Peter Capaldi on Fame, ‘Veep,’ and a Superhero on ‘Doctor Who’

Three 'Doctor Who' Christmas specials ago, Matt Smith took off his bowtie and, in a burst of regenerative energy, was replaced by Peter Capaldi, the twelfth incarnation of the iconic British character that has captured the imagination of Brits and international anglophiles for over fifty years.

The Doctor and Grant Gordon (aka "The Ghost")
The Doctor and Grant Gordon (aka “The Ghost”) BBC America

Three Doctor Who Christmas specials ago, Matt Smith took off his bowtie and, in a burst of regenerative energy, was replaced by Peter Capaldi, the twelfth incarnation of the iconic British character that has captured the imagination of Brits and international anglophiles for over fifty years.

Matt Smith, who was cast at only 26 years old, inhabited a Doctor who was zany and youthful, equal parts friend and love interest. Capaldi can be prickly. The Doctor has always been ruthless, forced to make the tough call over and over again, but when the floppy hair of a romantic hero was replaced with “attack eyebrows,” that cold alien pragmatism seemed instantly closer to the surface.

Fortunately, those eyebrows are attached to an actor as gifted as Capaldi. Capaldi captures the nuances of the strange and idiosyncratic character such a mastery it doubles as mockery for any who doubted him (and after all, when anything about a beloved anything is changed, there are always doubters).

It’s hard to see anything you love undergo a major transition. Viewers of Doctor Who can quickly come to see themselves as companions, and losing a main actor can feel like something akin to losing a friend, someone you’ve traveled alongside through a universe of plot holes and merely adequate CGI only to come out simultaneously heartbroken and inspired.

Fans can comfort themselves in the knowledge that Peter Capaldi, now about to star in his third full Christmas special, is completely at home in the Doctor’s red-lined magician’s suit. Sit back, relax, a professional is steering the ship. So even as showrunner Steven Moffat steps down next year, Capaldi is still in the game at least for another year: the boy who watched Doctor Who as a child and now, the man, who understands the necessity of both honoring the heart(s) of the character and ensuring he’s dynamic and interesting as we move into 2017.

So what’s the most annoying question you get in interviews?

Capaldi: The most tiring question is if you had a TARDIS of your own, where would you go in time and space. That’s the most difficult one.

Before the Brexit vote?

Hah! That’s a good answer. No, I’d go to a really good pair of shades that I lost in about 2005.  I’d go to the café where I left them and find them again.

Did you have any hesitation taking on such an iconic role? 

Well, I had to think about the realities of the impact it would have on my life and my family, because I was very happy with my life as it was. I was a reasonably successful actor who could get tables in restaurants, at just the right level of visibility: some people recognized me, other people didn’t. And I knew that that would all change. So I had to think about it. If there was a hesitation, that was it, because I had to take other people into consideration and I had to talk to them about it. But my wife and daughter both felt it was the right thing to do and that we could handle whatever it would throw at us, and all it really throws at you is nice things. Just more of them. I spoke to both David [Tennant] and Matt [Smith] about it, and they said the visibility was the hardest thing to come to terms with. Suddenly just, you know, you walk down the street and people know you. In the first year I found that quite hard, but you sort of get used to it. And it’s not unpleasant. I think I’d miss it if it wasn’t there now.

Were you nervous in any way about the responsibility of actually portraying the Doctor?

Oh, yeah! Oh yeah, that’s interesting. The reason I didn’t answer it that way is people usually never ask me about that. It is very frightening and remains so, because it’s this iconic character. And it’s not about whether other people love it, or love him. I love him as a character, so it is a challenge trying to be true to your thoughts about it, and continuing to move it forward, so he is a character, not just a cipher that we keep coming back to. While, at the same time, you have to give the audience what they want as well.

Do you often read what fans are saying about the show?

Not consciously. It’s inevitable that some stuff gets back to you, but I don’t go looking for the things that people say about me. You’ve got to be able to take the good and the bad, and I don’t think I’d be very good at that. I’d be too upset. Sure as anything, if X more people like you, X more people don’t like you, and you’ve got to be able to live with that, and I can live with that, but I don’t want to read about it.

Did you watch the new series before you were cast?

Yeah, yeah, love Matt. Love David, and Chris [Eccleston]. And I watched it when I was a kid, and I was so pleased when it came back. I would watch it with my daughter and watch it every Saturday. She didn’t know anything about it and I would say, “This is Doctor Who and you’re going to enjoy it whether you like it or not.”

What are some of your favorite episodes that you’re not in?

