Under The Radar: Full Interview

"You go into a supermarket and your face is on a cake and underpants. And all that's very odd. It's not what you imagine when you go to drama school, that you'll be commemorated in plastic and icing, and cotton." Scottish actor David Tennant is very famous in the United Kingdom. Despite his appearance in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Tennant is not that well known in America, although has spent the last four years starring in the British television institution Doctor Who, which was recently honored by the Guinness Book of World Records as "The Most Successful Sci-Fi Television Show."

Doctor Who originally aired on the BBC from 1963 to 1989 and was revived in 2005. Tennant plays The Doctor, a charismatic Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels in space and time, often saving Earth from all manner of nasty aliens and monsters. In a clever conceit that allows different actors to play the same character, Time Lords don't technically die. Instead, they regenerate into a different body and personality when an actor is ready to move on. Tennant, whose Doctor currently dons a pinstripe suit, is the 10th actor to play the part, and he won't be the last. Even though recent fan polls reflect that he's their all-time favorite actor to play the character, Tennant announced late last year that he would step down from the role. Newcomer Matt Smith will be taking over as The Doctor next year, and Tennant's last three episodes will air on BBC America this fall and winter.

The 38-year-old actor grew up in Ralston, a suburb of Glasgow, and his father was a Church of Scotland minister. Tennant grew up watching Doctor Who in the '70s and '80s and even owned Doctor Who toys. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be an actor and he also knew that one day he'd love to play The Doctor, a dream that became a reality in 2005. We spoke to Tennant in a San Diego hotel suite during the San Diego Comic-Con and discussed his reasons for leaving Doctor Who, his childhood experiences with the show, his thoughts on his tenure as The Doctor, which bands he's into, and his future plans. As the interview begins Tennant is admiring the copies of Under the Radar scattered across the table.

David Tennant: It's a very cool looking magazine you've got here.

Mark Redfern (Under the Radar): Thank you, thank you.

Oh, this type is small!

Yeah, my mother complains about that all the time.

Right, yeah. But good, though, you get a lot of stuff in it I guess.

That's the plan, yes. I'm actually originally from England.

Are you, where abouts?

I'm from London.

You don't have much of a London accent now.

No, I've been out here too long, it's long gone. But my sister Bridget [back in London] actually knows [actor] Tom Goodman Hill.

Ahh! I know Tom really well.

Yeah. She told me to tell you that. They were really excited when he was on [the Doctor Who episode] "The Unicorn and the Wasp."

Of course, yeah, he was great.

Well I've got a bunch of questions. Let's jump into it.

Go for it!

First question I have: how has playing The Doctor over the last four years, and the experience of Doctor Who changed you as a person, both for the good and maybe even for the bad, as well?

Oh I don't know. It's very hard to be objective about things like that, especially now when I'm only just coming out the other end of it. I'll probably know more in a couple years time when the dust settles. I suppose it's changed my life in that, you know, Doctor Who, back home—and even I'm discovering here—means that people know who you are in a way that... I've done some stuff before and I had a certain amount of notoriety, but nothing on the level of something like Doctor Who. That just changes life I guess. And it takes a bit of adjusting to. People are so enthused by the show, and the show has been such a big hit that it follows you wherever you go. Which is a huge privilege, but it takes a bit of getting used to. You have a responsibility I suppose—because people are excited about what you do and you don't want to disappoint them.

Sure. Have there been any countries you've been to recently that you've been surprised that people recognize you all the time?

To be honest, because the filming schedule for Doctor Who is so all consuming, I've barely been out of the country. This is my first trip to America since we started filming. I was in LA just before, and then I haven't been in America since I started doing Doctor Who. So it's surprising to me that it's as big of a deal here as it is, I think. I just got handed a comic book—an American comic book—with my face on the cover. I didn't know we had such—I didn't know we had an American comic book! And we're "Pick of the Week" in Entertainment Weekly this week. So I had no idea that it was having that kind of impact. South Korea we're huge in as well. Canada, New Zealand, Australia we've got a lot of letters from there, but an enormous amount of post comes from South Korea. Which seems surprising. But I think we really need to make the move into North Korea. That's what we've got to aim for.

