Christmas Day sees David Tennant's debut as television's most enduring time traveller. Stephanie Merritt talks to the 10th Doctor Who about sex appeal, outwitting the tabloids and life inside the Tardis

Sunday December 11, 2005
The Observer
There are many superficial generalisations that could be made about low-budget sci-fi, but one of the safest is that it holds little sex appeal for women. Doctor Who in particular is a series with many strengths - by definition, since it has survived all manner of shifts in television fashion to endure the span of 40 years - but in all his long history, the Doctor has rarely been an object of female lust.
How times change. This Christmas, 34-year-old David Tennant replaces Christopher Eccleston to become the 10th Doctor, bringing to the series a legion of female admirers won largely through his two recent acclaimed television roles, in Peter Bowker's Dennis Potter-influenced Blackpool, and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies's equally left-field and compelling Casanova. In the former, as unorthodox but sensitive DI Carlisle, he almost accidentally stole Sarah Parish's character away from her boorish husband (David Morrissey); and in the latter he reinvented the famous seducer, not as the leering opportunist of reputation but as an audacious, almost puppyish enthusiast whose appeal lay in his energetic lust for life.

As the morning sun shears off Cardiff Bay, bleaching the walls of the hotel suite where we meet on one of his rare mornings off the Doctor Who set, I ask if it has been a simple matter for him to transfer his impish charms to the character of the Doctor. Tennant laughs so abruptly that he appears to spray biscuit crumbs through his nose.

'My what?'

Impish charms.

'Ah, bless you for saying that.' He shakes his head indulgently, as if the notion is self-evidently ridiculous. 'I know that in Casanova Russell wrote a lot of that stuff where the character's thoughts change very quickly, so you're still finishing off one thought as you catch up with the next, and he's written the Doctor in the same way, which is great to play because you get to be the guy with all the best lines and the wit, and it really has to be played at a lick. I think that's very attractive to watch in a character, when they're plucking all these extraordinary thoughts down and you have to race to catch up, kind of like The West Wing. Russell's a lot like that himself.'

You sense that Tennant might be something like that himself, too, if he were less conscious of being interviewed; you can see him weighing words carefully, filtering answers and self-editing in a way that suggests he is savvy enough to know that, at the level of recognition he is on the cusp of achieving, it's cleverer not to let your thoughts run away with you aloud. It's a shame, because he's clearly a great talker when he lets rip - he is at his most expansive and warmly enthusiastic when talking not about himself but about the dramatists whose work he has most enjoyed grappling with: Davies, and John Osborne (he won the Scottish Critics Award for Best Actor this year for his portrayal of Jimmy Porter at the Lyceum in Edinburgh).

'He came to mind straightaway when we had to find a new Doctor,' says Davies, who is executive producer of Doctor Who as well as scriptwriter. 'We'd established that we were both fans when we were working on Casanova, and when Christopher left he seemed the obvious choice. It's a very hard part to play because a lot of character work is based on the character's past, and with a 900-year-old Time Lord it's hard to find the normal baggage. And he's the centre of every scene so he has to have great charisma and invention. I think David brings to it a fantastic sense of humour, he can find a lightness even in the darkest of scenes, which is a very human thing, and that's quite rare for a leading man.'

I ask Tennant if he was nervous about accepting the role, in case his career might come to be defined by it.

'When I was first asked I just remember laughing an awful lot because it seemed so hilarious,' he says. 'Then in the days that followed I did have a few wobbles because it seemed such a specific thing to take on; any long series turns into a certain type of thing and this comes with so many expectations. Then I just woke up one morning and thought, what on earth are you thinking of, just do it, you're only the 10th bloke who's ever got to do this, you'd be kicking yourself for the rest of your life. It was made easier by the fact that Chris had done it, because of the type of work that he's done and wants to do again.'

But this was part of the reason given for Eccleston's leaving after one series. Has Tennant had to commit to a longer contract than his predecessor to avoid another hasty handover - especially since the Doctor can only regenerate 12 times?

'It's ...' here he becomes slightly awkward. 'Timelords can only have 13 bodies, but I'm sure when they get to that they can find some storyline where he falls in a vat of replenishing cream or something. But so many factors decide what happens next year, it's not entirely down to - I mean, if the show suddenly gets 200 viewers and I'm the only thing that's changed, then ...' he shrugs. 'You'll have Charlie Drake as the 11th Doctor before you know it.'

