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Sylvester McCoy: ‘If I’d done a fourth year of Doctor Who, I might have never left’

Now starring opposite Maisie Williams in home invasion thriller The Owners, the actor and sci-fi icon opens up about the appeal of psychological horror, the "tragedy" of Doctor Who and coping with life in lockdown.

Sylvester McCoy

“It’s like a Scandi noir in a way,” Sylvester McCoy tells me of his new film The Owners, rolling the letter “r” in “noir” in the way only Sylvester McCoy can. “It’s that kind of world – it’s European in its feel, because the director [Julius Berg] is French and the story was based on a Belgian comic.”

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Adapted from the graphic novel Une Nuit de pleine lune by Hermann and Yves H, The Owners is a home invasion thriller with a difference, with a gang of youths – including the spirited Mary, played by Game of Thrones veteran Maisie Williams – having the tables turned on them by the elderly owners of the country house they’ve broken into. “I mean, I love the idea,” McCoy says. “This old couple go out, the local ruffians break in, and then we come back and the sweet old couple get terrorised. But then the worm turns…”

Though it features its fair share of grisly moments, it was the psychological aspect of The Owners that McCoy says appealed to him, with his Dr. Richard Huggins being driven to desperate measures as his wife Ellen (played by British film icon Rita Tushingham), suffering with dementia, slips away from him. “I like to tell people it’s a love story. I mean, the thing that got me was the love angle –  that was what allowed me to forgive my character for doing what he did.”

The more gruesome aspects of the horror genre hold little appeal for McCoy – in the 1990s he even banned his sons from watching director Peter Jackson’s gory horror comedy Braindead, a fact that they took great delight in sharing with Jackson when their father worked with the now-Oscar winning filmmaker on The Hobbit trilogy many years later. “I didn’t want them to see that movie! But they snuck it in anyway, my banning didn’t do any good,” he laughs.

Filming almost entirely within the confines of an isolated Victorian mansion in Kent, the shoot for The Others could have been a rather claustrophobic affair but the mood remained light on set, McCoy insists. “Rita Tushingham, as you may well know, comes from Liverpool, and therefore she has got the most amazing sense of humour. So after we did those dark scenes, Rita and I, we’d become a double act. We had such fun. I never laughed so much doing such horrible, terrible things to people!”

He is full of praise too for director Berg, whom he refers to as “gentle, but very driven”, and his co-star Williams, predicting big things for the 23-year-old even beyond the acting progression. “I mean, she’s full of energy – a little bubbly ball of fire and creativity. The thing is that she’s grown up in the business and she knows it inside out. She knew what she was doing, she knew what I was doing, she knew what everyone else was doing – and sometimes she would let us know when we weren’t doing it well enough!

“She’s a rising star as an actress, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she became a director and a producer. I think she should. She’s got all those abilities and that intelligence and the knowledge of the business from years of doing it, being steeped in it, from a young age.”

Sylvester McCoy in The Owners
Sylvester McCoy in The Owners
Signature Entertainment

Now getting a release on digital platforms in the UK – with a DVD release to follow next month – The Owners was actually filmed back in mid-2019. In the months that followed, McCoy saw a number of projects – including another horror feature with director Rob Zombie – put on the back-burner as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the actor spending much of the last year in lockdown, first in his home in France and more recently back in the UK.

“Surprisingly, being a person who enjoys the company of thousands – you know, entertaining and going around the world and meeting fans and all that kind of stuff – I thought I’d hate it… but I haven’t,” he admits. “I haven’t found it that bad, really. I find that, to my surprise, I don’t mind my own company. The reason why I keep travelling so much is to get away from myself – but I keep arriving and then suddenly I turn up. 