I like a lot of them, I like the “Girl in the Fireplace,” that’s a good one. I like “Rose.” I think “Rose” is really good. “Dalek,” obviously, is great. “The Vampires of Venice”—I think Matt’s particularly good in that, because he has this wonderful quality of an old head on young shoulders. He’s very youthful, but he has this strange wisdom about him, and I think he manages, particularly in that episode, he walked that tightrope of being the young and the old doctor at the same time. And David of course, in “The Girl In the Fireplace,” you get the first sort of glimpse of a Doctor who could have a romantic life which was wonderful, which only David could do that.

So, changing the subject a bit. Did you find yourself swearing a lot more in your daily life while you were portraying Malcom Tucker in The Thick of It? I found myself swearing more just watching it. 

The funny thing is I tend to do my lines in the kitchen, my kitchen at home, so I always walk up and down the kitchen once everybody has eaten and everything’s cleaned up, I spend the rest of the evening doing the lines. And they’d hear me shouting and swearing, and of course it puts you in the zone, so I would swear a lot more. Someone would ask me where the TV remote was and I’d say, “Don’t fucking ask me where the fucking TV remote is, you should fucking know where it is!” So it did make me more swear-y, but I’m a Scottish person from Glasgow, so I’m not a stranger to swearing.

Did you ever discuss making an appearance on [American adaptation] Veep

Armando [Iannucci] asked me to direct a couple episodes, but I couldn’t do it because that takes like six months of the year. I didn’t do that because I was doing Doctor Who. I think they kind of floated the idea of me showing up at some point, but Doctor Who takes nine months. The timing never quite worked out. I don’t know! The personnel’s all changed there, at Veep. I don’t think the British guys do it anymore. I think it’s a new American showrunner. But Julia Louis-Dreyfus is so brilliant. Everything she does is funny.

Peter Capaldi and his Oscar
Peter Capaldi and his Oscar BBC America

So you actually won an Oscar when you were younger. How did that change your life?

For directing a short film. I didn’t even know they gave Oscars for that. It confused it, because I wasn’t a director, and I wasn’t a guy struggling to make short films all the time; I was an actor who was just interested in directing, and discovered, I guess, I had some facility for it, but was just extremely lucky with the people I worked with as well, because I managed to get, by accident, all of Terry Gilliam’s design team and Monty Python costume designers to work with me, and got Richard E. Grant to act in it, and it all just sort of came together. But I was shocked to find out I was nominated for an Oscar, and then to go and get it—and then I didn’t quite know what to do. I didn’t have like, five scripts I had been working on for years, or I didn’t have years of experience as a director, struggling. And then it confused everyone. They’d say, “You won an Oscar!” and expect it was for acting, and I’d say no, and they’d look a bit disappointed.

So back to Doctor Who. What can you say about the upcoming Christmas special?

I’m very fond of this Christmas special. The Christmas special is always different from the rest of the series. The tone is more unequivocally warm, because it’s Christmas. There’s a superhero in it, which we’ve never had in Doctor Who before.

Isn’t the Doctor a superhero?

No, I don’t believe him to be a superhero because he’s not a human being.

Neither is Superman!

But then, Superman sort of sets himself up as a righter of wrongs. I don’t really think the Doctor does that. It’s more by accident he finds himself in situations where he’s the only one with the wherewithal to deal with it.

But in this special, we have a traditional superhero whom the Doctor becomes embroiled with. And what I really like about it is that I think Steven Moffat has caught perfectly the sort of style and wit of those Christopher Reeve superhero movies. Nowadays, there’s a lot of superhero movies and they’re all great and blah blah blah, but sometimes they’re gag-free zones. But the old Christopher Reeve ones used to be very witty. So it’s quite like that.

So, a complaint I sometimes hear from people who don’t watch Doctor Who, especially my boyfriend, is that there’s just too much of it. What would you recommend?

Well Steven Moffat once said a very good thing, which is that every episode is episode one. So in fact, although it’s run for 53 years or something, you don’t really have to know anything about it, you just switch on any one. What kind of a guy is your boyfriend? Athletic, musical?

Yeah, definitely more musical, literary. 

I think maybe you should get him to watch it from the vintage series, “The Daemons,” which is with Jon Pertwee, and I think maybe “The Girl in Fireplace” might be a good place. Get him to watch! I want to know what happens.

‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio,’ will air December 25 on BBC One at 5:45 p.m., and 9/8c on BBC America. It will also be screened in select theaters on Tuesday, December 27 and Thursday, December 29.

Peter Capaldi on Fame, ‘Veep,’ and a Superhero on ‘Doctor Who’