NEW INTERVIEW: David Tennant Talks First Night Nerves

The night before the first public performance, you’re actually in the theatre, doing technical rehearsals and making sure everything runs smoothly. It’s all very busy – it’s not a night off. But I think that’s best because, for me, it’s really an exercise in panic management. You’re trying to convince your brain that it’s possible to remember a sequence of words and movements in front of 850 people without having a heart attack. I don’t think I’d want to be sitting at home trying to be calm, because I’m sure that wouldn’t work.

The whole challenge is convincing yourself that you’re not going to forget your lines or wet yourself or whatever. You start rehearsing these little speeches in your head, where you have to apologise to the audience because you can’t carry on and you’re going to have to go to your dressing room and have a little cry.

You can be rehearsing those speeches while you’re actually on stage, saying your lines. It’s all mind games, really.

Actors are famously superstitious, but I try not to be. I have an abhorrence of superstition. I will happily say “Macbeth” in the wings. Inevitably, though, you find yourself falling into a routine, then you get nervous about changing it. I usually get to the theatre around 5pm and have something to eat. Nothing special: Pret seems to be taking an enormous amount of my wages at the moment. We have a fight call at around 6pm – you have to rehearse fight scenes every night for safety’s sake – then there’s a bit of time with the rest of the cast, so you can check in on everyone.

fter that, I like to have a bit of solitude. I have my own dressing room, which is not too bad. They’ve done it up recently, and I haven’t yet seen a mouse, which is quite unusual for a West End theatre. At the half [the half-hour call over the tannoy], I like to listen to an album. For every show, I land on a soundtrack, then I have to listen to it every night. This is my superstition, I suppose. For this show, it’s Rag’n’Bone Man’s Human. For Hamlet, it was a Coldplay album, and for Richard II it was David Bowie’s Nothing Has Changed. There’s no real logic to what the album is – it’s just whatever happens to be around and seems to fit. But then I have to play it every night, even if I’m sick of it.

Our audiences are lovely and enthusiastic, but getting out of the theatre after a show can be a little crazy. I try to get out as quietly as possible, then I have the drive home to wind down. As someone who grew up a Scottish Presbyterian, where guilt is one’s engine in life, there’s something really enjoyable about playing such an inhuman character. It’s quite titillating – as long as you leave it behind in the dressing room every night.

David Tennant is currently appearing in Don Juan In Soho at Wyndham’s Theatre, London.

The full feature "Break A Leg" is taken from today's Guardian Weekend.