It’s not as rare as, say, a total solar eclipse or the alignment of the planets, but the arrival of a new star on “Doctor Who” is still a significant galactic event, at least to fans of that long-running BBC science-fiction series. Last summer, Matt Smith announced that that he was leaving the lead role of the enigmatic time-and-space adventurer known as the Doctor, and the BBC said that he would be succeeded by Peter Capaldi, the Scottish actor best known to British audiences (and some Americans as well) as Malcolm Tucker, the explosively vulgar government official on the political satire “The Thick of It” and the film “In the Loop.”
Mr. Capaldi, 56, has since spent several Earth months filming his first season of “Doctor Who,” which begins Saturday on BBC America, and getting to know co-stars like Jenna Coleman, who plays the Doctor’s companion, Clara, and Steven Moffat, the “Doctor Who” executive producer and lead writer. In polite, gentlemanly tones, free of any vulgarity, Mr. Capaldi recently spoke to The Times about this transition and the new “Doctor Who” season. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q. You were a lifelong “Doctor Who” fan before you joined the show. Why has it held this enduring appeal for you?
A. Because it started when I was 5. I grew up with it. It’s in my DNA. It’s not just the monsters and this weird, Grimm’s fairy-tale feel that it has, but also this idea that you could be whisked away. It’s always been good at balancing the cosmic with the domestic. They would go out to the edge of the galaxy, and then they’ll land in a mall somewhere.
Q. When you learned that the show was seeking a new lead actor, did you think you’d be in the mix?
A. I never thought that I would be Doctor Who, because it just seemed to me the show had nothing to do with me anymore. Even when I was playing Cardinal Richelieu in “The Musketeers,”
often, the directors we had, they’d just come off “Doctor Who.” So I was always asking them, “What was it like? What’s going to be happening next season?” And one of them said that he thought Matt might be leaving, and I was in disbelief. I just didn’t think that they would be going in this direction.Q. What direction do you mean?
A. Well, I guess, older. And more like me. [Laughs] When I look it at now, obviously you’d have to have a contrast. You couldn’t have another guy around Matt’s age. It was wiser to be very different from what David [Tennant] and Matt had been doing.
Q. How did you learn that Steven Moffat was considering you?
A. I had a call from my agent, and she said, “How would you feel about being the new Doctor Who?” Which just made me laugh with joy, for about two minutes. What I didn’t know was, I was the only one being auditioned.
Q. What was that audition like?
A. Steven wrote these rather wonderful scenes for my Doctor. There was a regeneration scene [not used in the finished episode], in which the Doctor doesn’t have a mirror, so he has no idea he’s gotten older. He keeps asking Clara about his face. “Does it look good? It feels good. It’s very mobile and it seems to be working. Is it good?” And she goes, “Well, it’s O.K.” I’m like, “What do you mean, O.K.? It’s got to be better than O.K.” Finally they got me in a room and we did it. And I thought I’d really blown that. I took a picture of myself in the cab, going to my audition, and then I took a picture in a cab coming back. I was like Rocky in “Rocky III.”
I was bedraggled. But I was wrong. I guess.Q. What directions did Steven want to take the show under your Doctor?
A. He wanted to, I think, lose the overtly comic groove that they’d gotten into, which was working very well, but he felt he was perhaps done with that. It’s still very funny, but it’s in a slightly more acid way. It’s not cynical. It’s realistic and the universe equivalent of world-weary. Sardonic. The Doctor’s been round the block. But he’s still full of enthusiasm. If he offers you the chance to come with him, and you hesitate, he’s gone.
Q. Did you think your work as the distinctively obscene Malcolm Tucker might disqualify you from the role of the Doctor?
A. He’s such a vivid character that, clearly, he would have an influence on how people perceive me. I could never have played Malcolm when I was 30. You had to be knocked around by life a bit to do that.
Q. Do you think the Malcolm Tucker character showed people you could adapt yourself to different roles?
A. I suspect I wouldn’t be Doctor Who if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. I’d got into this groove of being a reasonably successful, very blessed actor, playing increasingly bland parts. Turning up in episodic television as the slightly untrustworthy doctor or shrink, or the M.P. with a gay secret. That was fine but quite dull. You get employed to do the thing that people think you can do. And then I met Armando Iannucci [creator of “The Thick of It”], and when I auditioned for him, I had been particularly fed up. I had an audition in the morning, for a little part in a sitcom on the BBC. I’d worked with everyone in the room, and I thought, “Why am I sitting here, going on tape for all of you guys, to do this little part?” Which I didn’t get. About an hour later, I went to meet Armando, to talk about “The Thick of It,” and I was like, “You’re supposed to be a comedy genius? Make me laugh.” It was lucky I just had the right attitude at that moment.
Q. On the show itself, the characters are often commenting and joking about how old this new Doctor now appears. How do you feel about that?
A. I sometimes get a bit annoyed with it. I don’t think I’m old. I’m 56. Maybe people think that’s ancient. I’m not an old man. My eyebrows, which I’ve never taken much notice of in my life before, Steven’s decided are the most amazing comic devices. Now in the scripts, as a stage direction, instead of saying, “The Doctor looks peeved” or “The Doctor looks annoyed,” they just write, “Eyebrows.” I’m supposed to do something with my eyebrows. (lolllll)
Q. Does that mean you’ve got to learn some new eyebrow moves?
A. What it means is, the character is finding its own tics and its own shape. That’s a good thing.