INTERVIEW: David Tennant Talks About Gracepoint and Broadchurch

David Tennant has given an interview to Mansha Daswani of Worldscreen as part of their MIPTV preview. David talks about appearing in the multi-award winning Broadchurch, reprising the lead role in the FOX remake Gracepoint (currently filming in Canada) and about returning to Doctor Who and the stage last year. 

WS: When you were first approached about Broadchurch, what appealed to you about the project?
TENNANT: I had previously worked with Chris Chibnall [the creator of Broadchurch] on both Doctor Who and on his TV movie United, about the Manchester United Munich air disaster. So I knew Chris well, I knew his work well and I knew that it would be a script worth reading. James Strong is a director I’ve worked with many times, again on Doctor Who and on United. So the fact that it was them approaching me meant that I was all the more inclined to be part of it. And then I read [the script] and thought, this is fantastic—a brilliantly drawn portrait of a terrible event with these extraordinary characters, all of whom you need to know more about. The whole world of it was so evocative. At the end of episode one you are desperate to know what happens next. All those things collided to make me think, this is something to be part of.

WS: Did you know at the outset how it was going to end?
TENNANT: We found out [about plot developments] as the scripts came out to us. I had no idea, for instance, who the killer was until I got the script for episode eight. I had my own suspicions and my own theories, but I was as in the dark as Alec Hardy was. I was genuinely investigating each character as I came across them. And I had no sense of who was lying to me and who wasn’t. That was quite useful as an acting exercise.

WS: The way every episode left you anxious for the next, it feels like the show was made for the kind of binge viewing so many of us are doing these days—but most people seem to have watched it week to week as it went out on ITV and other broadcasters around the world.
TENNANT: It’s interesting that you say it appeals to binge viewing. I suppose it does, but what took everyone by surprise when it was broadcast in the U.K. was that it seemed to rekindle a kind of desire for that collective national experience. There was very much a sense that people were waiting week to week to sit down and watch it together. We wouldn’t have been able to engender that sense of expectation if people were watching it all in one go. I don’t mean that [watching it week to week is] a more puritanical or better experience! You’re right, there’s an assumption that people don’t want to watch things [as appointment viewing] now, but they most certainly did with Broadchurch. The collective experience was part of what people enjoyed about it.

WS: As it was playing out on ITV, it did feel like everyone in the U.K. was talking about it, speculating about who the killer might be!
TENNANT: It seemed to catch a moment. It took all of us by surprise. Whenever you make something, you hope it’s going to be well received and enthused over, that people will hopefully think it’s as good as you do. But that kind of thing, when it takes on a life of its own, when it becomes a national talking point, I don’t think any one of us was quite prepared for that. It’s wonderful to be in the center of something like that, but quite overwhelming! [Laughs] During the run up to that final episode, people were going crazy about what was coming. It was fantastic to be part of a national conversation.

WS: I imagine you were used to that though, after all those years on the much-loved Doctor Who.
TENNANT: Yes, but you’re very aware that something like Doctor Who has a cultural heritage with it and it has a generations-long appeal. It was particularly wonderful to be part of Doctor Who, but [its success was] not unprecedented. Broadchurch came out of nowhere and within eight weeks became this thing that everyone seemed to be talking about. I’m sure there were lots of people who weren’t watching it, but certainly from my own perspective it felt like it was everywhere.

WS: Detective Inspector Alec Hardy faces a lot of personal demons. Can you tell me about some of the things you did to prepare for the role?
TENNANT: There’s the practical things, like finding out about stuff you don’t know about, [such as] whatever his medical complaints might be—I don’t want to give too much away for people who haven’t seen it! You spend some time with a murder squad and you find out what that world is like. Ultimately you then turn to the script and that defines everything about what you do. Whatever preparation you do, eventually you have to sync to the script, especially when it’s a good bit of writing.

WS: There are more and more dramas being remade from one country to the next, but it’s exceedingly rare that an actor will take on the same role in two different versions of a show. What was your initial reaction to the idea of doing it all over again, this time for an American audience?
TENNANT: The thing is, I’ve had a few close calls with various American television projects that, for various reasons, hadn’t quite come to fruition. There was something very appealing about the fact that this was something I knew was good. It was going to be executive produced by people I knew and trusted. It was going straight to series, which of course is quite rare. It felt like there were too many positives to look a gift horse in the mouth. It was an unusual situation, trying to recreate something I had done in a whole new set of circumstances, but that felt like it might be an interesting challenge. There were so many positives to the project that it would have been churlish to say no.

WS: How’s your American accent coming along?
TENNANT: Not for me to say of course, you’d have to speak to others who’ve heard it, but I quite like it! I quite like working in different accents sometimes. It helps allow you access to somebody else. There’s a great liberation working in your own accent too, but as I’ve [worked in] a variety of different accents, it’s interesting to see what sounding different does to the rest of you and how that makes you think slightly differently and even move slightly differently. It can help transform who you are. I quite enjoy the challenge of that and the change that that affords you.

