INTERVIEW: 20 Questions With...David Tennant

 Actor David Tennant, who's just opened at the National in Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, adores Doctor Who, American playwrights & Soho drinking holes, considers artistic responsibility & names his (many!) sought-after roles.

After graduating from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, actor David Tennant launched his career in his native Scotland where his early theatre credits included The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Antigone, Hay Fever, Merlin, Long Day's Journey into Night, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tartuffe and The Glass Menagerie (for which he won a TMA Award nomination).

Since heading south, Tennant has appeared regularly on stage, not least in: King Lear and An Experienced Woman Gives Advice (for which he won a MEN Award nomination) at Manchester's Royal Exchange; Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors (for which he won an Ian Charleson Award Commendation), The Rivals, As You Like It, The Herbal Bed and The General from America for the Royal Shakespeare Company; The Slab Boys Trilogy at the Young Vic; Comedians for Oxford Stage Company; and, in the West End, The Real Inspector Hound, Black Comedy, Hurlburly and >Last year, Tennant starred in the British premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's . Following its initial run at the Donmar Warehouse, the play transferred to the West End's New Ambassadors Theatre for an extended season, and Tennant was nominated for a Best Actor Olivier.

On television, Tennant has been seen, amongst other programmes, in Trust, Foyle's War, People Like Us, Bradford in My Dreams, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Mrs Bradley Mysteries, Love in the 21st Century, Duck Patrol, The Bill, A Mug's Game, Rab C Nesbitt, Strathblair, Takin' Over the Asylum, Posh Nosh and the upcoming He Knew He Was Right and The Deputy. His film credits include Bright Young Things, The Last September, LA Without a Map, Jude and Being Considered.

Tennant has now returned to the National Theatre, where he's previously appeared in What the Butler Saw to star - alongside Adam Godley, Nigel Lindsay and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent - in the world premiere production of Martin McDonagh's latest, The Pillowman. In the highly controversial play, set in a nameless totalitarian state, Tennant plays a writer who's interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of child-murders that have happened in his town.

Date & place of birth
Born 18 April 1971 in Bathgate, West Lothian in Scotland.

Trained at...
Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Lives now in...
Crouch End in north London.

First big break
My first job out of drama school was a production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui which toured Scotland. A couple of years after that, I did a TV series for BBC Scotland called Takin' Over the Asylum. It was seen in England, too, and probably every job since then has been either directly or indirectly because of that. It's what brought me to London and got me a London agent and what got me noticed the first time around by the National, where I then went to do a production of What the Butler Saw.

Career highlights to date
Hopefully, things are a progression, in which case the highlight should be wherever you are now. I certainly don't think the best is all behind me. I often stop when I'm doing something, in the middle of rehearsals or some other job, and I try to take a minute to think "okay, this might be as good as it gets, so drink it in, appreciate it now". So far, I've been lucky because another job has always come along to equal the last.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on 
The Pillowman is pretty special. It's the best play I've read in a long time, it's got a great cast and a wonderful director. The last play I did, Lobby Hero, was equally special for all the same reasons. The last time I was at the National, with What the Butler Saw, was fantastic - I made some great friends who I'm still close to. There's always something special about being up in Stratford with the RSC, which I've done a few times. And there was a production of King Lear at the Manchester Royal Exchange, which was the best social time I ever had on a show. I haven't had many grim experiences really. I think back fondly on most productions.

Favourite co-stars 
The three guys in this - Jim Broadbent, Adam Godley and Nigel Lindsay - are pretty hard to beat. I've worked with all three previously on different things, but we never had any scenes together so it's nice to have some now. All the cast of Lobby Hero are favourites. I also get a real kick out of working with legends. I did a film called The Last September with Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon; that was a blast. But there are so many favourites. It feels churlish to pick people out.

Favourite directors 
John Crowley has been fantastic on The Pillowman - very understanding, intelligent, relaxed. He was great during previews, he really helped us sharpen it up. Howard Davies is pretty unparalleled. Michael Boyd is touched with a mad genius - he's wonderful, unique and brilliant. And Mark Brokaw was lovely on Lobby Hero. I'd like to work with Deborah Warner in theatre. So far I've only worked with her in film, on The Last September. There's also a director that I worked with back in Dundee Rep days called Richard Baron who is a real talent. He's an associate at Nottingham Playhouse now and he's going to be huge.

Favourite playwrights 
If I don't say Martin McDonagh, he'll hit me over the head with a blunt instrument, so I'd better say him - though, I do honestly think he's an extraordinary talent. And I love that whole strain of American writing, starting with Eugene O'Neill through Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and right up to Kenneth Lonergan. I love their unashamedness in tackling grand themes on a domestic level. It's very potent. Of course, there's Shakespeare, too. He's impossible to get around.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Hundreds. How long have you got? Starting with Shakespeare, there are a load: Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost, Angelo in Measure for Measure, Richard II. I tried to persuade Michael Boyd to let me do Hamlet, but he'd already gone and signed up Toby Stephens! Other parts? Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest, either of the men in Closer. Early on in my career, at Dundee Rep, I played Tom in The Glass Menagerie and Edmund in Long Day's Journey into Night and I'd love to do both of those again, although I might be getting too old now, which is a worrying thought. The Crucible would be fantastic. I don't know if I could do John Proctor because they usually like someone beefier, but Reverend Hale would be good. In fact, I'd love to do any Arthur Miller - A View from the Bridge, All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, the lot. I could go on. There are just so many good plays.

