By Cole Moreton
He's a superstar, dates a supermodel and is on a super salary, here the actor talks about fame, childhood dreams and when he'll say goodbye to the Time Lord.
'People really do love the Doctor,’ says Matt Smith.
‘They like seeing this mad dude turn up and save the day, using pencils, a lampshade or whatever it may be. This baffled man, quite bafflingly, saving the world.’
He uses that word a lot – but it was the fans who were baffled two years ago, when, as a young, virtually unknown actor, he was hired to take over from the hugely popular David Tennant as the star of Doctor Who. It’s the biggest show on TV – but more than that, the Doctor has become a modern British folk hero.
‘He’s like Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes, an enduring character in a fairy tale you can just keep reinventing,’ says Smith, the 11th man to play the Time Lord – and the youngest, at just 26 when he was cast.
That was a shock, but we’re now halfway through his second series, and Smith has created his own vivid version of the ‘mad man with a blue box’ who travels through space and time, seeing off alien armies (and picking up foxy companions) with a wave of his sonic screwdriver. He’s a gangly genius in bow tie and tweed, part professor, part rock star – witty and eccentric, but often with no idea what to make of people.
‘Yeah, I go for baffled. He is always the cleverest man in the room, but he’s not always certain what’s going on. It is funny seeing clever people look baffled. I thought a lot about Einstein when I was preparing for this. The Doctor should be very clever and brilliantly brave – when the moment calls, he is a leader – but he should also be funny, and a bit ridiculous.’
Should he be quite so grown up, though? When Doctor Who was reborn in 2005 it was said to have saved Saturday teatime telly as a family event – but some parents say it has now become too dark, too scary and too sexy. Does Smith agree? (UM NO CAN YOU SHUT UP)
‘No! I think it’s ridiculous to say so. I think it should be all of those things. I think it should be dark, I think it should be scary. And sexy? I mean, for God’s sake, look at the companions of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker (the third and fourth Doctors) in their tiny, Tarzanian tops…’
We pause for a moment, to consider the attractions of Jo Grant and Leela in the Seventies. Did it screw him up badly as a boy, watching them? (like are you kidding me...)
‘Of course not. It will always be family entertainment and it has to adhere to that, but you know, I don’t think it’s gone too far. I mean, how sexy is it?’
Very sexy, some would say.
‘Because of Karen?’
Well, let’s start there. Karen Gillan plays Amy Pond, who spent her first few episodes in a strippergram police outfit with a draughtily short skirt. She has made it clear she’d like to explore more than the Doctor’s Tardis.
‘What do people want Karen to dress in – a floor-length skirt, a pair of jeans and a hoodie? I mean, she’s a beautiful woman. Amy Pond is a sexy character, by her very nature. No one’s quite like Amy.’ YOU TELL 'EM
Smith is out of character, in jeans and a Pink Floyd T-shirt, with a woolly hat pulled down over his head. But when he launches into a scatty monologue, with his arms waving about and his eyes on the floor, he’s the Doctor.
‘God, I just think all of that is brilliant, because it is fun. I think it’s clever, too. Have you ever watched The Simpsons with your son and laughed at different things? Isn’t that one of the virtues of a show like this, when you can see something and look over and go, “Know what? In a few years, you’ll get that one.” I think that’s what Steven (Moffat, the show’s lead writer and executive producer) does. Don’t tell me that the dads at home don’t go, “Ah, cool – Karen’s on…”’
Presumably Smith is aware of being perceived as sexy himself? He laughs.
‘Listen, my football club Blackburn Rovers were perceived to have a lot of money until yesterday and they haven’t. I mean… really? By who?’
By almost every woman I know, actually.
‘OK, but even if the show had Johnny Depp – who I believe is a deeply sexy man – at the centre of it, you could still say it was not gratuitous in any way. Also, if you look at the Doctor, he’s baffled by all that, he finds it all very peculiar.’
Indeed, the Doctor backs off from Amy’s advances so quickly it makes you wonder if he has ever had conjugal relations. Does Smith think he has?
‘Yeah, definitely. With the best of them. No doubt about it. Come on – Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee? No doubt.’
So why is his own Doctor so unaware of the hormonal firestorm going on around him? He’s even scared of River Song, the fellow time traveller played by Alex Kingston, with whom he has a real affinity.
‘He can flirt with River, he does find her attractive. It’s not as if he is completely incapable – but I think he’d just rather build something, play football, play chess, fly the Tardis, you know? To the Doctor, there is more important stuff than girls.’
