NEW INTERVIEW: David Tennant Talks About His International Emmy Nomination “It feels extraordinary to be recognised”

David Tennant has been interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter about his nomination for an International Emmy for his performance as UK serial killer Dennis Nilsen in the three-part drama Des. The acclaimed miniseries premiered on ITV in the UK last autumn. Earlier this year, David picked up a National Television Award for the role. The series follows the arrest and trial of Nilsen, who murdered numerous young men and boys in his North London homes during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Des itself has also been nominated in the TV Movie / Mini-Series category.

Also up for a prize in the Drama Series category is the comedy-drama show There She Goes, in which David plays the father of a girl with a severe learning disability.

Read the interview below: 

I was shocked to learn that you’ve never won an Emmy. Or a British BAFTA. How is that possible?

Well, I’ve won a Daytime Emmy. For voicing a Star Wars cartoon [in 2008 for Star Wars: The Clone Wars]. And I’ve won a Scottish BAFTA [for The Escape Artist in 2013] and a Welsh BAFTA [for Doctor Who in 2007]. But you’re right. Never the British BAFTA.

Are there many who’ve won all three, the BAFTA triumvirate?

That is an excellent question. I have no idea. I’m working with [Good Omens co-star] Michael Sheen at the moment who’s a proud Welshman and who has a Welsh BAFTA, a lifetime achievement one I think. I’m not quite sure how one qualifies for a Scottish or Welsh BAFTA. The show has to be filmed in Scotland or Wales or you have to be Scottish or Welsh. Although sometimes those criteria seem to shift year on year.

I think I got very lucky to have squeaked into the Welsh BAFTA because I was filming [Doctor Who] in Cardiff. I’m a bit of an outlier. But to make it something like the EGOT [Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony], the BAFTA triumvirate. Excellent idea. I’ve never thought about it. But now, it’s my life’s work.

How important is that kind of recognition for you? What does it mean to get an International Emmy nomination for your work in Des?

It’s funny because of course, when you’re making a show, the last thing you’re thinking about is whether you’ll be talking about it two years later in relation to an awards ceremony. It’s not anything you consider.

And something like an International Emmy is such an extraordinary thing. When you see yourself in among all the drama from the entire globe, it feels extraordinary to be recognized at all, to be in there. I have no real sense of shows that we’re up against because they’re from all over the world, from such a variety of countries. But it’s exciting just to be part of it. I’m just sad I won’t get to be there in New York for the ceremony because I’ll be here in Glasgow filming. It would be a treat to be a part of that international meeting of talent. I feel very, very honored to be on the list.

Has your perspective on television changed in the past few years, as international shows, non-English-language shows, have become more prominent and successful?

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the great excitements that have come with the international streaming platforms is that there’s a sort of leveling of the playing field and that we can now see the television from anywhere. Nothing’s off-limits anymore. I guess it started with the Scandi Noir stuff a few years ago, which felt a bit like a breaking down of barriers to the extent that we suddenly were watching things with subtitles and being fine with that.

Once you accept that language doesn’t get in the way of engagement and storytelling, then there are no limits. We can watch TV from anywhere and everywhere. How fantastic, how exciting is that? There’s a democratization to that which I think is very good for the world.

The role you are nominated for in Des is a departure from a lot of the stuff you’ve done. You’ve played some nasty characters before: such as Kilgrave in Jessica Jones or the demon Crowley in Good Omens, but serial killer Dennis Nilsen seems another category entirely.

Well, obviously it’s a very different thing when it’s a real-world character. With something like Jessica Jones there are no consequences to his evil. So, although it was beautifully written and the consequences for the characters were very telling, I think it surprised people with just how intense it was actually for something that was ostensibly a superhero show, but there’s almost a liberation in Kilgrave, sort of chewing the scenery. You can enjoy the villainy.

With something like Des, that would be wrong. It would be insensitive. It would be inappropriate. Because you’re telling the story of someone who caused real-world pain. There are families of Dennis Nielsen’s victims who are very much still with us, and for them this is recent history. That’s something we were aware of at every stage of the development process. I was part of that for several years on this show, making sure that we were sensitive to that, that none of this should be about glorifying Denis Nielsen or titillating the audience.

The thing that unlocked that was when our writers chose to tell the story from the moment Dennis is arrested. So it’s all about discovering what he did retrospectively. So it’s not a slasher movie. It’s not about witnessing the horrors, it’s almost trying to unpack the psychology of him but can never be about glorifying him or sensationalizing him. If anything it had to be a memorial to the victims, a memorial to the police officers who, with scant evidence, tried to put the picture of what Dennis had done together. It’s a very different thing, and comes from a very different place.

I’ve never really found a way of describing this, but I felt a sort of responsibility that when I was dressed up as Des, when I was in the weeds of Dennis Nielsen, I had to kind of slightly remove myself. It wasn’t an exercise in method acting, but I just felt, out of respect for the damage that he did, I couldn’t joke around on set. I had to remove myself a little bit. It was an unusual job from that point of view. It was always a difficult balance to strike. Getting that sensitivity right and, at the same time, telling the story, being true to it, and acknowledging that people are fascinated by these characters.