This rapid turnover is becoming embarrassing for the BBC; shortly after I speak to Tennant, a newspaper runs a story claiming that Billie Piper, who plays the Doctor's assistant, Rose, is also planning to leave after series two, for fear of limiting her career. It's a pity, because Tennant is lyrical about his co-star and clearly enjoys the dynamic of the characters' relationship.

'She's just perfect,' he says, 'she was so welcoming and easy to work with, and I was nervous about that, because it's nine months and a lot of stuff to do together and that relationship has really got to work, just from a getting-through-the-day point of view, never mind the acting side. I really think she is a brilliant actress, too: in every take she's got something new, she makes it look effortless.'

He goes on to enthuse about the way in which Davies, since he took over, has invested the characters with an emotional life that wasn't foregrounded in the earlier series, so that in many ways it is a love story. 'I mean, they're not shagging, but in every other way, they're a couple. Like John Steed and Emma Peel. Mind you,' he adds, 'he is about 900 and she's 19, so it'd be a bit ... Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones.'

Boyish and electric-thin, Tennant is a very modern kind of leading man. He retains a kind of undergraduate quality, and what he lacks in chiselled jaw and shoulder span he makes up for in the animation of his face and his quick intelligence. It's easy to see why smart casting directors have spotted his appeal for women in contrast to the more traditional, slab-like leading men of old.

'I didn't expect to get Casanova at all,' he says. 'When I saw the list of people up for it I thought, "Oh well, it will go to the beautiful boys."'

And that's not how you see yourself?

'I don't think I am, no. What?'

Nothing, I'm just raising a sceptical eyebrow. Have you not read any of the press that's put you in that category?

'I genuinely don't think I am, I've never read anything that suggests I might be ... whatever you're suggesting,' he mumbles. 'I think that's precisely why I got Casanova, because they didn't want that, they wanted him to be a cheeky chappie - that's why his love rival is Rupert Penry Jones, who's 6ft 2in. It was all about the wit and the words.'

'The minute his audition tape started, I just went, "Oh, that's it,"' says Davies. 'I'd thought when I was writing Casanova that if he's just handsome, it makes all the women in the script stupid. Being sexy is not just about good looks, and he walked that audition.'

On the other hand, as I point out to Tennant, he was technically the young Peter O'Toole.

'Yes, which isn't bad, is it?' He grins and hugs his knees, like a child who's pulled off a particularly impressive prank. 'I was quite pleased about that. I only had one day filming with him and he was exactly what you want Peter O'Toole to be, the most extraordinary presence and full of ridiculous tales - he was glorious. I got a photo of us together and I still keep it on my fridge.'

This excitement - an appealing absence of professional sang-froid - seems indicative of his attitude towards the business and his own success; there is nothing blase or self-congratulatory about him. But, though he doesn't radiate hard-faced ambition, his career trajectory suggests the kind of unswerving determination that is a necessary corollary of talent for anyone who desires success in the theatre.

Growing up in Paisley, the son of a minister in the Church of Scotland, he decided at what he calls 'an appallingly precocious young age' that he wanted 'to be like the people on telly'. And that was that: at 17 he went to the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow and since graduating has happily never endured the prolonged periods of unemployment traditional to the profession. 'I just never really doubted that this was what I wanted to do,' he muses. 'It was very straightforward.'

Did you ever doubt your own ability?

'Well, no, but based on absolutely nothing,' he says, as if only now considering his own boldness. 'We didn't have drama at school, really. I suppose I'd just decided that this was going to be what I did and I went ahead and did it. It's the arrogance of being young, not imagining that things might not work out exactly how you've planned them. If I were thinking of a new career now, I'd be far less sure of my ability to achieve it.'

And what did his family make of his career choice? He gives a small, wry smile and rearranges himself on the sofa, as if gathering his energies for this inevitable direction. Elements of the press have tried before to wring a story out of the conflict between his father's being a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland and the dissolute celebrity world to which Tennant is assumed to belong, particularly since he was cast as uber-libertine Casanova. I show him a cutting from one tabloid at the time and he folds up with laughter as he reads it aloud, genuinely tickled.

'"Hunky actor David Tennant ..." well, I may be many things, but I really don't think hunky ... Oh, look at this: "He admits the raunchy role will have his dad hot under his dog collar." Yes, that sounds like just the kind of thing I'd say.' He grins and rolls his eyes.

So were his parents shocked by the sight of him panting and thrusting amid corsets and flounces?

'They thought it was hilarious. You're aware that the tabloid press have an expectation that this is the story, and Mum and Dad have been badgered about that a lot - they get people knocking on the door, which bothers me much more than it bothers them. They're very, "Come in and have a cup of tea," and I'm like, "Don't do that!" But they don't have Mary Whitehouse-style moral views.'

