January 2005 Sunday Times
IF John Osborne had known David Tennant when he was writing his most famous play, he’d have had to call it Look Back in Niceness. A less angry young man it is hard to imagine. Far from the ranting and raving of Osborne’s Jimmy Porter – the part Tennant will play in Look Back in Anger at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum this month – the actor is the very personification of mild-mannered charm.
The dazzle he brought to BBC1’s Blackpool as the maverick detective, Peter Carlisle, is not turned on for the cameras. The easy smile, the quick sense of humour and the spark of intelligence are no act. Tennant is the genuine article. He is nice to the core.
He was nice when I first met him in the early 90s making a name for himself on the Scottish theatre scene. He was nice, recalls an old hand at London’s Young Vic theatre, when he starred in John Byrne’s The Slab Boys in 1994.
He was nice again when I met him in Leeds in 1996 after he’d been nominated for a TMA Best Actor Award for two superb performances in The Glass Menagerie at Dundee Rep and An Experienced Woman Gives Advice in Manchester.
No doubt he was nice on the set of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the next instalment of the JK Rowling franchise in which he plays Barty Crouch Junior. And he’s certain to have been nice while starring as Casanova in the forthcoming BBC romp written by Russell T Davies.
He’s still nice when I meet him on a rainy day in Ealing at the end of the first week of rehearsals for Osborne’s landmark Look Back in Anger. Nice not in a smarmy or sycophantic way – just friendly, open and undefensive.
“I do get told I’m nice quite a lot,” he says, fixing me with his big brown eyes over our table in an Italian restaurant. “I’m happy about it, but you do wonder if it makes you a little uninteresting, a little bland, a little unsexy, a little un-Jimmy Porterish. I’d rather be described as nice than nasty. I have my dark moments, but basically I’m fairly content.”
He says he has little time for actors who make life difficult for everyone – and he’s worked with a few – but mostly his colleagues are, well, nice. He catches himself. “Nice! I’ll have to stop using that word. My English teacher would be furious.”
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Today the tall 33-year-old is unshaven and his floppy blond hair is more wayward than usual, but there’s no disguising the high cheek bones and good looks that helped land him his next TV role -– his most prestigious to date. In Casanova, Tennant plays the world’s most notorious seducer fleeing across Europe from the forces of church and state. With a cast that includes Peter O’Toole, Glasgow’s Laura Fraser and Little Britain’s Matt Lucas, it is one of the major BBC drama offerings of the spring.
“It’s fast, furious, funny and crazy,” says Tennant. “I don’t think it’s a Casanova that people will expect. He’s not a lounge lizard, a Lothario or a lady’s man, he’s a livewire, a free spirit and people become attracted to that. He’s almost an innocent, a puppy dog with all this energy and fizz about him.”
After ploughing through all 12 volumes of Giacomo Casanova’s autobiography, writer Russell T Davies -– he of Queer as Folk notoriety -– determined to present the man afresh – not as the seedy misogynist of popular conception, but as a nonconformist who genuinely loved and respected women. "Never mind the serial shagger,” says the writer. “I also discovered that, outside his love life, Casanova was a wonderful, barmy, inventive man.”
His armoury, according to Davies, was “charm and cheek”. In other words, it’s a role custom-built for Tennant. Even so, it’s racy stuff for the currently single, ex-Paisley Grammar boy whose father is the ex-minister of St Mark’s Church in Oldhall, Renfrewshire, and a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
“A lot of moths get attracted to Casanova’s flame,” laughs Tennant with his big, broad grin, fully aware that his parents have seen him do everything from gay love scenes to naked charges across the stage and are unlikely to be fazed by his latest incarnation. “The sex is fun. It’s a romp. There’s not a lot of gratuitous nudity, but there’s lots of skirts, bustiers and corsets – and that’s just me!
Tennant has long been a favourite on Scottish stages, performing frequently here despite his move to London 10 years ago. “I’m very aware that Scotland is where I’m from,” he says. “I had no relationship with Scotland when I lived there. I had no interest in nationalism, no interest in Scotland’s nationhood or legacy or any of that stuff until I moved down to London which is a terribly crass, idiotic thing to say, but it’s true. I like living in London, it gives me the sense of being something different, which I enjoy. My family are mostly still in Scotland, so it’ll always be part of who I am and what I go back to.”
At the same time as his Scottish appearances, he has starred in RSC productions such as The Comedy of Errors and As You Like It, and at the National Theatre where his recent role in The Pillowman had the critics falling over themselves to praise. He was nominated for an Ian Charleson award for his Romeo at the RSC in 2000 and for an Olivier Award for his performance in Lobby Hero at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2003.
This, though, is the year when Tennant is likely to make the transition from best-kept secret to household name. Thanks to the power of mass media, he’ll find himself a bona fide celebrity. Casanova promises to build on the profile he established as DI Carlisle in Blackpool – a performance that prompted one critic to declare, “A new Scottish star is born”. Then in November, he’ll go global when he hits the big screen as Barty Crouch Junior, the shape-shifting former inmate of Azkaban prison, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
“Doing Harry Potter was great,” says Tennant, who shot his part at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire. “It’s a huge, great monster of a film, but at the same time it felt like a very friendly, creative place to be. Mike Newell is a fantastic director. I have quite a small part, but he was attentive, clever and bright. It was a great experience to visit that world.”
His face is already cropping up on Harry Potter fan websites and the attention will only increase as the release date approaches. Not that he cares too much. He’s doing the job he has dreamt of since childhood and fame has never been the spur. “It’s not something I would actively pursue,” he says. “It’s a by-product of this job, and it’d be churlish to pretend you didn’t know about it, but I don’t see being famous as any kind of achievement.”
Curiously for someone who has devoted his life to acting, he is routinely stricken by nerves. “It’s ghastly. Every time I do a play, I have a moment when I think I’ll never do it again. Genuinely, I’ll think it’s not worth it --– it’s just agony. You’re often aware of how close you are to drying. You’re on stage and you’re composing the speech you’re about to give: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, terribly sorry, but I have to leave the stage now and throw up in my dressing room.’ Maybe I need that fear.”
The pressure will certainly be on him as he takes to the stage in Edinburgh. Look Back in Anger was the play that defined a mood of rebelliousness for a generation, symbolising the new energy that invigorated a moribund theatre industry. On its debut in 1956, the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.”
Tennant’s easy-going charisma should be a good match for Jimmy Porter, the part played by Richard Burton in the 1959 movie. Osborne said his anti-hero was a “disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice” – a description you could apply to many of Tennant’s roles.
“It’s not a nice play and he’s not a nice man,” he says. “But I don’t think he’s as irredeemable as history has painted him. He’s brilliantly funny and that’s part of what makes him such an attractive character to play. He has this ability with language which is thrilling and at the same time ghastly. He can reduce people so eloquently. It’s appalling and delicious. I was talking to Michael Sheen who played the part and he said you get this extraordinary feeling half way through when you realise there’s nobody in the theatre that likes you.”
With up-and-coming film star Kelly Reilly playing opposite him, it’s set to be an auspicious start to Tennant’s year. But, modest to the last, he’s taking nothing as given. “I’ve been absurdly lucky – disproportionately and unfairly lucky. And you’re always waiting for that to dissolve. You meet people at all stages of their career where the work suddenly stops. It’s a salutary warning never to take it for granted. But I would panic because I never had anything else that I wanted to do. If it all stopped I would be in trouble.”
He needn’t worry. Far from stopping, it’s only just beginning. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer man.
Look Back in Anger, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, January 15-–February 12; Casanova will be screened on BBC3 in March; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire will be released on November 18
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