I think that will solve the whole peace process.

Exactly! I think Doctor Who, he's a peace loving guy, I think it could be down to him to bring Kim Jong-il on board.

I think so. Well, can you talk about what went into the decision of leaving the show? I've read a lot of stuff where you've talked about Russell [T. Davies] was leaving so it was a good time. You didn't want it to become like a job and all that stuff. But when you first signed on, did you have it in your mind, of "oh I'll do three years, four years?" And also how close where you to staying on when you heard that Steven Moffat was taking over?

Closer than I had suspected I would be. I kind of always assumed I'd leave with Russell. There was nothing set in stone and I kept my options open. But then Russell and Julie Gardner and myself all talked about moving on, and we did that final series, we did series four, and then there was the option of hanging around and doing some specials. So that was too good to turn down really. And then, yes I did, I spoke to Steven, and because I'm such a fan of his, and because his ideas for series five were so exciting, I was much more tempted than I thought I would be. I really did have a few days of thinking I would stay. But in the end, I just thought, I made a decision I think, probably now is the time because it would...I think sometimes it's easy, you know, you have to make the hard decision, don't you. Because it's easy to stay, and I didn't want to get stale. I don't think it's an easy show to do for a long time, because I think it requires a certain energy and commitment and enthusiasm. And I didn't want to get to the stage where I felt I wasn't giving it all it required. So it just seemed to make sense to move on.

What do you think you'll miss most about playing The Doctor?

The stories and scripts. This extraordinary character who is everything at all times. It's continuouly inspiring really, to get to play this mercurial, anarchic, extraordinary creature who gets all the best lines and gets to be the cleverest person in the room. I'm sure I'll miss lots about it, but I'll forever be proud to have been part of it, to be part of that history. And I'm very proud that we're sort of handing the show on in rude health. There's a certain pride to keeping it going under our watch. It's maintained its popularity.

Yeah, you don't want to be Colin Baker.

Colin Baker was great! But that time wasn't great for the show. I'm proud to say it's still in rude health.

I saw Colin Baker yesterday.

Here's here! Yeah. He's a lovely guy. He's a terrific actor. But you know, I guess when a show runs for all that time it's going to go through different...we've been very fortunate that we've been very loved and supported by the BBC which has allowed it to thrive.

Now you've wanted to play The Doctor since you were like three years old.


What do you think the child David Tennant would think if he could go forward in time and see what you've done with the character? Would he freak out?

It's interesting isn't it? Who knows? I hope he'd be pleased. He probably wouldn't think I was as good as Tom Baker. I don't know. That's a very difficult question to answer, isn't it? I think the kind of simplicity and naiveté and perhaps arrogance of childhood would have expected that it was going to happen, so he probably wouldn't have been that surprised. I'm sure he would have enjoyed the stories and the monsters—which was what I was very fond of at the time. I think we've had some crackers. So I think he would have been pleased. I hope so. It's a very odd question to be wondering if you would be proud of yourself. But then, maybe in a sense, that becomes your internal audience for doing a job like this. You're sort of aware of your own childhood self and what would have thrilled you and kept you happy. I think that probably has always been in the back of my mind throughout the whole process. I hope I would have done him proud.

I think so. When you were a kid which monsters most scared you on Doctor Who?

They never really scared me. I didn't get particularly scared, I got thrilled by it. But I always wanted the monsters to be more horrific, and more...I wanted more gore and more...horror.

I used to watch it when I was a kid in England. And I've been rewatching it since I got into the new show—some of the old ones. They're just not as creepy as I thought they were when I was a kid.

I guess, things are relevant to the time they're made in as well. No it's not that I felt it was failing me in any way, but it didn't scare me, because maybe I wasn't easily scared as a child, I don't know. But I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I was thrilled by it every week.

Did you have Doctor Who toys when you were a kid? Do you remember which toys?

I did. I had a Tom Baker doll. About ye high. I did. I had a Cyberman doll that had all this tinfoil stuff that all flaked off. It wasn't the greatest. One thing that I'm very jealous of children today is that we have great toys. They're really done us proud with the little figures. I used to have the Star Wars figures, remember those little Star Wars figures?

Yeah I had those, I had the Millennium Falcon.

