David Tennant Resuscitates Shakespeare in Brooklyn

The actor's spritely and maddening Richard II electrifies BAM—and draws packs of Doctor Who fans to the bard

David Tennant at BAM Theater

David Tennant at BAM Harvey Theater Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer

In two weeks, the world will celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Anyone who wonders why his work is still being performed needs to jump on the 4/5 train to Nevins, and see centuries-old dialogue (about a historical event that was centuries-old by the time Shakespeare wrote it 520 years ago) crackle through Brooklyn with almost Nostradamus-like relevance to today’s fragile geopolitical environment.

As the first king in Royal Shakespeare Company’s “King and Country” series of four works playing at BAM through May 1, David Tennant, possibly the best actor of his generation and definitely the greatest Doctor Who, brings Richard II radiantly to life. The indecisive, capricious and ultimately doomed weakling is a layered, complicated portrait in Mr. Tennant’s able hands. The single best scene in the brilliantly staged, wordy, all-verse three-hour tour de force is a mostly silent moment shared by the king and one of the few lords who has remained loyal despite his arbitrary (and bad) decisions and over-taxation. The king, decked out in a Frampton Comes Alive wig, plants a passionate kiss on the dishy young Duke of Aumerle as he tenderly holds his face, even as his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (who will become Henry IV) and his band of rebels close the noose.

It’s the kind of unexpected moment that fans of Mr. Tennant—who has become well-known to television audiences for his mesmerizing performances as the 10th Doctor, the mind-controlling villain Kilgrave in Marvel’s Jessica Jones and the mentally troubled lead detective in the ITV’s Broadchurch—have come to expect. Mr. Tennant, with major assistance from a pitch-perfect cast (especially Jasper Britton as Bolingbroke) and a script that is so luscious its biggest miracle is that it’s one of Shakespeare’s “minor” plays, manages to eke heartbreaking empathy (and even a lot of humor, as when he dangles his crown before his cousin in the deposition scene) from such a deeply flawed hero. During a long conversation with the Observer in Brooklyn, this intense, skinny Scotsman held a Starbucks cup with “David” written on it and talked about heroes and villains and Shakespeare and more.

What is more fulfilling to you, playing good guys or villains or more ambiguous in-between characters like Alec Hardy in Broadchurch, where a good guy has had this stormy past? I think it’s the shade of gray, isn’t it? It’s the conflicts within the character that make them interesting, whether an objective audience perceives them as sort of good guys or bad guys. He’s almost irrelevant hopefully. You just try and imagine nobody is either purely good or purely evil. I think we’re all a mash of so many conflicting ideas. The reason we’re motivated to do things is so much more than just a moral compulsion…and people are flawed, capricious and I think that’s what’s most interesting, when characters are a little bit hard to pin down.

David Tennant at BAM Theater

David Tennant at BAM Harvey Theater Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer

And yet there are many actors who are themselves no matter who they’re playing. Even a great actor like Clint Eastwood—if he is in a movie, he’s Clint Eastwood. Your characters are very different from one another. You’re as different in The Politician’s Husband and Broadchurch as can be. Well, I’m delighted to hear you say that. That’s certainly something that even from my drama-student days I aspired to. As I get older, it’s almost a journey back to the essence of yourself. There can be a distraction—particularly for me early on—trying to be terribly different and trying to kind of transform physically. And actually, characters are at their most appealing when they’ve got crystals of yourself showing through I think. But yes, within that you try and carve them, portray them as vividly as possible. I don’t know that I set out to be as different as possible to anything that’s gone before, but you’re trying to be true to the given circumstances of whatever that is, so obviously Richard II is going to be a different human being to Alec Hardy. They have a very different set of circumstances. They have a very different worldview. So I guess if I have a technique, and I don’t really know that I do or what it is, it’s just about sort of trying to be as kind of faithful to whatever are those…whatever that character’s truth might be. It’s hard to talk about it, isn’t it? Immediately you start sounding terribly pretentious.

So between Doctor Who and Jessica Jones and Harry Potter and Shakespearian plays, these are some of the biggest franchises in history. Which fandom is the most crazy-passionate about what they follow? Probably the most…obviously enthusiastic to me are Doctor Who fans, but then I suppose in a way that that’s the franchise that I’ve been most significantly involved with I guess by playing the title character for a number of years. But I certainly wouldn’t use the word “crazy.” It’s a lovely thing to be the representative of. It just means a lot to people and people get passionate about it. And certainly Harry Potter fans can be, too. I suppose I’m certainly more in the periphery of that with one appearance, but I think you know, as hobbies go, as things to spend your free time on go, I can absolutely understand that kind of fandom because I’ve been there myself. That’s more explicable to me than even being a sports fan.

