Peter Capaldi on playing an ‘older Doctor Who’

As the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi's age is a departure from the recent history of the series, though he insists he's not old, while accepting some younger viewers may think him ancient. Picture: NYT
As the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi's age is a departure from the recent history of the series, though he insists he's not old, while accepting some younger viewers may think him ancient. Picture: NYT
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THE passage of time is perhaps not so acute to the centuries-old alien at the heart of the BBC’s Doctor Who, the shape-shifting hero known simply as the Doctor, who has had more than 50 years of adventures across dimensions known and otherwise.

But time and its measurement have become especially crucial to Peter Capaldi, who will make his proper, full-length debut as the latest actor to play the Doctor when the new season of Doctor Who has its premiere on BBC1 tonight.

It has been just over a year since the BBC announced that Capaldi would succeed Matt Smith, who was a 26-year-old relative novice when he was chosen to play the Doctor, and, after three seasons of putting his frantic, whirling-dervish stamp on the character, disclosed his departure in June 2013.

Since then, Capaldi, 56, has spent several months filming Doctor Who in Cardiff, trying to bring to the role his own personal take, which he says is more sardonic and elusive.

Still, as a lifelong Doctor Who fan, he could not quite contain his giddiness, all this time later, that he had actually landed the part.

“I just didn’t think that they would be going in this direction,” Capaldi says. Asked what he means, he answers with a laugh: “Well, I guess, older. And more like me.”

Capaldi’s penetrating eyes and expressively lined face will be familiar to viewers of Armando Iannucci’s 2009 film satire In the Loop, and the BBC comedy that spawned it, The Thick of It, in which he played Malcolm Tucker, a short-tempered political aide who fired off obscene insults as fluidly and creatively as Shakespeare composed sonnets.

Though Capaldi is among the more accomplished actors to take on this storied science fiction franchise, he is hardly a relic. But his age nonetheless represents a departure from the recent history of the series.

It is one more unknown factor for producers and audiences alike to consider as Doctor Who begins a crucial transition that elicited passionate criticisms and defences before Capaldi set foot in front of the cameras.

“When launching a new Doctor, I don’t want to make it sound as though he’s just one of a set of options,” says Steven Moffat, the executive producer and lead writer of Doctor Who. “He’s the one and only right now.”

Capaldi is playing the 12th canonical version of the Doctor, though the show cheekily acknowledges its counting system has run off track a bit.

Born and raised in Glasgow, Capaldi grew up admiring character actors like Peter Cushing and John Hurt, and was a follower of Doctor Who more or less from the start.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, he watched the series transfer its lead role from elder statesmen like William Hartnell to expressive wits like Tom Baker, and, in its 21st-century revival, heartthrobs like Smith and David Tennant. (Capaldi also appeared in a 2008 Doctor Who episode playing a Roman in ancient Pompeii.)

As a steadily employed actor, Capaldi said, he’d fallen into a routine of “increasingly bland parts, turning up in episodic television as the slightly untrustworthy doctor or shrink, or the MP with a gay secret”.

“That was fine,” he says, “but quite dull.”

That changed in 2005 when Capaldi met Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It, on a day when Capaldi had come from another demeaning BBC audition and was not in a particularly good mood. “I was like, ‘OK, show me what you’ve got,’” Capaldi recalled. “It was lucky I had just the right attitude at that moment.”

Iannucci, the creator of HBO’s Veep, said he recalls Capaldi as initially “very amiable and softly spoken”.

“When the switch came,” Iannucci said, “from this personable charmer to this rather ruthless and cold, frighteningly still person, I thought, ‘My God, that’s quite a trick you can pull off there.’”

Moffat says that the casting of Smith and Tennant on Doctor Who had not been a deliberate search for youthful demographics. “When people are trying to be cynical about modern Doctor Who, they say, ‘Oh, they always cast these young fellows,’” he says. “We didn’t. It was always a young bloke who turns out to be right for it.”

Moffat said he and his colleagues quickly thought of Capaldi, for reasons he could not entirely quantify.

“He just felt incredibly right,” Moffat says. “He would just take the part in such an unexpected, different direction and overturn everybody’s preconceptions.”

At an audition at which the Doctor Who producers say Capaldi was the only candidate, he says he performed a test scene in which he had to ask another character to describe his new incarnation.

“The Doctor doesn’t have a mirror, so he has no idea he’s grown older,” Capaldi says. “So he keeps asking her about his face. ‘Does it look good?’”

The answer he received was, “Well, it’s OK.”

Capaldi was quickly offered the role and introduced in a live special last summer. But just as rapidly, some die-hard Doctor Who fans and casual viewers alike pushed back against the decision, disappointed that a role with seemingly so few boundaries had once again been given to a white male actor.

“I do think it’s well overtime to have a female Doctor Who,” Helen Mirren told the morning TV show Daybreak, before the announcement. “I think a gay, black female Doctor Who would be best of all.”

Asked about an audience’s desire for more diversity in the lead role, Moffat says: “I just cast on instinct, really. There’s nothing against that, and we have auditioned every shape and size and type of human being for this part the last time around.”

He added that Capaldi “looks like a Doctor Who,” and could have played the character at previous ages. “He’d have been a great 20-something Doctor and a great 30-something Doctor,” he says.

Yet Capaldi’s age does not go unnoticed in his premiere.

Jenna Coleman, who plays the Doctor’s adventuring companion, Clara Oswald, said that some of their very first scenes together required her to comment on how different he looked from his predecessors.

“My lines were like: ‘But he’s so old! Why is he grey? Why has he got lines on his face?’” Coleman says. “I didn’t know him at all at this point. In between takes, I was like: ‘Oh, Peter, I’m so sorry. Terribly sorry. You look great.’”

Capaldi approached all the kidding about his age as if it were a form of hazing.

“Sometimes, I get a bit annoyed with it,” he says. “I don’t think I’m old. I’m 56. Maybe people think that’s ancient. I’m not an old man.”

Iannucci says that the humour was probably intended more for younger viewers “now getting a Doctor who’s a little bit older than they’re used to”.

On The Thick of It, Iannucci says, “every member of the cast had to get used to some insult made about them, usually from Peter Capaldi. It’s about time he had jokes about his own physical appearance.”

Capaldi says he had consulted Doctor Who forerunners like Smith. Now, he speaks about his continuing work on the series with a mixture of trepidation and the kind of certainty that only comes with seasoned experience.

“I took Matt to lunch and he came in on crutches,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘What happened to you?’ And he said, ‘This show.’ I thought: ‘My God, you’re 30 years younger than me and you’re on crutches. What’s going to happen to me?”

With his first season nearly under his belt, Capaldi does not have to look into the future to believe that he will fare just fine.

“I survived without any injuries,” he says. “It keeps you fit. It’s great to wake up in the morning and think, I’m Doctor Who.”

• Doctor Who screens tonight at BBC1 at 7:50pm