Yeah! I had that, yeah. And I always wanted Doctor Who to have that range of figures and now they do! So while it's a thrill to be one, I'm slightly sad they didn't have them when I was a kid. And now we've got a Tom Baker and a Peter Davison as well, which are exactly, they're my time. And you've got a little Patrick Troughton now. They're great little [toys]. I think that, as with so many aspects of the show, I think people have grown up loving it and are now in the position to be making toys and making the show. So we benefit from that extra kind of love that people have for it, I think. In every aspect of the show's life.

Staying with your childhood. How do you think your father being a minister has influenced you as an actor or just in general? Has that influenced you in any shape or form you think?

No idea. It's very difficult to know, isn't it? How you would have turned out differently with the influences you just take for granted. Clearly there's an element of performance in being a minister of the church and I'm sure I picked up some of that from watching my dad. And he always talks about had he grown up perhaps in a different time he could have seen himself going into acting. But it just really wasn't an option in Glasgow back then. But I suppose there's a bit of a showman in my dad so maybe I picked up some of that.

I'm sure you're not going to tell me anything but, can you tell me anything at all about the remaining three specials?

[Laughs] I can tell you that I'm extremely excited about them. I can tell you that they're...

You can tell me that you're in them.

I am in them! At least for some of the time. They're probably the best ones we've done, I think. It all starts after Planet of the Dead, which your readers will presumably have seen by the time this comes out, it all gets a lot darker, and lot more difficult. The Doctor is aware that he's fighting against time, that his death is inevitable, and on it's way. And that of course influences everything that happens. That gives a huge resonance to them, which is very exciting to play actually, and I think will be very exciting to watch. Because you've got this character who...inevitably with a long running series you reset to zero at the end of every episode, don't you. And there's a limit to how much you can change that central character. But we have this wonderful opportunity that, although the show will carry on and the character will continue, this version of the character is going to die. And that gives you a real liberty to explore new aspects of this essentially unchangeable character, and to change him and to take him to different places. So with Waters of Mars, which is the next special we see him sort of taking on the inevitable, really. And we him sort of raging against the dying of the light in a way which doesn't necessarily work out all that well. And then in the final two-part story we see some of the consequences of that and we also see a man struggling against mortality I suppose. And this is a man who doesn't really have to worry about mortality, so that just allows you to just do interesting things with this character who we know so well and yet we still know so little about. And we will find out a few more snippets about what happened when the show was off air, and during the Time War. Little moments will become slightly clearer. And The Master is back, John Simm. Bernard Cribbins is back, who played Donna's grandfather—which means that Donna is back a bit as well, but anyone who saw the end of the show will know that Donna and The Doctor can't meet again, so there's a bit of story there.

And you have Timothy Dalton?

We have Timothy Dalton, which is very, very exciting.

I always felt like he was a very underrated James Bond. I really liked his two movies.

Well, wait 'till you see him in this. He's absolutely sensational. He was so enthusiastic and so excited to be part of the show, which was wonderful for all of us. We have Claire Bloom. We have some very posh guest stars coming in for this final story.

What was the last day on the set like when you filmed your last scene for Doctor Who? Did you do anything special, did the crew do anything special to commemorate it? What were you feeling on that last day?

Well inevitably it wasn't my last scene; things were being shot out of order. My last few shots were some fairly unexciting green screen bits and pieces that we had to just finish off. It was difficult. It's funny—it had been four years of working with all these people, and part of you just wants to disappear because saying goodbye is all a bit difficult and you can never quite sum up how you felt about the four years experience, so I tried to sort of sneak away but I wasn't allowed and I got pulled back. It was a bit of a moment and everyone kind of gathered around, and it was emotional. It was more emotional even than I'd expected. I thought I'd manage to hold it together and I didn't. But I suppose that's probably best. It would have been a shame just to—although, at the time the instinct is to sneak off into the night, under the radar, that didn't really happen.

Considering that you'd always wanted to play the part since you were a kid, what has most surprised you about playing The Doctor?

