Interview: David Tennant plays the villain on Marvel’s Jessica Jones

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The Marvel universe is expanding even further with new Netflix Original series Jessica Jones. David Tennant plays mind-controlling baddie Kilgrave, and tells Ella Walker about his love of comics and how he had to lick his co-star’s face

How much of a Marvel fan are you?

David Tennant as Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. Picture: PA/Netflix

David Tennant as Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. Picture: PA/Netflix

I grew up as a Marvel Comics fan, I read them when I was a kid, I’ve always loved The Hulk and Spiderman and all of the more recognisable characters, so when this came up, I was very excited that it was a Marvel show. And then I realised I didn’t know this. I thought I knew my Marvel comics! [Kilgrave] was quite a relatively obscure character, and then I started reading the source material and it was just such great writing - and writing for a more mature audience. From an acting point of view, that’s exciting because the characters are complicated and difficult, they exist in shades of grey, and that’s always more interesting to play.

You character Kilgrave is really quite evil, using mind control to make people do terrible things. Was it a draining mindset to step into?

I don’t know if it was psychologically damaging, in the moment, when you’re playing those scenes, when everyone acquiesces to your every demand, it’s oddly intoxicating (haha), but obviously it only lasts as long as the camera is turning, and I didn’t insist that the crew continued that afterwards. That would have been well, insane.

Were you able to uncover any sense of humanity in him?

It’s a fascinating character, and it’s a fascinating thing to be handed, to kind of unpick. If that was your lot in life, if everything you requested was given to you, then how would you cope with that? Would you be able to maintain any kind of moral integrity? I don’t know if many of us would, frankly. So I felt a certain sympathy for Kilgrave, certainly more sympathy than everyone else who just seems to think he’s a bastard!

Breaking Bad’s Krysten Ritter plays private investigator and former superhero Jessica Jones. What was she like to work with?

I had thought she was great in Breaking Bad. And from that, I thought she was pretty good casting, but when I started working with Krysten, I realised it was impeccable casting. She’s got it all going on for that character, she’s brilliant, and her range and her dryness and her commitment to the role was perfect, she was great to play opposite. I think she’s going to wow people.

In episode one there’s a scene where you had to lick her face.

I did apologise for the face lick! Yeah, it’s just one of those things. You read it in the script and you go, ‘Well, it’s got to be done, it’s there, it’s in black and white’ and it was quite early on. I think I’d only met Krysten once before I had to lick the side of her face, but she was very understanding.

Was it daunting joining the Marvel universe when you’d loved it so much as a child?

It was daunting, just because anything people love, as much as they love comic books and the Marvel world - you don’t want to disappoint, you don’t want to break it. You don’t want to be the person that doesn’t fulfil the potential. Maybe this is slightly easier as these characters aren’t at the forefront of ubiquity like the Iron Mans and the Captain Americas; these are characters that I think probably more people will be discovering for the first time, so that gives you a certain freedom. But when you read the scripts and they’re of the quality that these ones are, then you stop worrying about that really and you just think, ‘Well, I’ve just got to match the quality of the writing here’.

Why do you think audiences are so obsessed with superheroes?

I think what works with all the Marvel movies and TV shows, they’re characters first and the extraordinary things they can do are secondary to that. I think that’s always been the secret to Marvel’s success, even way back, as early as Fantastic Four comics; what made them unique was they had these extraordinary powers, but they were people who were conflicted and who argued with each other. Even in the very early comics, which now look slightly naive, but actually they were absolutely groundbreaking. What [comic book writer and publisher] Stan Lee did was, he made the stories about the people inside the costumes, rather than the costumes, and I think that’s what Marvel continues to do to this day, so brilliantly and successfully.

• All episodes of Netflix original series Marvel’s Jessica Jones will be available exclusively on Netflix, from Friday, November 20. Read Alex Watson’s recommendations for the best TV and film to watch on Netflix this month