I only ever tuned in for the regeneration episodes, because I was fascinated by the idea of someone being the same person on the inside, but suddenly looking different on the outside. With Doctor Who, though, I have to say that the low production values prevented me from believing it was real–unlike, say, Star Trek. I also felt the Doctors came across as these authority figures, lecturing me in their upper-middle-class accents. It seemed like everyone in outer space came from Surrey, rather than Salford, where I grew up.
Why did you take the role?
I’ve always seen myself as a niche actor, who’s been in dramas that have been critically acclaimed but have never got really big audiences. A journalist once told me the roles I played were “comfort food for the liberals”, and I guess there was some truth in that–I let him out of the room alive, anyway! People are always telling me I’m too gloomy and can’t do comedy–so taking a part in Doctor Who is a gamble, and I find that exciting. It could sink my career, or take it to another level.
Describe your Doctor.
Pragmatic, witty, brave, intelligent, anarchic, heroic and caring–he cares about life in all its forms, and has a permanent sense of wonder at the world and everything in it. He’s also childlike, contradictory, brutal to his enemies, and constantly restless and inquisitive. In any scene, it’s always the Doctor who’s the primary source of energy.
What’s his relationship with his new companion Rose
He loves her, simple as that. And she loves him. They both deny it, but her mother can see it. They’re very similar, Rose and the Doctor: both carry a sense of loneliness. He allows her freedom–he’s always encouraging her to experience things–but he expects a great deal of her, too. He’s constantly telling her, “If you want to travel with me, then don’t become a burden.”
How did you feel about doing so many blue-screen scenes, where you had to react to monsters and effects that you couldn’t see?
I loved it. The great thing about acting is that you’re allowed to behave like a child in terms of playing imaginary games. You can see blue-screen scenes as murder to play, or else you can view them as a challenge. And don’t forget: you’re talking to someone who in Jude [the film of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure] had to do 11 different takes of realising his son had hanged himself. The trick is to find fresh ways of exploring the moment, and offer up a variety of takes. I mean, that’s the job, isn’t it?
Do you feel cheated that your Doctor hasn’t got a trademark scarf or hat?
Totally not. Right from the start, I wanted to take on the challenge of playing an alien character without the benefit of any frills or extravagant costume; I felt I didn’t need Billy Connolly’s banana shoes and a feather boa to make the point. I liked the idea of him having a beaten-up leather jacket. I spotted a line in one of the early scripts that described the jacket as the kind of thing Terence Stamp would wear after a day’s work on a market stall. Well, they didn’t get Terence Stamp they got me–Plug from the Bash Street Kids.
Have you found the role tiring?
I’ve worked harder on this series than I’ve ever worked. We’ve been doing 11-day fortnights for the past eight months; I’ve been working 14 hours a day and using my lunch hour to make a start on the evening line-learning. It’s been mentally and physically punishing, but I’ve loved the responsibility of having to lead a series, of having to be there on time, of having to learn my lines properly, of having to set an example. It’s been great.
What’s your attitude to all the media attention?
Bring it on! Having seen, day in, day out, the total dedication the entire film crew has put in an attitude where I’m happy to do anything that will boost the audience for this show. The idea of it sinking from view and being watched by two men and a dog is just too heartbreaking to contemplate. And if the media ask annoying quetsions–I’ll just give annoying answers!
Do you feel this show has lower status than your previous work because it’s aimed at children?
Not al all. The eight-year-olds are the ones I want to reach! An adult probably won’t have their life changed by watching a TV programme, whereas a child will. What I really hope, though, is that Doctor Who will be watched by children and adults together. I remember when I was little, there was something uniquely revealing about watching TV with my mum, dad and two brothers. I was astonished at the way two working-class lads like my brothers just loved the surrealism in Monty Python. And with Boys from the Blackstuff, I saw out of the corner of my eye that my dad could hardly watch it because it was so painful for him. If we can get that sort of thing going on, that would be the ideal result for me.