Smith used to be the sort of boy who would rather play football than do anything else. Before he thought of acting, he played for the youth teams at his hometown club of Northampton, then Nottingham Forest and Leicester City.
‘Then I had a back injury and I was out for a year. It was depressing. My dad, God love him, would pick me up from school every day, drive me to Leicester to have treatment on my back, then drive me home.
'He was also at work all day, running a plastics company, so he sacrificed a lot for me. Anyway, it didn’t get better, so I had to do something else. It was awful. A rubbish time.’
Would he rather have been a footballer?
‘On balance – with the greatest respect to footballers – I think life as an actor is probably more enriched. I have more freedom to be myself, to carve out a personality informed by a lot of things as opposed to just football. But don’t get me wrong, football is my passion.
'Actors, movie stars, rock stars, I can meet them with no worries – but with footballers I go weak at the knees. All of them. Any Blackburn player. I saw Drogba at an awards thing. Martin Scorsese was on the other side of the room, but I was like, “Wow, that is actually Didier Drogba.”’
Despite his lazily posh accent, Smith wasn’t privately educated. (ummmm......) He went to the local comprehensive, Northampton School for Boys, where a teacher persuaded him to take up acting.
Smart, talented and a voracious reader, Smith went on to study drama and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, hoping to write as well as star in plays. He was part of the National Youth Theatre and got off to a terrific start, playing one of the pupils in The History Boys at the National and appearing alongside Christian Slater in the West End play Swimming With Sharks.
Despite one or two television roles, very few viewers knew his name when he auditioned to replace Tennant as the Doctor in 2008. Nor did Smith really appreciate what he was getting into.
‘I had caught bits of Doctor Who, but never really watched episodes of it. I told my mum and dad that I’d auditioned on the first day and they sort of wrote it off, because I wouldn’t get it. Then, three weeks later, I did get it, weirdly enough. I was in Aldgate, in a cobbled road, when I found out. I rang my dad. We have this thing we do: I always try to find coded ways of telling him when I’ve got a job, because it’s fun. So I said, “Call me the doctor.” And he said, “Why, are you sick?” It was nice. Seems a long time ago.’
When the penny dropped his parents, David and Lynne, were ‘flabbergasted’.
By the time his first episode went out, at Easter last year, Smith had watched every single Doctor for inspiration. He defined his own, intensely playful style with a scene in which the regenerated Time Lord ransacked the kitchen of the young Amy Pond for something to eat – and ended up scoffing fish fingers with custard.
‘The thing about the Doctor is that he’s both young and very old at the same time. I learned a lot about him from watching children, the way they question the things that are put in front of them, like sniffing a cup of tea. I also watched older people, because although he has lived for more than 900 years, he’s always open to new things.
‘That’s like my grandad, who had Thai food for the first time last night. He’s just come out of hospital, and my mum and dad were looking after him. I was quite proud of him, because I can just imagine my granny would have gone, “No, no, I’m not having any of that.” But my grandad loved it. He’s good at stuff like that. Still open, still laughing, like the Doctor.’
Smith became a huge star immediately.
‘There is nothing you can do to prepare for the intensity of that. So many more people recognise you and want to take up a moment of your time for a photo or a hello. You try to deal with it with grace and a degree of humour, because what’s the alternative? I knew what I was signing up for.
'And anyway, I can stick my hat on and people don’t recognise me.’
He pulls up his striped woolly hat to reveal that the famous quiff has collapsed into lank, greasy strands.
‘That is the key. Wear a hat, glasses, move quickly, don’t look up.’
Does he feel a pressure to represent the character at all times?
‘Yeah, because if you’re a ten-year-old and you meet the Doctor and he’s like, “Oh no – sorry, mate”, then that’s no good, is it? But I’m sure there are a few people out there who have got short shrift and been disappointed. I feel bad about that sometimes.’
Some grown-up Whovians (as they call themselves) can be obsessive.
‘Yeah, there is obsession. But you know what? I think Doctor Who needs the obsessive people. It’s part of the culture. But make no mistake, it’s about the Doctor. It’s not about me, personally.’
Becoming the Doctor did get him a supermodel for a girlfriend, though, almost straight away, just by saying he fancied her.
