INTERVIEW: "It’s Something I’m Very Proud To Have Done" David Tennant On Playing Alexander Litvinenko In ITVX Drama

David Tennant stars as Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian Federal Security Services and KGB officer, whose murder from Polonium210 poisoning in November 2006 and the subsequent police investigation is the subject of a new drama coming exclusively to ITVX later this month. 

The drama also focuses upon the story of Marina, portrayed by Margarita Levieva, Alexander’s fearless, dignified widow who fought tirelessly to persuade the British Government to publicly name her husband’s killers and acknowledge the role of the Russian State in his murder. Mark Bonnar and Clive Timmons also star.

The four-part series Litvinenko has been developed with the co-operation of many of the individuals involved in the investigation, including Alexander's family. The drama was written by George Kay and directed by Jim Field Smith.

Litvinenko premieres on ITVX, ITV's new free streaming service, on 15th December. In a new interview for ITV, David Tennant talks about taking on the role of Alexander Litvinenko and doing justice to his tragic story. Read what he has to say below:

Why did you want to play this role?

One of the reasons was the importance of the story and the need for it to be told and re-told because of what it means to all of us, personally and geopolitically. And then George Kay’s script that brought it so vividly and clearly to life. It was both of those things.

Like everyone, I remember seeing that image of Alexander ‘Sasha’ Litvinenko in the hospital bed and coming up to speed on the whole story very quickly. It all felt so implausible at first, like something from a James Bond film. It didn’t feel like something that happened in the real world. And that alarming, striking image of him was so powerful.

So I suppose I knew the bare bones of it but really when I went into it there is so much about the story that is extraordinary. The fact he survived as long as he did, which is the only way we managed to find out what it was that eventually killed him. It’s quite implausible that it worked out like it did.

He should have, as was intended, just slipped away as an unexplained death and we would not be any the wiser. But that in itself then creates bigger questions. You think, ‘How many times has this happened and it’s remained undiscovered?’ It was only his physical tenacity in hanging on as long as he did - and a few quirks of fate that allowed the right people to see the right test results - that allowed us to uncover the full horrors of what this meant.

Then we have items of evidence clinging on to a radioactive trace so long after the event. There is so much about this story that is fantastical, implausible and remarkable. And, of course, it’s all anchored to what becomes a very personal story about Sasha, his wife Marina and son Anatoly. Which is what makes it so tragic.


This was a murder investigation like no other. It began when the victim was still alive?

For a start, nobody would believe Sasha. Although he was certain he had been poisoned, it seemed so unlikely that he had to convince people he knew what he was talking about. Then they had to start this investigation and all the time there is this ticking clock of a body that is closing down. He is the only witness to his own murder. And then they have to work backwards from that. There are also pieces of what appears to be contradictory evidence which are later explained.

There are so many parts to this and that’s what makes it an incredible story to re-tell. But what is so compelling about it is the personal tragedy of this family. The fact it has such a global significance is maybe why we’re able to tell this story. But I think what makes it really count is the repercussions of it and how it changed Marina’s life in particular.

He was murdered in the most grotesque way. Alexander Litvinenko and his family had moved to Britain and were British citizens. He thought he had reached safety and escaped the talons of this regime. That he had done the right thing for his family. So there is the tragedy of all of that.

And yet, at the same time, because he recognised the importance of the fact of this he sacrificed his dying days to get this story out there. That must have been so difficult, for Marina particularly. I met Marina and, I think for all of us involved in this, she became the motivation for telling this story. The reason why we had to get this right and the person we all feel responsible to.

Marina is a remarkable human. The person this had made her. She is the hero of this in many ways. Marina has so fearlessly devoted her life to making sure his death does not go for nothing. And what Marina continues to do in talking, banging on these doors and telling the world what happened. This was not the life she ever imagined for herself or signed up for. And yet there is a bravery to her. Presumably having seen what happened to her husband she must be, on some level, nervous for herself. But when you meet her all you get is this extraordinary woman who just wants to shout about this as loudly as she can for the rest of her life

Marina is a woman whose life has been so extraordinarily shaped by this tragedy that was thrust upon her. And yet she has such an energy to her and such a love for Sasha that continues to propel her through.

It was something that myself and Margarita Levieva, who plays Marina, were very aware of when we were filming those scenes in the hospital. We just kept coming back to our experience of Marina and thinking, ‘This is the most appalling, extraordinary, extreme moment of human existence to have lived through.’ Marina remains remarkable for the way she has dealt with it.


