Matt Smith: “Dave and I sat back and listened to Johnny Hurt’s funny stories”

Matt Smith on combining Sonic Screwdrivers with David Tennant and John Hurt in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special

When time lords collide things can get ‘a bit grumpy’. Matt Smith tells us about the challenge of bringing the doctors together for the blockbusting 50th anniversary episode

For Matt Smith, this is the beginning of the end. On Christmas Day, millions will watch his Doctor regenerate and Peter Capaldi take over the TARDIS. But before that, 31-year-old Smith takes centre stage in the biggest single episode since Doctor Who began.

Marking 50 years since the show’s inception, The Day of the Doctor features Smith alongside his predecessor, David Tennant, as well as their respective companions Jenna Coleman and the returning Billie Piper, plus John Hurt as the wildcard Time Lord – the missing link between Paul McGann’s one-off film Doctor and Christopher Eccleston’s all-too-brief spell in the TARDIS?

We’re promised Zygons – back for the first time in 30 years – Daleks, Cybermen and Gavin and Stacey’s Joanna Page as Queen Elizabeth I in an episode that will be simulcast around the world in cinemas and shown in 3D for the first time. We catch up with Smith as he returns to Cardiff to film his last ever episode.

You’re never allowed to say much about the plot, so tell me everything you can…

Ah, well that is always a very difficult one I’m afraid. I can’t really tell you anything but it is very exciting. We have Johnny Hurt [yes, he really did call the star of Alien ‘Johnny’], David Tennant, Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave and a great cast. Steven Moffat has written a perfect episode that honours the traditions and heritage of Doctor Who but also looks to the future because it is a show that has to keep reinventing itself. What can I tell you? It is a cracker and it is on the box on November 23.

There are so many variables that come with playing the Doctor

How much of an honour is it to be the Doctor as the show reaches this milestone?

It is a huge honour to be the incumbent Time Lord, as it were, and something of which I am very proud. It is also a testament to the show that it has lasted this long. It is a tribute to the format of the show, to the people who started it and the people who make it now.

How does the special episode honour the past?

Dependent on what level of fan you are, you will spot different details. Over the last four years I’ve watched a whole load and now have a very good knowledge of previous Doctor Who episodes. So it is all about honouring the people, stories and ideas that have been part of Doctor Who. But what Steven has managed to do so brilliantly is invent something new about the Doctor. And after 50 years, that is not easy.

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So have you had to find new ways to play him?

Yeah, and that really is a challenge. It is a good question, actually, because you don’t want to change things for the sake of it but you want it to progress and evolve and get better and stay fresh. That is one of the challenges of playing this part, keeping it fresh for the right reasons.

A lot of fans’ heads are going to explode when they see you and David Tennant on screen together – were you aware of the significance when you filmed your first scenes together?

Oh, totally. Having us all on set – me, David and Johnny Hurt as well – was a wonderful thing. Seeing David back in the Converse trainers and the pinstripe suit was really exciting – and I’m speaking as a fan of the show here because I am such a fan of his Doctor.

What sort of a double act do your Doctors form?

Actually, our Doctors get on quite well. They bicker, they argue but in previous multi-Doctor episodes they tend to be a bit grumpy with each other whereas the way me and David have played it, our Doctors are quite intrigued. They quite like each other, you know? They bounce off each other and there are some wonderful scenes with us both, when they meet and have to make big decisions, get out their Sonic Screwdrivers and all the rest of it. There is a lot of material to have a laugh with.

So whose Who gets to be the hero and has all the best lines?

Ha, well that is something Steven had to negotiate with our agents! No, he just gave us our scripts and said: “Don’t fight, boys.” This episode isn’t about any one Doctor, it is about every Doctor. But I’ve got to say, even being in it, that there is something quite groovy about seeing the Doctors together. There is a weird strength in numbers thing that happens.

I remember how I felt making it, the courage I needed to muster to do it

This is the first time you’ve acted with the Doctor… 

Exactly! And David is a diamond. Wonderful Doctor, wonderful actor and an all-round good fella. And Johnny Hurt is an incredible actor and a great bloke with really funny stories. He has been around for a while and done some great, Oscar-nominated work, so me and Dave would just listen to him talk. There are many worse ways to spend an afternoon than kicking back, listening to Johnny Hurt.

Were you able to talk with David about his experience of playing the Doctor?

Yeah, because David is someone who understands how intense and how amazing it is in equal measure. In some ways it can be quite an isolating role. You tend to be on your own a lot because you are learning lines the majority of your life. We caught up on loads of things in the downtime on-set, particularly because at that point I knew I was leaving, and we talked about his experience of that. Everyone has their own path: you have to take it in your own way but there are so many variables that come with playing the Doctor. It is always interesting to talk with someone who has been right in the heart of it.

And you had the best view of John Hurt creating his Doctor.

He is a consummate actor. He just has to blink his eyes and you are really intrigued. It was interesting to have an actor of that calibre play the Doctor. It was wonderful to just watch him. Me and David would be climbing the walls but Johnny just needs to do one tiny thing, and that is the scene. We are like: “Let’s just put the camera on John and watch him.” Massively impressed. Wonderful actor.

As you near the end, how is the experience changing?

You change as a person massively in four years, don’t you? The circumstances of your life change. But I feel so lucky with my experience on this show because I have loved making this show. I have been blessed with a wonderful lead writer at the helm, there are a wonderful set of fans who support it – so in terms of jobs, I have lucked out, really.

How proud are you of the way you have handled it? You seem to have thrown yourself into the role but kept your humour and maintained a sense of perspective.

That is very kind of you to say. Because let me tell you, just before my first episode was aired I was really nervous. When I got the job, initially, everyone was up in arms about the fact I was young. I was a nobody. “Who the hell is this guy taking over this very, dare I say it, iconic role?” I just tried to remain true to my instincts. It is up to everyone else to decide how I’ve fared. I was never going to be everyone’s favourite Doctor but hopefully I am some people’s…

I was never going to be everyone’s favourite Doctor but hopefully I am some people’s

Do you have a favourite episode of Doctor Who – or is that an impossible question to answer?

No, it is possible. I think A Christmas Carol is the best Christmas episode that has been made, and I like Christmas episodes, The Pandorica Opens is such a clever concept, and Vincent and the Doctor is very good but The Eleventh Hour is just a brilliant piece of writing and a great idea. I remember how I felt making it, the courage I needed to muster to do it. I think that first scene, in Eleventh Hour, in particular in terms of the writing, was really, really special.

Did it feel this had to be the end for you because after the 50th anniversary and another Christmas episode, another series would be a bit of a comedown?

Not really. This show will go from strength to strength but it is the right time for the show to be reinvigorated with a new energy, and it was the right time for me personally to move on. Four years making this show gives you grey hairs, let me tell you. And I don’t want any more of those bad boys just yet!

Talking of hair, watching one of your early episodes recently, your hair really was enormous – and now you’ve shaved it all off.

Oh, those early episodes when I was young and my hair was massive! Yes, now I’m old and I’m falling apart from the knees up. How am I coping without my hair? I’m like Samson: I’ve lost all power. No, to be honest with you, I really like it. I get up and that is it, done. No gel or anything. It is just easy.

And you’re handing over the show in good health?

I think if you look at the progress the show has made in America and the continued progress here, it is a really exciting time for Doctor Who. It is a huge year and an exciting time to be part of it. And I know that Peter Capaldi is going to be a wonderful Doctor. I really do.