When I’ve gone to the conventions or stuff I have a real affection and warmth for these people, especially ones who feel are sort of misfits in their day life and they get to be included with likeminded people. And a huge joy in that, definitely, an egalitarianism.

One of my very favorite Doctor Who episodes is “Midnight.” It’s very play-like. One of the things that was eternally joyful about doing Doctor Who is that we did 14 episodes a year and we would do a special in the series, and so then after a while with a kind of a returning series you would expect the kind of story beats to start repeating themselves, and it never did. Because it’s a great central idea obviously. That has to be acknowledged, that the reason the series is running for 50-odd years is because it’s a really clever, simple, brilliant idea. But also the brilliance of Russell T. Davies, the show runner when I was there. What he did is continually find new places to push those characters, so even though there was an element of having to reset at the end of every story it never felt like you were telling the same story twice. And you’re right, something like “Midnight,” which was right toward the end of our time on the show, needed a very different type of approach and identity, almost like shooting a play in one location. I thought it was a stroke of genius.

Many of the actors in it, like the teenage kid, went on to great careers. He played Merlin for years, Colin Morgan. We had quite a high turnover of actors in Doctor Who, but we did pretty well with our guest cast—Carey Mulligan, Felicity Jones, Andrew Garfield, Colin Morgan. We had quite a roll call of people who have gone on to be some of the leading actors in their field.

David Tennant at BAM Theater

David Tennant at BAM Harvey Theater Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer

Why do you think the American version of Broadchurch (which also starred David Tennant alongside the great Anna Gunn and was called Gracepoint) sort of didn’t catch on here? There may be a lesson in there about how television is consumed these days. The days of an audience not being aware of a big show on the other side of the ocean I think are gone.

Speaking of that, have you noticed a difference here with live theater, between the American reactions and the British reactions? There’s a huge warmth here which is lovely to play to. There’s a real sense of an audience ready to eat the play up. This is an extraordinary auditorium.

So, I think this is your second time reprising this. Yes. We started this job in 2013, played in Stratford and then straight to the Barbican in London, and then at the beginning of this year we revived it at the Barbican in London.

I see that your cup has “David” written on it. When you walk into Starbucks and order your latte or whatever and tell them your name is David, do you get an, “Oh my God!”? Sometimes you do, sometimes you’re nothing. I do try and go through everyday life relatively anonymously with sort of a gentle disguise. I’m less recognized here than at home, although I don’t quite have the anonymity I used to enjoy in the U.S., and of course that’s a double-edged sword. I sort of make a point of not allowing life to be too ruled by that. You try and get on with things as normally as possible.

I was actually going to ask you about that because it seems like you try really hard to be normal, to the point where the BBC issued an official statement saying that none of these accounts claiming to be David Tennant on Twitter are real. Is not being on social media a part of your trying to have a normal life? Partly that, yes. It’s partly I don’t really understand why anyone would want to be on social media. I appreciate that I’m getting left behind, but I don’t like the idea that one can always be tracked down. This notion that if something happens now people look to peoples’ Twitter feeds to see their opinion. That is now reported as news. Something happened and so and so said on Twitter. I don’t know that I would trust myself to be reasoned, and then if you don’t say anything that’s as bad as refusing to comment. I just want to absent myself from that whole world really. I’m sure I’m missing out in many ways, but yes, I just don’t really feel the need. I quite like having a little bit of anonymity and I think it’s always going to be a balance, because obviously as an actor you’re expected to do what we’re doing now and do a certain amount of being yourself in places and some of that can be fun, you know. But at the same time I think a little bit of mystery is quite useful for an actor.

‘There’s alchemy in those words, and when it starts sparking in your brain it is magical.’

Getting back to Shakespeare, I so value what the RSC does in bringing it to audiences and new people. You’re a board member, not just a company member. There’s a strong feeling that Shakespeare is dying among American children and that the whole sort of culture wars are making it very tough to teach anybody from 400 years ago. What do you think American children can learn from a writer who has been dead for so, so long? Well I suppose what we can all learn, that there’s stuff in this place that talks about the human condition in a way that we never managed to better. There are things in this place that give us insight. Which isn’t to say that that’s the whole cultural picture. I think it’s part of it and we need modern voices, we need diverse voices, we need all that too, but there’s something which as a nation, as a race of people we keep going back to Shakespeare. He survived for 400 years and because of it people have kept coming to this place, not because he’s been force-fed to us either. People fill theaters to see these plays for a reason and therefore there’s got to be something worth pursuing, because clearly for generation after generation people are getting something out of it.

Now, in terms of how we teach that to children there are people who are more skilled in that than I am, but I think it’s worth having a goal, because clearly when it connects, it connects on quite a fundamental level with people. There’s alchemy in those words, and when it starts sparking in your brain it is magical. I don’t know that I’m the person to say how we teach the children, but I would hope we would still try.