Why was Alexander Litvinenko poisoned?

He was clearly a man who had to speak his truth about corruption in Russia and in doing that he was aware he was putting himself in the firing line. And yet he didn’t hesitate and he did it again and again. He refused to stop speaking truth to power. He was appalled and terrified about what was happening to this country he loved. He couldn’t look away and that was why he was ultimately assassinated.

But it speaks to his extraordinary moral compass. You wonder how you would behave in circumstances like that? Would you have that courage? Would you be that brave? I don’t know that I would. He showed a remarkable clarity of purpose in terms of what he believed was right and what he believed was wrong. Ultimately, it’s why he was killed. But he died with his integrity intact.

He was incredibly fit. A very robust individual. Part of the reason he survived for so long. He ran every day and trained. He was a physical specimen to be admired. So we see that side of him very briefly as he arrives home on the bus. We see him with his family. But this is on the day when he has already been poisoned. We are with him for a couple of hours before the poison kicks in and he becomes very ill.

So we get a brief glimpse of what that life was before. That’s very important. You have to tell a lot of story in those scenes. You have to establish this family and how they interact. That very close unit they have. And, of course, that’s the tragedy. That was shattered for political ends. To settle a political grudge.

Polonium has been described as the most poisonous substance on Earth. It’s terrifyingly cavalier the way they transported this stuff across the world. It could have killed many more people. But as far as we know it was only Sasha who was a victim of it.

Polonium is so toxic that it could, and should, have killed him much more quickly and invisibly. It was only his own knowledge of these substances that alerted people to what had happened. Who knows what other havoc was wreaked? There might be unexplained deaths from 2006 which we will never be able to link back to this.


Who was responsible?

This is a substance that can only have come from one specific place, which is why we are so certain he was poisoned by Russia. The trail has been investigated very thoroughly by the officers who worked on the case. It’s terrifying. And, of course, they have done it again. Salisbury was a different substance but it’s the same principle. And those are only the ones we know about.

Litvinenko had no doubt about it. A crime like this would not be committed without Vladimir Putin’s say-so and knowledge. There’s a famous line where Putin dismisses the whole business and says he’s gone, he’s not Lazarus. But if we can achieve anything with telling this story it’s to allow him to be Lazarus. To keep him rising from the dead and pointing the finger and not letting this be forgotten. That’s Marina’s mission and one we’re all very proud to be part of.


Can you tell us about the process of transforming into the dying Litvinenko in hospital?

One of the first things we did was recreate the image of him in the hospital bed which went all around the world. We had prop newspapers that had to have this photo on the front of them for other scenes.

So that was the first thing we had to achieve. That was quite a technical process in a way. Because it was about lots of people. The art department, the make up department, the costume department, the lighting department all trying to get their side of this image correct and me trying to, quite technically, recreate that in the first instance.

That involved a lot of very skilled people helping to recreate that image. The make up and the prosthetics and the costume team staring at photographs to figure out, ‘What is that hospital gown and where is it arranged?’ If you can get that image right you allow the audience into the detail of the story, I hope.

It was a relatively lengthy process. It took several hours. But that was the least I could do. Sit in a chair and have very skillful people transform me. So it would emerge over several hours with a number of stages in the process.

When we got that image and I saw it on a laptop screen, for a second you couldn’t quite tell if you were looking at the original or what we had just done. That was the moment you thought, ‘This feels like an effort worth making. If we can get this right and remind people of that image from 2006, then that will, hopefully, give us a great starting point to make this story as impactful as it needs to be.

The veracity of that is very important. That image of him. When people hear his name, that’s the image that comes into most of our minds. Of that wasting body in a hospital bed. We had to get that right. Whether other characters look like their real life versions doesn’t really influence the telling of the story. But that image of Alexander Litvinenko that bounced around the world, that attracted the world’s attention, is so vivid and is iconic, if that is an appropriate term to use for something that is about a real human tragedy. We had to get that image right.


How did it feel lying in the hospital bed?

It felt incredibly bleak lying there. The act of getting into the bed and getting all of the wires attached, the heart monitor, the hospital gown arranged in the correct way…it was quite a palaver. So at the beginning of a scene I’d get into the bed and I’d just stay there. That was partly the practicalities of it but it also became a choice.

It’s hard when you’re playing a real person. You feel a responsibility to the gravity of the moment you are recreating. Because there’s an element of acting that’s always a little bit silly. It’s make believe, it’s pretend.

