After more than 50 years on television courtesy of the BBC, Doctor Who has become a British institution, a cult show that spans generations. For an actor, the role of the Doctor means intense scrutiny from die-hard fans and a whole new level of fame. Peter Capaldi stepped into those large shoes last year as the 12th Doctor, older, darker and more cunning than most before him. As the ninth modern series wraps up, the 57-year-old Scotsman talks fame, risk and taking on the Tardis.
THE RED BULLETIN: Growing up as a die-hard fan of Doctor Who yourself, were you nervous about the huge expectations of the fans when you took on the role?
PETER CAPALDI: I was very nervous about playing the part, but I didn’t really think about the expectations of the fans. That’s never a useful thing to do—it would have only made me more nervous. I just tried to think about playing the part of the Doctor as best as I could.
But it must take guts to showcase your own take on this much-loved character?
I don’t think he’s altered too much. I felt very privileged to have the role, but it was frightening and still is.
Were you certain that an older, darker Doctor Who would work?
No, I had no idea. I just had to dive in. You can’t secondguess the audience and come up with a version of the Doctor that’s just for marketing. You have to come up with your own character, based on how you feel as an actor, as an artist, and try to be true to that, while at the same time playing the role that Steven [Moffat] writes. It seemed to me that Matt [Smith, the previous Doctor], who I absolutely loved, was a very accessible and friendly doctor. So it seemed right that I be a little less friendly.
So you didn’t consider the prospect of the audience not warming to you?
I didn’t want to seek the audience’s approval. I think that it is really important not to go out to ask the audience to love you. I think they must find out whether they like you or not. It is a risk.
Now that we know they have more than warmed to you, how scary is it to suddenly be the face of such a huge show?
I sort of try not to look down. If I become overconscious of the scale of interest in it, then I think that would make me a difficult person to live with. I mean, I am difficult to live with, but it would make me even worse. I talked to Matt about it the other day. I don’t think it’s a natural situation to be so easily recognized. And I’ve spoken to David [Tennant, Dr. Who No. 10], who gave me some advice. I said: “What’s going to change?” And he said: “Well, you’ll become just incredibly visible.” At home in the U.K., that means when you buy groceries or go to the doctor, people look at you all the time and want to chat …
It can’t be much fun for the Doctor to get hassled at the doctor’s.
It can be a little odd when you are waiting at the surgery, minding your business. But it’s fine, because you’re being given lots of affection.
Which Doctor Who would you most like to go to the pub with?
Myself—I’m always happy to hang out with myself. I don’t dislike any qualities about the Doctor. I like the fact that he’s tricky and distant, then sometimes he’s friendly, sometimes clumsy, and sometimes he’s elegant.
How was your first Tardis experience as the Doctor?
I’d been in the show once with David, in an episode called “The Fires of Pompeii,” which I thought would be my only involvement with Doctor Who. I was so pleased to be asked. In fact, I didn’t even read the script. I said: “I just want to do this!” My wife said: “No, you’re a professional actor, you have to read it and see what it’s like.” So I read it and off I went. David showed me the Tardis, which I found quite moving. I had no idea a few years later I’d be driving it myself. It’s very different now because I’m the center of it. It’s a wonderful place to be.