. I would say that it’s the money that they have. It allows them to execute their ideas with a level of craft that we can’t – we just don’t have the cash. That said, I would say that in my time in Doctor Who, which is all I can talk about, we had remarkable effects and things that were done there that were absolutely extraordinary, as well as some crummy ones.

And it’s what Doctor Who has always been, anyway, for me. It’s a show that has great ideas, and great imagination, and sometimes – in fact, in most of its life – it’s never really had the money to live up to its imagination. But I think that’s a pretty good way to be. Money isn’t everything, you know?

It’s not. You look at some of the shows that have so much money poured into them, and they’re just no good anyway, because they haven’t got the basics right.

Yeah. I think it’s harder nowadays, because I think that so many of the shows look incredible. So if you’re going to take them on, you need a greater level of investment, really.

Is it an adjustment to go from Doctor Who where you’re shooting for 10 months of the year – you’re the top name on the call sheet, the ambassador for it – versus things like The Suicide Squad, where you’re part of a larger ensemble?

It’s quite a relief, really. Doctor Who is kind of a thing where you have a responsibility to it, and to the people who work on it, and to the people who love it, and that is quite a heavy responsibility. So to have that lifted means that you can relax a bit, and do things that are more esoteric and stranger and darker.

And certainly, I think post-Doctor Who I’m more like the way I was pre-Doctor Who. The whole Doctor Who thing, you have to sort of become a different person, really, to do that. So it’s a relief to return to who I was before.

Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker in character in Doctor Who (BBC, HF)
Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker in character in Doctor Who (BBC, HF)

Your successor in Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker, is going through that same period you did towards the end –these endless rumours about who could replace you, the media storm. Was that strange to be a part of when you were doing it? If you did have any advice on how to handle all of that, what would that be?

Well, Jodie’s lovely and amazing. I’m sure she can handle all of that without any advice from me. She’s brilliant.

I don’t know. It’s an odd thing that happens. I always remember when I took over from Matt. It was only when I left that I realised how gracious Matt had been to me, because he was going through the emotional turmoil of leaving, and took the time to be gracious to me.

It’s like, the whole Doctor Who experience, it’s not over until it’s over, you know? You don’t really see it clearly until you’ve been through it.

Before I wrap up, I’ve got to ask about what you’ve got coming up. I’ve heard you’ve got The Devil’s Hour, which is working with [former Who showrunner] Steven Moffat via Hartswood Films again.

That’s right. It’s difficult for me to tell you about my part without giving too much away. It’s really good. The scripts are really good, and it’s strange. But I don’t want to… I don’t want to give it away.

I’ve also done this film called Benediction with Terence Davies. I think Terence Davies is possibly our greatest living filmmaker, and I was thrilled to be in a film of his, which will be out later in the year.

And you’re also releasing an album?

Yeah. This was something I was doing for fun with a friend of mine called Dr. Robert, who was in a band called The Blow Monkeys. He and I just played together for fun, and then he said, “Well, why don’t you have a go at writing some stuff?”.

It’s just something we were doing for the satisfaction of making music. It’s not an attempt to become a pop star or be a rock star or anything. I think there’s a fairly substantial Capaldi pop star out there already…

Before I wrap up, one final question about The Suicide Squad. What can fans expect from the film, and how different is it to the original?

I think if you were going to come and see this film, what you would get is an insane cinematic spectacle and lots of explosions, both verbally and helicopter-wise.

And, yeah, I liked the first one. It seemed to have a troubled history. But this is a James Gunn movie. So I think it shares some characters with the original one, but I think its whole vibe is less dark and more comic-book-y.

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The Suicide Squad is in UK cinemas now. For more news and features, visit our our Sci-Fi hub or find something to watch with our full TV Guide.