We all are fascinated with these types of human beings because they are human beings. That’s the thing that’s chilling. Des is still a member of the human race. He’s one of us. And yet he found it possible to do things that most of us find utterly inconceivable. How close are any of us to that? How many steps do we all need to take into the void before we end up in a place where most of the human race can’t identify with us anymore? I think that’s the thing that appalls and intrigues and fascinates all of us. And I think these are the questions we’ve got to ask ourselves as a society: Do we create these people or are these just freaks of genetics? Is it nature? Is it nurture? All those sorts of questions are why I think we tell these true crime stories.

Des definitely isn’t a Hannibal Lecter-type character. He’s actually extremely boring as a person.

With all the people that I met who had known him or who had interacted with him, that was the thing that kept coming up, that he was just boring, there was a sort of banality to him. That was partly because of his narcissism. I thought it was really important to capture that because, in a sense, it makes the appalling nature of what seem all the more incongruous at first. It doesn’t fit what we expect of villains. There’s no mustache-twirling. There’s no melodramatic with him. It’s not how you would portray [a serial killer] in a novel, in a thriller, or in a show like Jessica Jones.

It almost doesn’t compute that someone who could be capable of these hideous acts, these acts of inhumanity, can be so boringly human. But that’s part of how he got away with it for such a long time. He was so unremarkable that nobody noticed. He just sort of slipped through the cracks in society.

How do you approach creating a real-life character? How carefully and closely do you try to imitate them, as opposed to a fiction figure you can create from whole cloth?

It depends on what kind of material evidence you have. If you play Richard II, a part I’ve played several times on stage, there’s no footage of him, so there’s not a lot to go on. With Dennis Nielsen, there’s some video footage, some audio footage. He filled books with his musings. So there’s a lot of material to get into. There were a lot of people I could go and talk to who met him, who knew him.

But it’s always a balance. Doing an impersonation sounds like a very crude word when you talk about something like that. You are just trying to do enough so people who knew him would see aspects of this person they met. I have to honor that so there isn’t a kind of dissonance. But really, the important bit is to create a human that feels real. There are always compromises between the reality and the artistic license that needs to be taken to tell a story in sort of television-sized chunks.

With Dennis Nielsen, you have an absolute responsibility to the people whose lives were affected by him. There are so many ripples created by someone like that. You have to be very sensitive and aware that you carry people’s lives with you when you tell a story like that. You have a responsibility to get it right.

Another show you’re in is also nominated at the International Emmys, for best drama, There She Goes. This is also very different than most of the work you’re known for. It’s a half-hour sort-of sitcom about a family dealing with a daughter who has a quite severe disability.

Yes, we were really quite taken aback by that. Des has been recognized in various places, which is lovely, and we’re hugely grateful for that. With There She Goes, I’m so proud of it but it’s been a quieter show. It started on BBC Four, then it was on BBC Two, but it was a show we made quite quickly, and relatively simply: with one location and just the family. To be recognized like this means so much to me because I think it’s a beautiful piece of work.

It’s the story of Shaun Pye, who’s a comedy writer and also a performer. If you know Extras, he’s Ricky Gervais’ nemesis in Extras. But he also spends a lot of his time writing gags for British comedy and panel shows. I knew him from that and we have a mutual friend. So I knew Shaun socially but I had no idea that this was his life until he sent me the script to the pilot he wrote.

I just was so blown away by it, because I know we are nominated as best drama but technically, officially, it’s a comedy. It’s a half-hour show made by the [BBC] comedy department. But it is absolutely a drama because it’s the story of his life, which happens at times to have some very funny things happening in it, maybe because that’s how Shaun and his wife [and co-writer] Sarah Crawford see the world.

Even the very challenging things that have happened to them present through a comedic filter. But the show is all true, it’s their life. Their daughter, Rosie in our show, was born with this undiagnosed genetic condition, which they only recently found the name of. Our show is about what that did to them and their marriage and the challenges of it.

What I think is so brilliant about it is how unsparing Shaun was, particularly in writing about himself and how badly he coped with a lot of it. That for me was what was so special about the show. Because there’s a tendency, often in TV shows about families and particularly about families who have a child with challenges, that it can end up in a sort of sentimental ripple dissolve to camera, the “we all live happily ever after” moment.

The Pye family are now in a better place, but that doesn’t mean that life is easy. The show is so beautifully written, it’s just so honest and moving and charming and funny. But it doesn’t pull any punches. It shows how having a daughter with these challenges is bloody hard and emotionally challenging and difficult and doesn’t always end well.

It was quite controversial. I can remember the press launch and one journalist said: ‘I think it’s great, but you’re going to be torn to shreds for telling the story because it’s so politically incorrect.” That was a worry for all of us. But the people that it’s particularly connected with have been families who have children with similar or adjacent issues. They have felt so seen by the show. To be recognized now by the International Emmys means so much to all of us.

Finally, I have to ask a Doctor Who question. The search is on for next Doctor. Who’s your pick?

Hmm. Well it’s a big decision to make, isn’t it? I’m glad I’m not making the decision. It’s a part that can sort of go anywhere, and yet you just know when that casting is right. It’s very hard to pluck someone out and drop them in it. So I’m glad I don’t have to decide. Was that a good dodge to your question?

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