I don't know, really. I don't know that it was surprising particularly. You know, it was exciting, and it was all-consuming, and inspiring, and exhausting in equal measure. I don't know that I was surprised, particularly. I've been surprised at the scope and the scale of it, in terms of just that. The ubiquity of it. Everywhere you go it seems to follow you and be part of your life. And particularly back home, it's everywhere. You go into a supermarket and your face is on a cake and underpants. And all that's very odd. It's not what you imagine when you go to drama school, that you'll be commemorated in plastic and icing, and cotton, and whatever else. You know, key rings, just that side of it. I suppose moments like that are just quite hard to get your head around. Like I switched on the Blackpool Illuminations and there were thousand and thousands and thousands of people there, all going mental. It's hard when you're doing a job which you work very hard at, that you're committed to—but to really translate that out and be aware of the impact that it's having, it's difficult to be entirely aware of. So I suppose that's quite surprising when you step back from it and realize. It's thrilling, and very humbling actually, to be a part of something that people get so excited about. It's wonderful! And it's how I felt about the show when I was a kid too. It's wonderful to be part of that now. But that continues to surprise you, to catch you a bit unaware. And then you come to America and someone hands you a comic book and there's your face on it, and you think, "I've only just met you and you've been drawing me and you're from the other side of the world!" That's curious and quite difficult to compute.

You're probably not going to tell me about this either, but there's been a lot of speculation about a Doctor Who movie?

Yes it seems to have slightly got wiped out of nowhere, I don't quite understand this. It's something that seems to have been talked about since I was part of it. There's definitely a sense that people expecting us to say something about it while we're here. There's nothing to say, I'm afraid. There's no great story that we're holding back on.

Yeah if you go to all the fan sites they're talking about, "they're going to announce the movie at the panel."

We all became dimly aware of this about a couple of weeks ago that they were expecting more than they're going to get from us this weekend. We're just here because BBC America has got the show on and we're all quite keen to make sure everyone knows about that, really. So, I'm afraid that's as much of a story as there is there, really.

Would you be down for doing a big screen thing if the script was right and everything was right?

Oh who knows? It's a pipe dream. It doesn't even make sense to speculate really. But...who knows.

Would you be down to return to the show at some point because there's that clone of you in the alternate universe with Billie Piper.

Yeah, that's true. Well, I'm always keen to work with Billie again, so you know. Who knows? I suppose that one of the traits of Doctor Who is that there is the option to show up again in 10 years time, or something. So who knows? I'll try and maintain the waistline to fit into my suit if the call ever comes, but I can't promise anything.

I was curious what you thought of Matt Smith's costume that was announced with the bowtie.

Yeah. It looks good doesn't it?

Yeah, it looks cool. It felt like the old-school costumes a little bit.

I guess. Although there's something very modern catwalk about that—the bowtie and roll-up trousers I think. No, it's exciting! I find myself in the curious position of knowing the same as everyone else again, which is quite exciting, to be on the other side of it and to be looking forward to it as a viewer again. And I wondered if that would feel peculiar, but so far I'm just genuinely excited. You know I was thrilled to hear that, someone texted me and said, there's was a photograph of Matt and Karen [Gillan] on the first day of work. And I found myself leaping to the computer to log in and see what they looked like! It's very exciting. I'm really thrilled that it's all happening.

This is a tough question, maybe, but what's the biggest misconception about David Tennant?

That I'm not Scottish. People have only seen me in Doctor Who, I think they are slightly surprised sometimes at the way I speak. Beyond that, I don't know, I have no idea! I think people think I'm quite short. A lot of the time people go "oh you're so tall." I don't know why that is. Maybe I act short, but I'm quite tall, which sometimes people don't seem to know. Tall and Scottish. Those are two facts that your readers must know.

Good. That'll be the headline: Tall and Scottish.

That's all you need to say!

How would you like you tenure on Doctor Who to be remembered? Obviously you're a fan so you can look back on Tom Baker and Peter Davison and all...

Fondly I suppose. I have such fond memories of watching the show as a kid and being so enthused by it. If any of the memories I have of that time are mirrored in anybody today, then I'll feel very happy and very proud of what we've done. I am very proud of the stories, when I watch them back. I'm very chuffed to have been part of the last four years of what I think is some really great telly. So, I hope that people remember it with fondness and excitement.

