INTERVIEW: David Tennant Talks Camping "It's Not Like Anything Else I've Done Before"

Yesterday saw the premiere of David Tennant's new US comedy series, Camping, on HBO.
David and Jennifer Garner star as Kathryn and Walt, a not-so-happily married couple, who take meticulously planned outdoor trip to celebrate Walt’s 45th birthday. The trip ends up derailed by uninvited guests and forces of nature, turning the weekend into a test of marriage and friendships.

David and Jennifer took part in a press day in LA earlier in the week where they answered some questions about the show, working together and an in depth look at the permission for Camping in someone's garden in the UK...

So, what intrigued you about this subject matter and made you want to do this?

Jennifer Garner:  I don’t know that I was intrigued by the subject matter. I was intrigued by the script, itself, and by Jenni (Konner) and Lena (Dunham’s) cleverness and capacity for words. And then, there were the characters and how deeply disturbed they all are, in their own words, how complicated their relationships are, and how they slowly unravel, as time goes on.

David Tennant:  Yeah, I was drawn to the people involved. That was a big draw, along with the type of show that it is. It’s not like anything I had done before. That’s always appealing. And there was working with Jen [Garner]. It was a combination of all those things. I read the script and went, “Oh, this is good. I’d quite like to do this. I’m glad they’re asking. Yes, please!”

Were either of you familiar with the original British series?

DT:  I did see it. I didn’t see it, at the time. I don’t know how I quite missed it, but when this became something that I was involved in, I checked it out and I absolutely loved it. It’s recognizably the same show, but it’s tonally quite different.

JG:  I watched the British version before I read the script, and it was brilliant and I loved it, but they went so much further with Kathryn that I thought, “I don’t know if we can do this in America.” Actually, Jenni and Lena toned her down and softened her quite a bit, and gave you reasons why, where in the British version, you didn’t get that.

DT:  I think Julia Davis, who I love and I think is brilliant, is a very different writer to Jenni and Lena. Jenni and Lena play to their strengths, so it’s about the minutiae of interpersonal relationships. That’s what they’re great at. Whereas Julia likes to take things beyond, into a macabre Grand-Guignol thing. They start to divert more and more, as the series goes on. The finale of the British one is very unlike our finale.

JG:  Yes, for sure.

DT:  They were not trying to be the same show. I think Julia sure inspired this one, rather than being a slavish remake.

JG: Oh, definitely.

David, what’s it like to play the most normal guy that you’ve probably ever played?

DT:  It’s quite a relief. I spend a lot of my time playing characters where I have to pretend to be much cooler and more suave than I really am. It’s very nice just to lean back and be a little bit of a dork.

JG:  You seem totally like you’re playing yourself.

DT:  It came so easily. There was no stress for it, at all.

JG:  I didn’t see the work.

Jen, we’ve only seen four episodes and, so far, Kathryn is not very empathetic. Does the show get any lighter on her character, as the season goes on? Do we get any more context to help us understand why she is the way she is?

JG:  To me, you do. I think that they really mete out those moments carefully, and they were quite strict with me because I was constantly trying to button a scene with a smile, or rub Duncan Joiner’s back, who plays our son Orvis, or something that would soften it, in some way. They were just like, “No! That’s you. That’s not Kathryn. Don’t go for it. You have to stay strong.” But by the end, I think you’ve peeked under enough leaves that you can see who’s hiding behind the tree, and you start to understand who they used to be together and who she was to her friends, and why she is so tough to handle now.

Have you ever come across any helicopter moms or dads?

DT: What’s a helicopter mom?

It’s someone who hovers over and around their child.

DT:  Ah, I’ve never heard that expression.

JG:  You haven’t?!

DT:  No, and I’m taking that one home with me.

JG:  As we were shooting it, there were moments that were relatable for everyone, when it came to Kathryn. We would say, “Oh, my gosh, I have a sister like this,” or “There’s a kid in my preschool whose mom is just like this.” I think that for someone who’s living with chronic pain, and who feels completely misunderstood by everyone in their life, the only people that really understand her are a group of characters that I thought a lot about, that we never see, who are the people that she has this blog with about living with chronic pain. That is real to her. That’s her community and her posse, and she’s a rock star to them because she’s out there camping and doing things, even with this pain. It must make you feel crazy, and she probably started off being really controlling and tough, to begin with.

Do you know women like Kathryn?

JG:  Yeah, I know women with some of Kathryn’s attributes.

Did they inspire you, with this role?

JG:  Of course! That’s why I can’t really talk about it too much. That’s gotten me in trouble before.

With all the behind the scenes stuff we’ve gotten to see from the show, it seems like everybody was smiling and laughing a lot on the set. So, if we got to see the blooper reel from this season, what would be the craziest or silliest or funniest thing that you guys would be doing on it?

DT:  Jenni directed the first episode and set the tone. You would shoot the scene, and then the cameras would keep rolling for a bit and you’d be encouraged to allow yourself to see what would come out. Sometimes, of course, it would work out and some little gems would appear, and then other times, you’d come up with some nonsense. So, it would probably be something from that. There was some, “I’ll try this. No, that doesn’t go anywhere,” and it would descend into gibberish.

JG:  David and I were working with comedians, so if they would have a bit in their mind, they would have to say it out loud and they’d be overtaken by bits.

David, how are you able to pull off an American accent so well?

DT:  I’m glad that you finished the sentence with “so well.” I suppose I’ve done it a bit now. I’ve had a bit of practice. These things always get easier with practice. I also had a dialect coach that I’ve worked with before, when I went through each script, before we started shooting. The thing with accents is that there’s some you can do and there’s some that you have to work on, but they’re in your back pocket forever, hopefully. I’m never going to play a South African very successfully, but we grew up with watching a lot of American stuff. I think most people in the UK are quite immersed in American sounds, from an early age.