It’s quite a hard to explain and you can sound terribly pretentious but I felt a responsibility not to be larking around. While you are representing that memory, I felt I had to just go to a quiet place. So I would get in the bed and I would just stay there. I would try and find the stillness. It also helped me to concentrate and to find the right headspace. Again, having met Marina, she was very generous and shared a lot of photographs of the family together. You just felt the import of all of those things in that moment and you wanted to be respectful of it as much as anything.


In terms of his Russian / English accent, did you listen to recordings of Litvinenko talking?

We couldn’t find any recordings of him speaking English. Aside from a tiny little piece, a couple of sentences, where he is addressing a panel in a club and he introduces himself in English then very quickly speaks through the translator. There’s lots of him speaking in Russian because that became part of his mission in later life, to make sure he talked whenever he could about the truth of what was going on in Russia, his experiences, the corruption and what he knew about what was wrong. So there is lots of him talking in Russian, which I don’t speak.

I worked with an extraordinary man called Fabien Enjalric, a French and Russian speaker who is also a voice coach. He helped me with the actual Russian phrases and with finding a Russian accent that, hopefully, feels truthful and that sat in my vocal range.

With all of these things it’s the balance between recreating what somebody was without it becoming me doing an impersonation of Sasha. That’s not really relevant to the story. But if I can create something that could believably sound like him, then that’s really what I was going for.

And, yes, there are sections of Russian. He does slip in and out of Russian as he gets more tired and it gets more difficult for him to keep talking. As I don’t speak Russian that took a lot of work. That was probably the hardest bit. Trying to master some of those phrases. So there is some footage to go on and then you have to join the dots yourself after a certain point.

Sasha had huge faith in the British police. The officers in this case were determined to do their duty and keep their promise to him and Marina to seek justice?

From all of the reading I did, from all of the people I met and spoke to, this seems to be a genuine representation of the officers who worked on this case.

I found that terribly moving. His belief in the honesty, truthfulness and abilities of the British police.

But, of course, coming from a world where officials are corrupt and nobody could be trusted, for all the limitations we might have in some of our public services they are still a million miles from what Sasha had come from.

His belief in the British system and trust they would follow his case and would see it through was very moving. And, in the end, justified. Because he was served brilliantly by those officers who overcame quite a lot of obstacles, particularly from Russia itself, and did some extraordinary police work. Although there are still some questions hanging over this case, we know a lot more today than it looked like we ever would.


Where did you film?

We used a disused hospital in Ealing to double for University College Hospital, London. The hospital room scenes were all done in a week. Probably the most intense week I’ve had on a film set. From the early morning prosthetics’ calls and then going through those scenes. I’m very proud to tell this story and be a part of it. But getting to the end of that week felt like an achievement, I have to say. It’s such a difficult story to tell and such an agonising family tragedy.

We were right in the middle of filming when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was responsible for the 2006 murder by radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London. There’s no surprise there. It just confirmed what we all knew. But the more official channels that can acknowledge it, it’s all part of the mission to have this recognised.


What was it like working with screenwriter George Kay and director Jim Field Smith?

I’d worked with them both before on Criminal, the Netflix show. And, indeed, way back on that we’d talked about this. There was a version of this script even then. So this has been in development for a while. They are a great team. George is a great writer and Jim, for me, was the perfect director for this. You felt absolutely supported by him and I knew exactly what the parameters of what was required were. He knew when to step back, he knew when to encourage or nudge. He knew exactly what he needed so he would be very specific about things he didn’t get and very much give you the space to find the rest of it. It was about as intense a week as I’ve known on a film set. But I felt very supported by Jim on set and by George’s scripts from the off.

There was an enthusiasm from everyone involved in the production at every level that they were telling an important story and that we were doing good work. That we were doing something that meant something. That was throughout the production. At every level, in every department, it really felt like people were proud to be there. There was a determination from all of us to get it right. A constant sharing of personal experiences. Everyone had a journey to getting on set that wasn’t just about learning your lines and turning up. Everyone had met people, talked to people, read stuff. There’s a lot of material about this and you need to find your way through that to find the truth. Because everyone felt responsible to tell this story properly.


How do you reflect back on this role?

One can’t second guess how this will be received or what kind of impact it will have. But on a purely personal level it’s something I’m very proud to have done. I feel like we gave it our best shot and we are, hopefully, honouring the memory of Sasha and the life’s work of Marina. That’s what we set out to do.