David Tennant spoke to John Crook of Zap2it about his World War II spy drama Spies Of Warsaw during his brief visit to the USA last summer. The miniseries, which also stars Janet Montgomery, Burn Gorman and Marcin Dorocinski, premières on BBC America tonight, concluding next Wednesday. Read what David had to say below:
': David Tennant
plays it straight and with no French accent Warsaw
There's something almost puppylike about the way David Tennant bounds into this
Hills restaurant with a face-splitting grin. He's
dressed chic-casual, slacks and sport coat over a vintage Brit-rock T-shirt,
his face stubbly for Broadchurch, the
British police drama he's due to start filming the week after this meeting.
That show will air later this year on BBC America, but he's here right now to
talk about Spies of Warsaw, a
two-part miniseries airing on consecutive Wednesdays, April 3 and 10, on the
Filmed on location in the Polish capital, this adaptation of Alan Furst's well-received historical novel, set during the days leading up to World War II, casts Tennant as Col. Jean-Francois Mercier, a French aristocrat who finds himself drawn into a complex world of intrigue and betrayal as well as an affair with a Parisian lawyer (Janet Montgomery) for the League of Nations.
"He's a career soldier who was in the First World War and has been much decorated since, and now he finds himself the French military attache to
Tennant tells Zap2it. "But he also has a secondary, clandestine life
for his country, where he is snooping around to see what is happening,
particularly on the German side of the border. There was so much information
flying around Europe at that time, and every
country was kind of desperately looking over its shoulder to see who was doing
what to whom and trying to second-guess what was going to happen next."
It's also perhaps Tennant's most straightforward "leading man" role to date, which requires some adjustments for his legions of fans who associate the actor with his iconic role as the Tenth Doctor in the Doctor Who franchise. But then, Tennant is an actor who always has gone for the unexpected. His performance as Shakespeare's Hamlet, which aired on PBS’ Great Performances in 2010, was devastating, but he also was careful to nail all the jokes. What? You didn't know there were jokes in Hamlet? Then get thee to the nearest copy of Tennant's performance.
"I think I'm known to most people for playing somewhat quirky characters," Tennant acknowledges. "Even if I'm playing the hero of the piece, he's usually a bit off the wall and out of left field. When I played Casanova (which aired stateside in 2006 on 'Masterpiece Theatre'), he wasn't the Casanova of legend; he was slightly offbeat and unusual. With Spies of Warsaw, he's straight down the line, somewhat inscrutable but a straightforward leading man. It was a new challenge for me to try to tell the story without 'winking,' without putting anything in parentheses. This character is without quirk, really, and I thought, well, I'm over 40 now; maybe it's time to master that."
Among the first things viewers will notice about Tennant's character - OK, once past the curly coif he's been saddled with - is that he's not speaking with a French accent. And he wants you to know that's an artistic decision, not professional ineptitude.
"No need to worry, that's not my very poor attempt at a French accent," he says, laughing. "There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles - which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over."
He hesitates, then comically furrows his brows as he thinks this through further.
"As to when the English characters are speaking English to each other, I suppose by that logic they're actually speaking French, so it doesn't bear too much examination. Best just to go with it!"
Like most British TV films these days, Spies of Warsaw was filmed on a tight budget and timetable - eight weeks - but Tennant says he was thrilled to discover the breathtaking diversity of locations that
"Pretty much all of it was filmed in
and parts of that city also double for Paris and
whatever other city the story went to," he says. "We filmed in some
absolutely beautiful places. Warsaw
is an untapped filming resource. You could turn the camera in any direction,
and there would be nothing you would need to fix in post-production. No amount
of CGI can create something that beautiful and extraordinary."
The miniseries has a retro feel to it that evokes some of the great British Cold War spy dramas. Asked why the Brits seem to have an affinity for playing spies - and being spies in real life - Tennant says it's all in the upbringing.
"The first thing that comes to mind is that the British are brought up to believe that exhibiting yourself, your emotional life, is just not the done thing, so perhaps that predisposes them to succeeding in a career where your life can depend on being able to keep secrets," he says. "It's as if there's a carapace in the breeding."
Watch part one of Spies Of Warsaw on BBC America tonight from 9pm/8c