Peter Capaldi, as anyone who’s seen him interviewed will know, has a keen way with an anecdote. His punch-line timing and mastery of the long dramatic pause would be the natural accompaniment to a lazy lunch table or an after-hours bar. It’s less well-suited, admittedly, to a twelve-minute round-table interview, but twelve shared minutes with Peter Capaldi are still golden, especially now, on the eve of his Doctor Who debut proper.
This June, at the BBC’s Roath Lock Studios in Cardiff, Capaldi took us back to early 2012, when – he now realises with hindsight – Mark Gatiss first dropped him the hint that he was under consideration to follow Matt Smith in the role of the Doctor. He tells us about receiving the phone call that confirmed he’d won the part, the frustration of not being able to tell anyone, and about an uncanny encounter with a young Moravian Who fan. He also tells us about his take on the new Doctor, a character he describes as “not as user-friendly” as his most recent predecessors…
Steven Moffat has described your Doctor as “fiercer, madder and more unreliable”, does that sum it up for you?
Well there’s more to it than that I think, but it’s interesting to hear him say that. He’s never said that to me. I don’t know. Obviously everyone wants to know what the new Doctor’s like and to be honest, it’s almost as mysterious to me as it is to you because it sort of develops as we go. Obviously Steven has very specific ideas, but then sometimes they alter as we work them and sometimes we see things very clearly that are the new Doctor and some things that are not, and so organically it changes. But you just get on with it and see what works.
Whenever you ask anyone involved what they were looking for with the new Doctor, they always say someone who is dangerous, changeable and you can’t quite trust them, and the only person we ever thought of for that role was Peter Capaldi!
Are you at all offended by that?
[Laughing] No, I’m not at all. I was laughing the other day because I used to do voiceovers – I don’t mean I used to do them, obviously I’m not doing them now because I’m doing this all the time – and I did a voiceover for butter or something and they said to me ‘Could you be a little less sinister?’ [Laughter] That’s how far it’s come! I’ve gone from amiable geek in Bill Forsyth films to sinister butter salesman.
Is avoiding being too sinister something you’ve had to think about in regard to the children in Doctor Who’s audience? I saw a sweet fan video where you were having to reassure two children that you were going to take care of the Doctor, that Matt had said it was okay for you to be the Doctor.
The constituency of the audience needs to be reassured that it’s fine. Whether it is fine or not I’m not sure! [laughter]. The Doctor is as he has always been and he is also totally different. I know that’s no use to you whatsoever but it’s true – that’s the great thing about Doctor Who, it carries its past with it all the time and so he brings the past with him. Even if he’s different, I think probably if people think he’s different they’re really meaning in contrast to Matt and David who were both very amiable and I loved what both of them did with the part but he’s probably not as user-friendly as they are. He’s unmistakeably Doctor Who – I think – I would say that, but I think so.
David Tennant said that his favourite was Peter Davison and he looked to him for inspiration and Matt Smith cited Patrick Troughton. Was there anyone in particular that you thought of as your Doctor…
No. No, seriously. Because Doctor Who started when I was four so Doctor Who is part of my upbringing in the sixties with The Beatles and Sunday Night At The London Palladium and school milk and bronchitis and smog and all of these things [laughter] so it’s part of me, so all of those Doctors, all of them, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for every single previous Doctor there’s been. I just stand on their shoulders and it’s due to each and every one of their individual charisma and talent and gifts that the show’s still here, so I don’t have a specific Doctor that I look to, but I look to them all. I do look to them all, but I don’t have a specific one that I say is mine.
Can you take us back to the moment you heard you’d got the part. We had a lovely anecdote from Brian [Minchin, executive producer] saying your agent told him you reacted like a drama student who’d just been offered their first professional role, it was that genuine sense of excitement.
Yes. Yes, well not long before we were talking the last time – because the last time we were talking I knew and I couldn’t say it because I wasn’t allowed to. You were asking me all these questions and I had to just sit there and say nothing.
It was sort of two phases. Initially my agents called about a year ago and said ‘How would you feel about being the new Doctor Who?’ and I just started laughing because it was such a joyful and ridiculous idea because I didn’t really think… although I’d seen it beginning to unfold in the papers. In fact some of the directors we’d had on The Musketeers had come from Doctor Who and as I’m kind of a fanboy I was always asking them what it was like and stuff like that and they kind of intimated that Matt might be going but I never thought… I thought ‘That’s interesting’, I was surprised he was going because I really like Matt. So I wasn’t expecting anybody to be calling me but I was interested in watching the process going on and then she called and said ‘how would you feel about that’ and I thought ‘that’d be great’.
