Matt Smith seemed to burst out of nowhere in 2009 when he was cast as the 11th Doctor in Doctor Who, becoming at 26 the youngest actor to ever play the role. But he also became one of the most popular, and his tenure achieved some of the show’s highest ratings until his departure in 2013. Since then, Smith has moved into feature films, appearing in Lost River, Terminator: Genisys (where he played a physical embodiment of Skynet) and now director Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
In the latter he portrays Parson Collins, cousin to the Bennet family, local clergyman and endlessly fawning and fussy companion to the Bennets and their five daughters – two of whom reject his marriage proposals before he finally settles for the third in succession. He is, not surprisingly, much more effective at having tea and scones than battling zombies, but his scenes in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are among the film’s funniest.
We spoke with Smith in Los Angeles recently about landing the role in this long-in-development adaptation of the mash-up novel by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, his approach to the character, his thoughts these days on Doctor Who and the outlook for the Terminator franchise.
Den of Geek: Was Pride and Prejudice kind of a mandatory thing you had to read in school?
Matt Smith: Yeah. I’m pretty sure it was on the curriculum, but I didn’t read it at school. I guess I was aware of the version with Colin Firth because that was such a huge hit in England, and Joe Wright’s version. To be honest, it’s not something I was really that familiar with. I always just felt it was for girls. So when it was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I thought, “Ah! Actually, there’s sort of something that brings me to it.” And I think I found that quite refreshing.
So you get a call like that from your agent saying, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies…”
I was like, “Well, OK. I’ll check it out and read it.” And then I read the part. Like with anything, I thought I had an idea for the part, and I had an idea that I thought I could run with. So then you have a way in. And then, there was a great cast involved, a lot of young actors, most of whom I know, and a lot of people I respect and think will go on to have really interesting careers. So it appealed to me for that, really.
What was your way into Mr. Collins?
My way into Mr. Collins was I thought it would be interesting…it’s not even something you, perhaps, notice in the movie. But I thought: What if he was secretly in love with Mr. Darcy? What does that do to him, a man of the clergy who has to get married? What if, secretly, he is harboring this secret about his own sexuality? I thought that could make him funny and interesting. That was my way in.
Did you talk with Burr Steers about this?
Yeah, I did. And he liked the idea. He was like, “Cool, man.” So whenever he meets Darcy, he’s always like, “Oh, yeah. Mr. Darcy is that great, fantastic…”
And mostly, Pride and Prejudice is a book about love, isn’t it? I thought, “Well, what’s his role in that? What was he thinking?” And his love, I thought, what if it’s just completely unrequited? But he’s got to live that way anyway. He’s got to get married. And he’d probably be a very dutiful and good husband. In this day and age I think he would have made a different choice.
When you do that character work for yourself, even though the audience might not see it, do you still get the same satisfaction out of it?
Yeah. Because when you think about it, does it not enrich his story slightly? It did to me. I thought, actually, “What about all that?” I quite liked the idea that he wasn’t a very good vicar. But, again, it’s duty that’s forced him. He’s a man that’s bound by duty and manners and willingness to impress.
And there are things that make a character a human being and make them interesting. But also, having zombies in the film allows you to, I find, make sort of broader brushstrokes and bolder choices somehow, because the tone of it is immediately heightened by the idea that there’s a group of girls who are sitting around talking about what husband and what suitor they are going to find. You add that to a zombie apocalypse and, suddenly, the world has shifted in quite an interesting way.
What makes it work is that you all play it straight.
Straight, yeah. I think that’s important. And Burr was really keen that that would be the case.
Did you ever go back and look at Mr. Collins in the book?
Yeah. I did, actually, because I improvised quite a lot. So I got a lot from the book about muffins, and scones and, “Oh, he’s actually quite greedy. Maybe that’s quite interesting.” It just enriches your sort of knowledge of the period and the time and allows you to sort of invent on ideas, I suppose.
There’s this tension in the story where you have this English satire of manners and then they just will turn around and start knocking off the heads of reanimated corpses.
I think that’s the key to the success of the film, marrying those two worlds and getting the Pride and Prejudice and the love story to work, but also the threat of the zombies and the apocalypse and the tone of the zombies is really important. I think Burr did a good job of that. If one of them slightly outweighs the other or is slightly off, I think, tonally, when you are watching it you go, “I don’t know what film I’m watching. Am I watching a zombie movie or am I watching Pride and Prejudice?”
Hopefully, there’s a wry irony, I suppose, to it, but it’s being played straight. Also, the chicks are in costumes that are slightly heightened, sexier. I think there’s a sort of sexiness to the world of the film.
You mentioned there was a lot of improv. Did you get a chance to do that a lot on Doctor Who?
Actually, no. You stick totally to the script with Doctor Who. So I don’t know, really. I always quite liked improvising ever since I was at school. I think it’s because you don’t know what to expect yourself. It’s quite an interesting place to be as an actor. You are unaware of what you are going to do next, if you can be.
And Burr was encouraging to that?
Yeah. He’d let me do whatever I want, which is great. And some of it works and some of it doesn’t. But a lot of the stuff about muffins and all that sort of stuff is completely made up.
Do you sense echoes of the period that the story is set in when you go and shoot in these country locations?
Yeah, you do. But England is full of that everywhere. You just have to go and look at Parliament, across Waterloo Bridge. It’s why I love living in London, because everywhere you look there’s something that you go, “Wow. I’ve never seen that before. It’s so old and it’s still there.” It’s constantly revealing itself to be new to me, London, even though it’s really old, which I love. That’s what I love about living there.
So no LA for you anytime…?
Hey, man. I like it here, too. The weather is great. I think you guys have a wonderful lifestyle out here. You can be outdoors. You can be active. I think it’s a lovely place to come visit. Who knows? I’d love to live in New York. I’d probably choose New York over LA, but I’ve got a lot of friends here. Hey, who knows? I’m open.
What’s your relationship like now with Doctor Who fans and with that stretch of your career now that you are moving past it?
I’m really grateful to the world of Doctor Who, and particularly the fans. I think they are just an incredible set of fans, actually, and supportive. And it’s a real family, Doctor Who, in a strange way. Once you are in it, you really feel part of it. I’m just forever grateful to that chapter of my life. It was a wonderful job. It’s a wonderful part. I had a great time making it and made great friends with a lot of people in it. So I feel very privileged to have been a part of that show.
Do you ever watch it now?
Not really. I didn’t really watch it when I was in it. I watch it every now and again. I love Peter. He’s great, isn’t he?
He is. It doesn’t look like the sequel to Terminator: Genisys is moving forward (note: the film was removed from Paramount’s release schedule the day before this interview).
I just heard that.
Did you ever get any sense that you’d be more involved had they moved forward?
I never really knew, to be honest. You know what films are like. You’ve got to make one if you are going to make the other. I entered it with that in mind, to see what would happen next. Yeah, it’s news to me that that’s the case. But, who knows? You never know. It may get picked up in the future.
Last thing. Just tell me quickly about Patient Zero, which comes out in September.
That’s another zombie movie, actually. It’s a different one. The tone is very different indeed. I get to be a bit more in the heart of the action on that. More actual zombie combat, as it were, but even though it wasn’t a huge amount of zombie combat. I suppose there is in a different way. But I’ve not seen anything yet. So I’ve got to see how it’s turned out.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is out in theaters Friday (February 5).