What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed? 
I thought Katie Mitchell's Three Sisters was heart-stopping, such a rounded, rooted, beautiful production and the acting was immaculate. I'd been slightly dreading it because I was knackered that day and it was so long and I'd just recently seen the other West End production of Three Sisters, but I was gob-smacked. At the end, I wanted to stand up and cheer - but I didn't, of course, because I'm British.

What would you advise the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I think the big national companies are in good hands at the moment. Nicholas Hytner is storming here at the National, and although Michael Boyd has a lot to sort out at the RSC, he is so the man for the job and his ideas for the future sound thrilling. The smaller subsidised theatres - the Donmar, the Almeida, the Royal Court - they all seem to be thriving too and doing good work. It's the West End I worry for. The buildings are literally falling to bits and, at the same time as the theatregoing experience is becoming less thrilling and less comfortable, it's also becoming more expensive. That does filter back, because commercial and subsidised theatre work off each other. These great playwrights the Royal Court and others are nurturing need some place to progress to where they can actually make a living as artists. I think the people in charge in the West End are trying, but it does feel like the wheels are falling off the cart a bit at the moment.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It's hard not to have slightly impure thoughts when you're asked a question like that. In fact, I can't think of anything that wouldn't be totally prurient and unprintable.

Favourite holiday destinations
I go back to Scotland but I don't count that as holiday. I went to Madrid for New Year. That was nice. And I'm going to Boston later this month. My girlfriend (actress Natalie Walter) is doing Peter Hall's As You Like It on tour in the States and I'm going to visit her. I've never been to Boston before so I don't know if I'll like it but I hope to.

Favourite books
Jeannette Winterson's The Passion. Everything by JD Salinger - well, that's only four books. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting was pretty seminal, too. I'm reading the sequel, Porno, now.

Favourite after-show haunts
I've been a member of Soho House for a couple of years now. It's a terrible actors' cliché, I know, but it is very handy, it's open late and I do like all the Soho nonsense. But, for The Pillowman, I'm more likely to head to the backstage bar at the National. It's convenient.

Favourite website
Oh, it's a real anorak admission. I've been an obsessive Doctor Who fan since I was a child and it persists to this very day. The BBC run a Doctor Who website and I go on almost every day to check the latest news. Doctor Who is the finest piece of television that has ever been made anywhere. They're putting together a new TV series next year and Bill Nighy is supposed to play the doctor. I've been onto my agent to see if I can get a part, but she's not keen. She says I'll never work again if I do it. I'm proud to say, though, that I have already performed in a couple of audiobook episodes. That was heaven.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I was always going to act, literally ever since I was tiny. In fact, I have Doctor Who to thank for that. I wanted to become an actor after being obsessed with Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who, in the 1970s. His was the definitive performance of all time in anything.

Why did you want to accept your part in The Pillowman?
I couldn't not accept it. When you're sent a script that brilliant, you just can't say no. Also, I hadn't done theatre for about a year, since Lobby Hero, so I was up for doing some. Out of the blue, this came up. My agent is Jim Broadbent's agent and Jim was already signed up. She was convinced this was going to be the best new play of the year. I couldn't disagree.

Do you think writers are responsible for any consequences of their writing?
Writers, and all artists, have a responsibility to express themselves. That's all they can have - what else have they got to go on? You've just got to express what you yourself believe in. Otherwise, you're not an artist, you're someone else's mouthpiece. And who defines what's right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable? These are arbitrary judgements made after the event. I think someone who shocks just for the sake of shocking isn't an artist. But if they're shocking because that's the only way they know how to express their actual worldview, that is valid. Which is Martin McDonagh trying to do when he writes plays like The Pillowman? There's no point in trying to second-guess, Martin - he'd only say I got it wrong anyway. But I do believe that his work comes from a place of true creativity.

What were your favourite stories as a child? 
The books I read as a child were all Doctor Who books! There were hundreds of episodes, which were all novelised, and that's all I ever wanted to read. I loved monsters, aliens and other creatures. I remember being obsessed with the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti. I don't think they scared me, but there's was something about the unknown that tickled my fancy.

What's your favourite line from The Pillowman? 
One I'm very fond of that I say is: "You came fourth out of fucking four in the fucking discus." And there's a great one that Nigel Lindsay says: "My first step would be to torture the prisoner with the aforementioned electricity, wasn't it?"

What's the funniest thing that's happened to date with The Pillowman?
In rehearsals, Jim Broadbent did a very funny one-man impersonation of the RSC. It involved him drumming loudly on a metal cabinet while chanting "all hail the king". You had to be there, really. Maybe he'll reprise it for a cabaret act some day.

What are your plans for the future? 
The Pillowman runs until March so there's nothing else too immediately. On TV, I'm in a BBC serialisation of Anthony Trollope's You Knew He Was Right, which comes out in the spring, and I've done a pilot for another BBC show called The Deputy so we might do some more of that.