INTERVIEW: Tennant Is Sitting Pretty

From Casanova to Harry Potter via the Edinburgh stage: a new Scots star rises.
By Mark Fisher

Whatever you may think of Giacomo Casanova, the world’s most notorious seducer, you would not expect him to be the son of a former moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland. A seedy misogynist, maybe. A non-conforming lover of women, possibly. But the offspring of the former minister of a Renfrewshire parish church, definitely not. Still, David Tennant is unfazed at the prospect of squirming through the sex scenes as he settles down with his father to watch himself in the BBC’s Casanova drama this March. “The sex was fun,” laughs Tennant with his big, broad grin. “It was a romp. There’s not a lot of gratuitous nudity, but there’s lots of skirts, bustiers and corsets — and that’s just me!”
Today the tall 33-year-old is unshaven and his floppy blond hair is more wayward than usual, but there’s no disguising the high cheekbones and good looks that helped to land him his new television role — his most prestigious to date. Written by Russell T Davies, the man who penned Queer as Folk, and co-starring Peter O’Toole, Glasgow’s Laura Fraser and Little Britain’s Matt Lucas, it is one of the main BBC drama offerings of the spring. “It’s fast, furious, funny and crazy,” he continues. “I don’t think it’s a Casanova that people will expect. He’s not a lounge lizard, a lothario or a lady’s man — he’s a livewire, a free spirit, and people become attracted to that. He’s almost an innocent, a puppy dog with all this energy and fizz about him.” Recently dubbed “the new Scottish star” following his acclaimed appearance as the maverick detective in BBC1’s drama Blackpool, the indicators are pointing firmly upwards for Tennant this year. In September, his profile will go global when he plays the part of Barty Crouch Jr in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “Doing Potter was great,” he enthuses. “It’s a huge, great monster of a film, but at the same time it felt like a very friendly, creative place to be. Mike Newell is a fantastic director. I have quite a small part, but he was attentive, clever and bright. It was a great experience to visit that world.” Tennant’s face is already cropping up on Harry Potter fan websites, but when we meet he is on a break from rehearsing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger for the Royal Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh. He plays the starring role of Jimmy Porter, and once again it is a role far removed from the actor’s own character. Indeed, had Osborne known Tennant when he was penning his generation-shaping play, he may well have called it Look Back in Affability. Porter is nasty and disconcertingly malicious, while Tennant is charming, mild-mannered and amiable. “It’s not a nice play and he’s not a nice man,” he says. “But I don’t think he’s as irredeemable as history has painted him. He’s brilliantly funny, and that’s part of what makes him such an attractive character to play. He has this ability with language which is thrilling and at the same time ghastly. I was talking to Michael Sheen, who has also played the part, and he said that you get this extraordinary feeling halfway through when you realise there’s nobody in the theatre that likes you.” Which must be a strange sensation for somebody who is surely one of the most pleasant people in the business. “I do get told I’m nice quite a lot,” he says. “I’m happy about it, but you do wonder if it makes you a little uninteresting, a little bland, a little unsexy, a little un-Jimmy Porterish. I’d rather be described as nice than nasty. I have my dark moments, but basically I’m fairly content.” He says he has little time for actors who make life difficult for everybody — and he’s worked with a few — but mostly his colleagues are, well, nice. “Nice! I’ll have to stop using that word,” he says. “My old English teacher would be furious.” Tennant has long been a favourite on Scottish stages, (he bagged a TMA best actor award for a superb performance in The Glass Menagerie at Dundee Rep), performing frequently in Scotland despite his move to London 10 years ago. “I’m very aware that Scotland is where I’m from,” he says. “I had no relationship with Scotland when I lived there. I had no interest in nationalism, no interest in Scotland’s nationhood or legacy or any of that stuff until I moved down to London, which is a terribly crass, idiotic thing to say, but it’s true. I like the sense of being something different down here, though. My family are mostly still in Scotland, so it will always be part of who I am and what I go back to.” Aside from his Scottish appearances, Tennant has starred in RSC productions such as The Comedy of Errors and As You Like It, and at the National theatre, where his recent role in The Pillowman had the critics falling over themselves in praise. He was nominated for an Ian Charleson award for his Romeo at the RSC in 2000 and an Olivier award for his performance in Lobby Hero at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2003. For Tennant, acting is the job he has been dreaming about since childhood. Fame has never been the spur. He describes it as as “by-product” of the job, something he would accept, rather than actively pursue.

Curiously, for somebody who has devoted his life to acting, he is routinely stricken by nerves. “It’s ghastly,” he says. “Every time I do a play, I have a moment when I think I’ll never do one again. You’re on stage and you’re composing the speech you’re about to give: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, terribly sorry, but I have to leave the stage now and throw up in my dressing room’. Maybe I need that fear.” The pressure will certainly be on him as he takes to the stage in Edinburgh. Look Back in Anger was the play that defined a mood of rebelliousness for a generation, symbolising the new energy that invigorated a moribund theatre industry. On its debut in 1956, the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.” 
With the up-and-coming film star Kelly Reilly playing opposite him, it is set to be an auspicious start to Tennant’s year. Modest to the last, however, he’s taking nothing as given. “I’ve been absurdly lucky — disproportionately and unfairly lucky,” he says. “And you’re always waiting for that to dissolve. If it all stopped I would be in trouble, because I never had anything else I wanted to do.” He needn’t worry. Far from approaching its end, it is only just beginning. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer man.

Look Back in Anger, Royal Lyceum theatre, Edinburgh, January 15-February 12;
Casanova will be screened on BBC3 in March;
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire will be released on November 18