I felt like your role of Kilgrave was so similar to the Doctor, but the other side of the coin, like the Doctor has gone very, very bad. Did you import any of your Doctor Who experience to Jessica Jones? Not consciously, but I’m sure there are overlaps. I mean certainly he has a flair perhaps and he has a mischief to him, which I suppose is similar, although as you say they employ them in very different directions. I suppose in a way there’s a childlike quality to both of them. I think with Kilgrave that’s sort of because he was developmentally scuppered by what his parents did to him and by this sort of extraordinary power that’s a burden to him, or a barrier to his ability to grow up as a fully rounded human being.

Did you say “scuppered”? Scuppered, yes. Damaged, destroyed.

Kilgrave has a line where he criticizes Jessica, saying, “I stay as far away from you as I can get and you go back to your life of mediocrity and underachievement,” and yet Kilgrave is an underachiever. Here he has this power and he’s using it to stalk an ex-girlfriend, kind of like a low ambition. I know, because actually as super powers go, it’s right up there.

Yes. Mind control. That’s what’s fascinating about that character. He chooses to have nice suits and huge apartments and dinners in nice restaurants and any woman he wants, and of course the one woman he can’t have is what drives him mad. But yes, there’s no world domination. He’s not interested in that. He’s not interested in governance or solving the world’s problems; he’s just interested in indulging. He has a very small sphere of interest.

So Kilgrave dies in the finale, but I just don’t believe he’s gone for good, so let’s break some news for a New York audience: Is there any chance you’ll be coming back to New York in the next season of Jessica Jones? The next season of Jessica Jones is a way off I think and I don’t know how many scripts are yet written, so I would be unable to comment on any plans.

David Tennant at BAM Theater

David Tennant at BAM Harvey Theater Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer

One of the joys of the Marvel universe is that it’s one playground, and although the characters don’t necessarily show up in other stories there’s nothing to stop Guardians of the Galaxy landing in Times Square. Daredevil, Jessica Jones and presumably Cage Worlds are a little sort of grittier and darker perhaps than the Avengers worlds…

I mentioned The Fall earlier and there is some shared DNA in that you play Kilgrave as a sex symbol, demented but still very attractive. That’s a little bit like Jamie Dornan in The Fall, who is doing the worst things imaginable, yet he’s clearly attractive to the people watching the show in some demented way. I’m flattered that you should describe me in those terms. It’s not something I set out to do. I mean certainly I always had nice suits and a nice haircut. But again that’s a slightly nebulous thing. You don’t set out to play attractiveness or seductiveness. You play the character from moment to moment and the accumulation of those moments is what the audience perceives. I suppose, so I don’t know. There’s a history, the seductive villain. Iago is something of that.

You’re here in Brooklyn doing theater. Is there any chance we would ever see you doing Arthur Miller or playing a Scottish Stanley Kowalski? I would love to. I am a huge admirer of Arthur Miller. In fact, that whole sort of vein of those American realist plays—Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neal a little earlier, have always been hugely appealing to me. In my early days in Dundee Rep in the north of Scotland I did Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Glass Menagerie, and I would love to do some Arthur Miller. I would love to do maybe The Crucible or maybe Willy Loman in a few years’ time, something like that.

Theater is still vibrant. It stuns me that people still fill theaters. TVs are great at home and you can get any movie you want instantaneously, and yet people want to sit next to strangers and experience it. Why is that? Yes, and you sort of look at the Broadway on West End their box office figures year on year fluctuate slightly, but they are very healthy environments. There’s something about the nature of that experience that people flock to. There’s something that you can only get in that live moment, because in that room and on that night, the show you see tonight will not be the show that we did a week ago. There’s something that’s just a little bit more of a hit maybe. I think all these ways of telling stories can coexist. I think cinema was heralded as the death of the theater; it wasn’t. Television was heralded as the death of cinema; it wasn’t. Streaming services are being heralded as the death of appointment-view television; it’s not. They just find different places to occupy. We still read books. We still tell stories.

David Tennant at BAM Theater

David Tennant at BAM Harvey Theater Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer

Oddly enough, even radio is having a moment—the Moth and This American Life and Serial. I was upstairs listening to the final act of Serial just now. There will always be a hunger for stories and as long as it’s well told the medium almost doesn’t matter.

I know you to be a fan of American political TV. I’ve got to ask you about real American politics. Following Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, what are your impressions as a thoughtful guy who has acted in a lot of political TV? Well, it’s exciting to follow because you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next. If it weren’t so important to all our lives it might be easier to enjoy. I have great faith that the American people will make the right decision, because if you don’t we’re all screwed.

It is exciting. I agree, and each day it is another twist and turn, someone says something extraordinary and…what repercussions that might be, and even following the mathematics of delegates becomes like a sport, doesn’t it?

David Tennant Resuscitates Shakespeare in Brooklyn