A stranger thing had happened earlier in the year because Mark Gatiss has made this thing called An Adventure In Time And Space and he’d invited me to the set of that back in January. I went down and it was fantastic and saw the old TARDIS there, which was great and met all the actors, got my photograph taken with Doctor Who and all that stuff and Mark said to me ‘What would you feel about being Doctor Who?’, and I said ‘Oh I don’t know, I think that ship’s sailed don’t you?’ and he said ‘Oh, I don’t know’ and I thought, that’s an odd, strange question to be asked but I didn’t like to think it was in any way relevant, and perhaps it wasn’t, I haven’t talked to him about it, but I suspect he might have been checking me out or something, I don’t know.
What was it like when my agent called? It was hilarious. Then I had to go and meet Steven [Moffat] and we all had to make sure that we were all on the same page and then the BBC had to decide whether or not they thought it was a good idea and blah blah blah. It was a bit sort of drawn out, and then they called in the middle of The Musketeers, I was dressed as Cardinal Richelieu, I’d just done a scene torturing somebody or something and I got all these missed messages and finally got my agent and she said “Hello Doctor” and I couldn’t tell anyone! I couldn’t do anything. I had to go off into a corner and sort of scream, and walk around Prague singing the Doctor Who theme to myself.
The funniest thing that happened, the weirdest thing, was that while we were filming The Musketeers we left Prague and went to a place called Moravia in the north of the Czech Republic and there was a little town we were filming in because of some location we needed – we were supposed to be in the King’s Palace – and there was a little lad there who said to me in very very broken English “I really enjoy you as Doctor Who” so that was… I thought, this is really weird, what do you mean you really enjoyed me as Doctor Who? And he said “I enjoyed you in Fires Of Pompeii” which was an episode I did years ago, and he couldn’t speak English very well and I said ‘Oh right, so you saw that?” and he said “Yes, I’m a big, big Doctor Who fan, I’m a Whovian” and used the word Whovian. I thought this was so weird to be in Moravia with this…, so I said to him, ‘Have you got your camera with you? Go and get your camera, go and get your phone’. He wasn’t very interested in getting his picture taken with Cardinal Richelieu, but I said ‘I think you should get your camera’ because in a few weeks he’d have known I was Doctor Who.
You wrote in to the show when you were, what was it, nine or ten?
Slightly older than that, embarrassingly. I was fourteen.
What do you think your fourteen year old self would have said when he saw you dressed as Cardinal Richelieu taking that phonecall?
I think he’d be astonished, as the fifty-five year old version was, equally as astonished. I think he would have been… He would probably think it was more right [laughter], he would have probably thought it was [laughing] coming. I think when you’re a little kid, anything is possible. When you’re an adult, you don’t think that but kids believe anything’s possible, though I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. He would have been very excited and very embarrassing. I’m embarrassed to have all of my past dredged up. Who else would like to see your letters as a fourteen year old?
Every time the job’s come up since 2005, surely your ears pricked up?
I was always interested but I never thought they’d come to me, so I was always interested because I liked the show very much. I loved Chris, and David I thought was brilliant, and Matt, all of them I think have been fabulous, but I was always interested in being in it, I always hoped they’d call me, which they did at some point eventually, say come and be in an episode, but I never thought they would think of me as Doctor Who.
Why do you think the show’s endured so well? Why is it still so strong?
Well, it’s got monsters in it, they can change the leading actor – which, as Steven says, if every show could do that, they’d all last a lot longer – and I think because it has a grip on… it’s like a fairy tale, although it’s a sci-fi show, to me there’s an aspect of Grimm’s fairy tale about it where the Doctor takes you deep into the forest where there are monsters but he will return you to safety in the end and I think that colour in it is very potent and it appeals to a family audience.
It depends how long you’ve got! There are lots of other things in it which I think are deeper and they’re about death, and… Doctor Who has within it some of the cornerstones of the human psyche, the desire to be able to leave when the going gets rough – he always just disappears, he can just walk away from everything, and also that he dies, and is reborn.
That’s a Christian myth
Yeah, it is a very potent idea. It’s a show that young people and children can watch in which they are confronted with death but in a way that is not grief-stricken.
What can you tell us about your Doctor’s relationship with Clara?
It’s fun, I think. She finds it very difficult to deal with him. He doesn’t really do much to change himself in order to make himself palatable for her, so she struggles a great deal I think, to understand him and to find a way to like him. I think they do…, well, we haven’t finished yet, they struggle sometimes but she’s great, she’s very funny, I love Jenna and she plays it brilliantly, but it’s a more complex sort of relationship. It’s a relationship that doesn’t have any… you don’t look around in life and see any similar relationships.
Is it a case of her having to build up her trust again?
Yeah. Yes. There’s elements of that. He’s not a walk in the park.
So it’s definitely not a romantic relationship?
It’s not romantic, but it’s not without love.
So you’ve not been neutered then? Because you’ve got a lot of books and quite an avuncular look to your TARDIS…
I don’t think he’s avuncular [bursts out laughing] No. I don’t know where those books came from, but there they are.
Peter Capaldi, thank you very much!
The first new episode of Doctor Who series eight, Deep Breath, airs on BBC One on Saturday the 23rd of August. Read our spoiler-free review here.
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