“But really that’s not true. I actually don’t mind my own company. That’s the positive side of it. The negative side is that I am getting older – you know, I’m 77, I’m creaking, I haven’t got a lot of time left… and I’m locked up for a year.” McCoy is separated from family by hundreds, in some cases thousands, of miles, with his two sons living in Holland and Thailand. “I’ve got a grandchild who I hardly know,” he says. “I know her from Zoom – that’s my relationship with my granddaughter. And that makes me very sad that I can’t walk down the sandy beach in Thailand holding her hand, or, read to her, or make her laugh.”

It’s rare to see this more contemplative, melancholic side to McCoy – throughout our interview, he’s mostly cheerful, animated and charming. But while the man born Percy Kent-Smith might infamously have first found fame as part of the experimental theatre troupe “The Ken Campbell Roadshow”, performing stunts that involved stuffing nails up his nose and ferrets down his trousers, he confesses to having a fascination with the darker side of human nature – it’s part of what drew him to The Owners, and indeed to his most famous role in Doctor Who (even if that character isn’t actually human).

“I mean, I brought that to Doctor Who,” he says. “Steven Moffat – second showrunner of the 21st century Doctors – I was having dinner with him once and he said to me that up until I arrived, Doctor Who was kind of more cartoon-like – you know, as it was meant to be, and [it was] very successful. But because I was given the key and the producer [John Nathan-Turner] had given up caring about it really, me and the script editor [Andrew Cartmel] just got on with it. And we were ignorant of Doctor Who, didn’t see much of it, because he [Cartmel] was Canadian, and I had been working in the theatre.

“I suddenly realised that, actually, there’s more to this character than just being a cartoon – and it’s much more fun trying to do the dark side, especially if you’re known as a comic person, because, you know, the other side of a comic’s coin is tragedy.”

It occurred to McCoy that having lived for centuries would afford the Doctor “a kind of a melancholy”, an idea he worked hard to push in his later seasons after initially offering a more “comedic” take on the famous Time Lord. “I did want to bring in the tragedy of his longevity, and the terrible things he’d seen. I realised that I’d been handed one of the great TV roles, because you could mine this role for so much. The seam of gold that’s in this role is amazing. You could go anywhere, I could do anything. That was the excitement of getting it – and I’m still mining!”

Doctor Who – season 24 (Sylvester McCoy)
Sylvester McCoy in Doctor Who
BBC

Having originally portrayed the Doctor on television from 1987 until Doctor Who’s original cancellation in 1989, McCoy continues to play the role today, more than three decades later, in an ongoing series of audio drama productions from Big Finish – a job he’s able to continue with even in lockdown, thanks to remote recording techniques. His affinity with Doctor Who remains strong, though he admits to only having seen “bits” of the show’s most recent iteration fronted by Jodie Whittaker.

“I watched the opening [episode] – because one has to, you know – and I was initially kind of uncertain about it. It was stupid sexism, really, because after 10 minutes, she was the Doctor – it didn’t make any sense even to think that one could doubt it.”

The rumour mill now suggests that Whittaker’s TV tenure could soon be coming to an end – and when I ask who McCoy thinks might be a good candidate to replace her, he breaks into a cheeky grin and points enthusiastically at himself. “No, it’s very difficult,” he says. “Who could it be? It could be anybody. There’ll be someone out there who’s absolutely wonderful for it. I mean, who would have thought it’d be Matt Smith when he came along? ‘Matt Smith, who’s he? This 12-year-old? No!’ – and he turns out to be brilliant.”

Though his own run on the TV series was cut short after three years, McCoy had planned to stick with Doctor Who for a fourth series and says he might have stayed even longer. But then, as now, fate intervened and set him off on a different path. “I don’t know, but I have a feeling that maybe if I did a fourth year I’d have become addicted, you know?” he muses. “Maybe I’d become like Tom [Baker] – I’d do it so much that I’d actually start to believe I am the Doctor!”

The Owners is on Digital Platforms from 22nd February and on DVD from 1st March from Signature Entertainment. If you want to read Une Nuit de pleine lune, head over to Amazon now.

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