‘You didn’t seem the type of guy who was going to ask me about Daisy,’ he says. you can hear his disappointment from here :(
Smith and Daisy Lowe have homes close to each other in north London and have been photographed smooching in Primrose Hill. But she does photo-shoots for Vogue and Pirelli, among others, and is often travelling, so is their romance still on?
‘Yes, it is.’
How did they meet?
‘We met at a festival. Well, sort of… We met through friends really. I mentioned her in The Guardian, didn’t I? And she got wind of it.’
Smith told an interviewer that Lowe would be his ideal date – and a month later they were photographed holding hands at the Coachella Festival in California. Had she got in touch after reading what he’d said?
‘Something like that. I thought I was using my noggin. She knew a friend of mine, and blah blah blah, we swapped numbers. And that is as much as I’ll say.’
OK, let’s press on to another sensitive question. Is he worth all the money that we licence payers are lavishing on him?
‘I hope so, but you’re asking me if I’m worth it when you have no idea how much I’m paid.’
That’s not quite true. When he first got the role, Smith was reported to be on £200,000 a year – far less than Tennant was paid.
Earlier this year, Steven Moffat, who runs the show, urged the BBC to give him a pay rise to keep Hollywood at bay, because ‘he is the best Doctor there has ever been’.
So now he is believed to be in the next BBC pay band up, from £250,000 to £500,000 a year.
‘It’s hard work, Doctor Who, but let’s be frank about it, I’m fortunate to be rewarded in the ways that I am. I don’t just mean financially, I mean the nature of the part and everything that comes with it.’
Each series takes nine months to make, during which he gets one day off in 12.
‘It is great fun, but you are working at four in the morning in December in a castle, which is just cold. You are away from your friends and family. I have a flat in Cardiff which is home, but I don’t really hang out with anyone there.
'On a normal day I get picked up at 6.30am and we wrap at 7pm – so once I’m out of make-up and changed, I’m back at home by quarter to eight. Then I’ve got to work on my lines for the next day. So it is quite a solitary life, which can be tough at times. But maybe that is better for work.’
Has all that hanging around on set allowed him to ponder the biggest mystery of Doctor Who? With all of time and space to choose from, why does the man from Gallifrey keep coming back down to Earth, in the here and now?
‘Well, one assumes part of that is probably due to the budget and the producers trying to work out how to shoot things. Otherwise, I think humans are his greatest intrigue. He loves Earth, he wants to be part of it but can never quite fit in. If you like going on holiday to Skegness then you go back, don’t you?’
For an alien with two hearts, the Doctor seems more English than ever.
‘Police boxes, tweed blazers and bow ties feel quite English, but I think that is one of his virtues, one of the strengths of Doctor Who.’
The show also looks more glossy than ever, and with scenes in the White House and the Nevada desert they’re making an unashamed pitch for success in America, aren’t they?
‘Yeah. Well, the Americans seem to be enjoying it and Steven has really bumped up the science fiction in it, which they love.’
Doctor Who has already become the most popular show on BBC America, but here audiences are a million below what they were in the high days of David Tennant. Some fans complain that the plots have become too difficult to follow.
‘I personally love that, because it is what sci-fi is to me: an accumulation of detail that you can keep exploring and that becomes more layered every episode. That said, you need the stand-alone episodes that are just a great big romp.’
Eight million people still watch it, and Doctor Who is the biggest earner for BBC Worldwide, making money from DVDs, downloads and all those action toys. It’s not going away – but will Smith still be the Doctor when the show celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2013? Or will next year’s series, to which he is already committed, be his last?
‘How long is a piece of string? I take it a year at a time. We’ll see how the land lies at the end of that series, and what Steven Moffat is doing. I’m desperate to do a play again when I’ve finished, and maybe try writing one for myself, and I’m very interested in trying to cultivate a film career. But I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me with Doctor Who before I can even really contemplate what comes next.’
Playing the Doctor damaged the careers of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, so is he worried about being consumed by the role?
‘It didn’t do that for Chris (Eccleston) and David. It’s different now – there is a wider variety of avenues you can take. Plus, I will only be 29 by the time the next series finishes. God, nearly 30, man. How did I get to be that old?’
And Matt Smith grins that famous lopsided grin again, like the Doctor defeating the Daleks with a Jammie Dodger. Time is on his side.
Doctor Who returns to BBC1 on August 27
the daily fail is SO gross i can't. matt handled it really well tbh, but ugh big deal karen wears skirts! no kids aren't going to be damaged by seeing some god damn leg! and when they asked about daisy, smh :(