Nevertheless, did he find it restrictive being brought up in an environment where everything was circumscribed by religion?

He looks a little wary. 'It didn't seem so to me. People assume that growing up in a manse must be a puritanical existence. I don't think it was.'

Was faith, the existence of God, established as something you were not encouraged to doubt or question?

'No, not at all, I think Mum and Dad are both very ... They would encourage you to think things through.'

Did you have a religious faith as a child?

These questions are drawing lengthy pauses before each answer. Eventually he says, 'I don't know. I was brought up around the church because that was where my dad worked and that was what you did. We went to Sunday school and all that.' There is another pause, as if preparatory to something else, but then he is quiet.

Would you say you have a religious faith now, I persist, or some kind of spiritual direction? I'm curious because anyone who has a strongly religious family knows the personal conflict involved in walking away from those beliefs, particularly if what you do publicly is likely to offend the values of the people you care about.

Tennant thinks about this one for a long time. 'I would say I ...' another long pause. 'It's an ongoing question.'

So you never had a moment of decisively turning your back on your parents' faith?

'They wouldn't have asked for that anyway, they're not the sort to demand certain answers from you. Obviously it's still their life - my dad is retired now but he still does a guest preach here and there; I don't think you ever give it up.'

Does this awareness make him extra careful about the way he lives, now that he is sufficiently famous to attract interest from the tabloids and the gossip magazines?

'You have to. It would be stupid to pretend it's not the case and that it isn't an issue. You have to be a bit responsible about that. And it's weird because you don't get a book about how to do it, it's just something you have to find your own way through. It's only just starting for me, with this show, and Casanova, but there's nothing much you can do about it because that's the culture we live in. Of course, you choose how much you want to play that game - like not at all, if you can possibly avoid it. I mean, nobody has to do a Hello! spread ... though when you see the photos of my beautiful home, you'll understand,' he adds, deadpan.

For this reason, he chooses not to discuss his private life in interviews. I ask whether he is more like Romeo, a role he played at the RSC in 2000, or Casanova and instead of answering he goes into a long explanation of the similarities between the characters.

Yes, but what I'm asking is, are you a romantic?

'Ah, well, you'd have to ask someone who's been on the receiving end, wouldn't you?' he says, suddenly coy.

And is there someone presently on the receiving end?

'Oh, come on now. I'm not going to talk about that.' There's a reproving tilt to his head and a disappointed expression, as if I've let myself down by asking such a thing. 'The trouble is,' he goes on, apologetically, 'if you start talking about this stuff, I know because I have in the past, by the time the article comes out, if the information has changed you end up looking like such an arse, so it's my policy not to.'

(Since we spoke, the gossip columnists have had him stepping out with 25-year-old actress Sophia Myles, who played Lady Penelope in last year's film of Thunderbirds and who has a small part in the second series of Doctor Who

'You've got to be very careful because as soon as you enter the arena of all that stuff you've got to know what you're giving up,' he goes on. 'As soon as you start talking about certain things you make yourself fair game, don't you? Billie's a very good person to talk to, because she's a veteran of all that.'

Despite his reluctance to make long-term plans, one thing he does know is that in the future he would like to try his hand at directing.

'Probably in theatre rather than television, because there's that whole technical side. I love the idea of working with actors on performances and I'd like to help facilitate that for other people, but it's how you start - it's like starting a whole new career.'

In the meantime, though, he plans to stay in front of the audience. The role of Barty Crouch Jr in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has brought him to international attention, and he is also appearing in December in ITV's dramatisation of the Nicci French novel Secret Smile, in which he plays an obsessed stalker, opposite Kate Ashfield. Diplomatically, though, he gives every impression that he will be around for the third series of the new Doctor Who, without actually saying so definitively.

'So long as nobody falls out with me and they think that I am doing an all right job, I imagine I'll be back in Cardiff this time next year.'

Few Timelords have gone on to achieve greatness after their Tardis days are over, but Tennant may just prove young and protean enough not to be constricted by it.

'You don't know where your life will go, though,' he says thoughtfully, looking across the bay and shielding his eyes from the fierce light coming off the sea. 'I'd be amazed after all this time if one day I just thought I've had enough [of acting], but I guess life does change, doesn't it, priorities change. It is quite a self-centred life, any kind of vocational life is, but I'd like to think I could go on forever. It's nice to be in a profession where there's a need for you at every stage of life.'
Source: The Observer 11th December 2005