WS: In Gracepoint, Anna Gunn portrays Detective Ellie Miller, your partner in investigating the crime at the center of the show. Does your working relationship with her alter how you play Emmett Carver, the American version of Alec Hardy?
TENNANT: As with any working relationship with anyone, it’s hard to pick apart what somebody else’s reaction does to what you do. It’s part of what happens in the playing of the scene. The decisions and choices you make are influenced by the decisions and choices of the actors around you. It’s certainly been great to work with her so far and it feels like we’re establishing quite a believable and competent relationship between the characters. There’s a sparkiness between Carver and Anna’s Ellie which is quite exciting. [Anna’s] very easy to get along with, which is how I like things to be!

WS: I understand that Gracepoint will differ from Broadchurch in that it’s a longer episode order, and the ending is different.
TENNANT: I find myself in the same situation I was in with Broadchurch—the decision was made by people well above my pay grade that the story wasn’t going to follow exactly the same path. That’s all I’ve been told. So as withBroadchurch before, I’m in the dark again, which I’m quite pleased about. I know as much as you do—I’m told there’s going to be a different ending. It could be fundamentally different or a subtle nuance, I have absolutely no idea. I will be enraptured to find out, as hopefully millions of viewers will be.

WS: You mentioned you’ve been involved in American pilots before. With those projects and your experience so far on the set of Gracepoint, have you seen any major differences in how American shows are made compared with series in the U.K.?
TENNANT: It’s not wildly different. There are differences to the ways the days are structured. There are differences to the hours that are worked and the practicalities of it—the turnaround times and all these kinds of things. But basically it’s the same job. The differences are cosmetic rather than fundamental. Ultimately you’re trying to do the same thing and you’re doing it in the same way that films have been made for over 100 years, more or less.

WS: There are a lot of British actors working in Hollywood these days, and shows from the U.K. are certainly gaining more fans on this side of the Atlantic. Do you think there are things Hollywood can learn from what’s coming out of British television today?
TENNANT: It has been a good few years [for British drama in America]. We’ve always received so much American TV, maybe it’s just the balance is slightly redressing itself as the world becomes inevitably smaller. We sit in Britain watching Homeland and Dexter and Girls—I suppose the cream of the stuff that comes out of the States. It would be fair to say that the things that get exported are probably the best of the British product, which is right and proper. On both continents we would agree that there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t get exported and therefore perhaps your international reputation is greater than your domestic reputation when it comes to looking at the products that are around. I think there’s been some fantastic television out of America in recent years and some fantastic television out of Britain too. Television actually is having a rather golden age at the moment, and that’s partly to do with what you were referencing earlier about the changing ways in which we watch it and the changing expectations we have of it. When we were making Broadchurch, I loved that people were talking about how rare it was to have one story over eight weeks. Even since we shot it, which was less than two years ago, that feels like quite a quaint thing to say now. There is that sense that we’re looking for longer-form stories and deeper character development. Those sorts of things that we tend to associate with quality drama are more the norm now. That’s been good for television drama all over the world. Britain is producing some great stuff, so is the U.S., and there’s all the Nordic stuff that we’re enjoying as well. It’s one of the advantages of the new technologies and the ever-shrinking television marketplace that we have access to the best, wherever it comes from.

WS: You’ve had an incredibly busy television schedule the last few years, but you still make time for your stage work. Why is working in the theater important to you?
TENNANT: It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I started doing. For the first few years of working as an actor, that was very much the lion’s share of what I did. I would do the occasional episode of a TV show, but I filled my years working in the theater. Even as that balance slightly shifted in more recent years, it feels like [the theater is] my proper job and it’s something I’m always looking to return to. I imagine I always will. One of the great things about being an actor is the variety of projects you get to work on and also the media you get to work in. I really enjoy the fact that I get to flip between the two. I feel very spoiled to be in that position, so I’m not going to surrender it willingly!

WS: As a devout Whovian I have to ask about the recent 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who. What was it like reuniting with Billie Piper, who played your companion, and working alongside the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith?
TENNANT: It’s always a joy to reunite with Billie, whether it’s socially or professionally. She’s a great pal. Matt I didn’t know quite so well, but we got on famously. It could have been an awful experience really—by rights it was his show, so with me coming in and trying to jump all over it, he would have had every right to feel a little disgruntled about it. But he couldn’t have been more generous and excited about the prospect himself. It was enormous fun to do. Doctor Who is always fun. That’s one of the reasons why it is so popular, and it’s as much fun to make as it is to watch. It was lovely to revisit that world and to be part of something that was such a big deal. There are very few TV shows that make it to 50 years. To be part of the celebration of that was wonderful.

The interview appears with new photos of David as his Gracepoint character Emmett Carver in the digital edition of Worldscreen magazine MIPTV 2014 edition - read it online here.

TV and digital content trade market MIPTV takes place in Cannes from 7th - 10th April. The event gives a platform for industry professionals to forge partnerships and seal international TV distribution deals.