JG:  Every now and then, there would be a word that would get you, though, and we were always really happy about that.

David, what is camping culture like in the UK? Is it like it is in America?

DT:  Yeah, I guess it probably is. I don’t get very heavily involved with it, if I’m absolutely honest with you. What we don’t have, that you have here, is the summer camp thing with kids, where you send your kids off for months and say, “See ya!” We don’t have any of that. I have a nephew and a niece who come over to America to help run these camps. When I first heard about it, I thought, “Oh, you just send your kids off and you don’t see them for three months? And that’s fine? That sounds like a brilliant idea!” So, we don’t grow up with it quite the same way.

JG:  But don’t you do the thing where you’re allowed to camp anywhere?

DT:  On someone’s front yard?

JG:  Yeah

DT:  No. I’d say no.

JG:  If there’s a farm, you can’t just set up a tent?

DT:  No, there are places where you can and places where you can’t. Why? Are you planning a trip?

JG:  No, it’s in the Apple Tree Farm books, so I thought that’s how it was.

DT:  I don’t think so, but I’m not steeped in British camping culture, so I can’t give you a chapter and verse about it. The only time I’ve been camping in the UK is for a music festival, which is probably where a lot of people have their first experience, at Reading or Glastonbury.

JG:  I’m sure that feels really clean and sanitary.

DT:  The one time that I did it, it was utterly disgusting, but you have to surrender to it don’t you? You can have a day where you resist, but then you’re like, “It’s fine. I’m going feral. I’m just going to live in these clothes, for as long as it takes.” And once you surrender to it, there’s a freedom in that.

This series has such a diverse group of writers and directors. What can you say about working with such a talented group?

DT:  What I had never done is work in a situation where there was a team of writers on set, the whole time. I’ve never done a job like that.

JG:  Me either, and it was just the best part about the job. They would come up to you and say, “We have a pitch,” and they would pitch you a few lines that they had been discussing. They were there, night and day, no matter the time, making every scene better, making sure stories were tracking, and just coming up with different jokes to try.

DT:  I loved that, it kept you there, mentally. You’d film a scene, and there was always another bit to go. Travon [Free] would have another idea, or Jenni would suggest this or that, or it would suddenly occur to John [Riggi] that there was another scene that might work. One thing would inspire a whole other thing, live on set.

JG:  It was quite diverse, in that way, but what was equally important, and was supposedly just by accident, was that most of the department heads were women, so it was a very human set. They found ways for David to go home to see his family. They found ways to make things happen for the kids. It was very human, in that way. Everyone’s lives mattered.

Where did you shoot this? Where was the set?

JG  In Santa Clarita at a place called Disney Ranch. We actually shot a ton of Alias there, so it was really fun to go back. I blew things up on Disney Ranch.

Jen, do you find it harder to do physical comedy or physical action?

JG:  It’s harder to do the action, definitely, but I do just like connecting to a role from a physical place. Kathryn made the most sense to me, once we were actually on set and shooting and, all of a sudden, there was a physicality to her. I loved the words so much, but instead of it just being words, on this set, they were like, “Go further! Do more! Go for it!” Any instinct that you had for something, they would just push for more.

People tend to think that, if they go back to nature that it’s just going to be great, and they’ll get to relax and unwind, but when they realize that they’ll be without their comforts and their wi-fi, they become almost primal. What do you think the show says about our relationship to the world around us?

JG:  That’s the whole point of the show.

DT:  That’s why it’s a great set-up.

JG:  Yeah, it is. When you remove all of these ways that we escape and deflect from an uncomfortable moment, you’re just stuck. Here you are, in the middle of the great wild, but it’s suffocating and really insular.

DT:  You’ve got all of this dysfunction in a little Petri dish, and it’s got nowhere to go.

JG:  You can’t have eight people together, who have known each other for that long, and not have dysfunction. This is just turned up a crank.

Clearly, there’s a part of Kathryn that wants to let loose and let go of all of her pent up anxiety. There’s a moment, in Episode 4, that you’re letting loose and you’re telling two truths and a lie, and your lie is that you’re a spy. Was that an Alias reference?

JG:  I think it was, yeah. I think they were just cracking themselves up. I wanted to bust out in another language, but I was the only one that thought that was a good idea.

When you’re on a show called Camping and the characters’ relationships are already fractured, half-way into the season, how would you get these same characters back together again for another camping trip, if there’s a second season?

DT:  I don’t think that’s the intention.

JG:  No, I think we’re done.

DT:  It’s a limited series.

JG:  We don’t even have a deal, if they were to go for a second season.

DT:  It’s interesting, I don’t know how you’d get these characters back together. I’m glad that I’m not a writer who has to make that up.

JG:  I think we could go to Umbria.

DT:  At the end of this show, these guys are not gonna go, “Same time next year!”

JG:  Yeah, definitely.

DT:  They are in quite different places, at the end. I’m sure there is another story to be told, but I wouldn’t know where to begin.

JG:  I wouldn’t either. I’m not holding a spot in my calendar, as much as I would love to be with everyone again.

DT:  That would be joyous.

David, have you seen Jodie Whittaker on Doctor Who?

DT:  Yeah, I saw it Saturday night, and I thought it was thrilling and exciting. It was brilliant. I’ve always thought she was a great choice, and she proved to be exactly that. I think it’s great that there’s another Doctor, for a new generation of girls and boys.

Camping continues on HBO on Sunday at 10pm ET