Speaking as a fan it's been remarkably consistent. There've only been a few episodes that are remotely not the best.

Right. What ones don't you like?

Oh gosh. I didn't like the "Fear Her" one, I think the one with the drawings...

See, I love "Fear Her." Why do people not? I've heard this from other people. I love "Fear Her." I think it's really clever.

Yeah I don't know why I didn't like it. The little girl bugged me for some reason.

Really? I think she's proper creepy.

I can't think of too many others. My favorites are probably "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood."

Yeah, a lot of people say that. They were very exciting stories really.

I just love the moment at the end where The Doctor and Martha are seeing the kid as an old man at the World War I memorial. It just shows the whole scope of the show. I thought it was really touching.

Yeah. I think it's one of the things that it shows very well, that it can handle—because that's potentially quite a mawkishly sentimental moment, and yet it doesn't feel like that at all. And I think that's one of the strengths of the show that it can do things that are really quite bold emotionally, and that fits with running up and down corridors and shooting monsters. It's all part of a whole, and I think that's the triumph of what Russell T. Davies, particularly, has done actually, is to just allow that kind of scope, where a fantasy show can also be properly rooted in moments of reality. And that one that you talked about, can be genuinely quite moving, which is, yeah, no, I'm very proud of all of that, yeah.

I'm sure you get asked this a lot: but if you had your own TARDIS where and when would you go?

I would go back to my teenaged self. Round about 13, 14, maybe 15. I'd give myself a bit of a talking to; just give myself some pointers. I'd talk myself though the coming few years and try and get me to cut myself a bit more slack. I think that's what I'd do.

Now that you're finished with Doctor Who, do you have your sights set on coming to America, to do some stuff with Hollywood?

I really don't, I genuinely don't know. I certainly wouldn't say no to that, if the right project presented itself. It's really just about finding the next script that sort of enthuses you. And I've been spoiled because I've worked with Russell for more than four years-I did Casanova immediately before [Doctor Who], which is another of his fantastic scripts. And in between I got to work with some very fantastic people, between Tony Marchant and Peter Moffat and some other fantastic writers and directors too. So I just want to find something that matches that, I suppose. Which is easier said than done because I've been fortunate to work with Britain's best writers I would say. I did a bit of Shakespeare as well, and he's quite good too. So it's just finding something that is exciting and feels right. Right now I don't quite know what that's going to be. But I'm open to any possibility.

Cool, cool. I wanted to ask you about music, since we're a music magazine.

Yeah, great!

And I know you're a big fan of The Proclaimers.


And I saw you were on Top of the Pops with Franz Ferdinand.

I was! I played guitar with Franz Ferdinand.

That was cool.


I remember seeing in the NME a few years ago, Kaiser Chiefs did an interview with you.

Kaiser Chiefs, big fan of Kaiser Chiefs.

I was curious what other bands, you point out Bat For Lashes...

Bat For Lashes is a great album, I'm really enjoying that. What else am I listening to at the moment? I have the Pet Shop Boys album on a lot. I've always liked the Pet Shop Boys.

Well your name is from the Pet Shop Boys.

It sort of is! Yeah. I thought their last album was terrific, so I've listened to that a lot.

Have you ever met [Pet Shop Boys'] Neil Tennant?

I never have, no. My namesake! What else have I got going on at the moment? Well, the new Proclaimers album has just come out, so that's on a lot right now.

Do you find yourself listening to a lot of Scottish bands, Franz Ferdinand, etc.?

I suppose I do. I don't know if that's specifically because they're Scottish.

Camera Obscura, do you know them? They're from Scotland.

No I don't!

You should check them out, they're good. One of the girls from the band, we did an interview with her and she talked about how she loves Doctor Who.

Oh great!

It's kind of indie-pop kind of stuff.

Sounds like very much my kind of thing.

You should check it out, check out their album Let's Get Out of This Country. It came out a few years ago. It's really good.

Okay, I will, thank you.

It was my favorite album of that year.

I've been listening to The Duckworth Lewis Method.

I just got that in the mail, I haven't listened to it yet.

Which is great, it's about cricket, which I know nothing and have absolutely no passion for whatsoever. But I've always loved The Divine Comedy, so anything Neil Hannon does I'm going to always check out. And actually, you don't really need to know anything about cricket. So I'm liking that a lot.

Neil Hannon's one of my favorites, I've interviewed him a few times.

He's great, isn't he?

He's one of the best lyricists I think.

Yes, really clever.

Totally underrated, especially in this country—no one knows who he is.

Really. That's a shame. He's terrific. He recorded a couple of Doctor Who tracks, for the soundtrack albums. Which again, I'm ridiculously proud that he's sort of singing about my character. So yeah, I'm a big fan of him. What else? Passion Pit. I thought I was getting into them, I'm not quite sure if I'm there yet.

Yeah, I'm not sure about them. I'm on the fence.

Yeah. I might still be on the fence. I haven't had a new injection of new stuff. So I need to kind of sniff around a bit. Florence and the Machine I'm wondering, I might quite like that. I might have to check that album out. I'm liking the stuff I'm hearing on the radio. 

I haven't heard the whole album but I've heard some singles that were good.

Sounds good, yeah.

And Wendy photographed her for this issue.

Right, right.

You can have any of these [magazines].

Great! I'd love to have a look. It's very cool.

Do you have any nieces and nephews that really freaked out when you became The Doctor?

I have seven nieces and a nephew. And I don't know how freaked out they were, I think they've quite enjoyed it. And it's been five years, so they've kind of grown up through it. Although I'm now doing a film called St Trinian's 2, which I don't think means anything in America.

My [British] niece is a huge fan of the first film.

Right. When I told my nieces that I was doing St Trinian's 2, they went ballistic and they were screaming and jumping up and down. But then they're girls of a certain age, so that's particularly the target audience for that, I guess. I think they've enjoyed the fact that I've been doing Doctor Who. But they're all very cool about it. They underplay it, you know.

Are there any fictional characters that you're dying to play, since you were wanting to play The Doctor for so long? For example when I interviewed [Torchwood's] Eve [Myles] she said she was dying to play Wonder Woman.

Really? She'd be great! I'd love to have played Holden Caulfield. But quite rightly [J.D. Salinger] doesn't want any films to be made, I can understand that. He doesn't want anyone to touch his work. That's fair enough; that's his prerogative. And I'm too old now anyway. But I suppose that would have been great. Any of the Salinger stuff I think would be great to do. But, you know, it's never going to happen. But that makes it all the more exciting I suppose as a prospect. What else? I mean there are plays I'd like to do, I suppose. Certainly there are a lot more Shakespeare parts I'd like to have a crack at.  

We are here at Comic-Con are there any other Sci-fi or comic book type characters that you'd fancy playing?

Don't know. Can't think of anything off-hand. I don't know. I don't know who I could play. I don't know who I'd be, sort of, ideal casting for really. I can't think of anything.  Do you have any suggestions?

You could do whatever you want really.

I could play Doctor Strange maybe. I could grow I nice little '70s tash. And do little, he has little gray bits there, gray temples. And I could talk about the Orb of Agamotto or whatever it was that he used to have. I'd look quite good in a cape. I don't know, I have no particular...

But then you'd be two doctors in a row.

That's true, that's true. Two very different doctors.

And then you'd have to play Doctor Doom.

That's fine. Behind a mask, that's easy, yeah. Do that any time!

Then you'd have to do a remake of Dr. Strangelove.

That would be good. I can't think of any [character] particularly [that I'd want to play].

So your upcoming projects, you have the Hamlet TV thing coming up.

That's right.


Which his now called Glorious 39, I think. 1939 was always a working title.

And then St Trinian's 2.

St Trinian's 2 which I'm just in the middle of filming now.

Well our intern Laura is a huge fan of yours.

Very good.

She's going to be transcribing this later. So if you could just say hello to her on the tape.

[Leans in and whispers.] Hello Laura. I'm just leaning in nice and tight to say hello to you. I hope you're wearing headphones so I can whisper in your ear. I hope you can transcribe my nonsense and it's not too difficult to you. I love you very much Laura, goodbye.

Cool. I'm going to surprise her. She's going to be transcribing that and be totally freaked out.

Credit: Mark Redfern for Under The Radar