I’m a bit disappointed when I first see Matt Smith. Shambling into an east London rehearsal space, he’s much taller than he looks on telly, wearing big trainers, massive headphones and a baseball cap. It’s not that I expected him to step out of a Tardis wearing a fez. But there’s a brief worry that the 33-year-old actor – known for a ‘lively’ social life and sleb girlfriends – might have nothing in common at all with the fey Eleventh Doctor, the time-travelling alien he played in ‘Doctor Who’ from 2010 to 2013.
My concern that he’ll turn out to be some sort of socialite uber-lad doesn’t last much longer than him saying ‘hi’ in a floaty, elfin voice. If anything, he seems more eccentric than The Doctor, which is pretty impressive given that The Doctor is a thousand-year-old made-up space alien.
For the first half hour or so of our chat he draws the same spiky outline of a human face, over and over, on to a pad of paper. (‘Would you like to see my doodle? This is what I do, doodle.’) After that his attention switches to bouncing a blue ball around the studio. (‘This ball has been my great friend.’) Which might sound unbearably affected and douchebaggy but is actually charming. He’s a bit like a massively gifted seven-year-old carrying on a conversation while furiously concentrating on his colouring-in.
The other clue that Smith is an oddball is the play we’re here to discuss. Once a stage regular, he’s barely had time for theatre since ‘Doctor Who’ catapulted him into the cosmos. Last time out, in 2013, he starred as yuppy psychopath Patrick Bateman in a tiny, kill-for-a-seat musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’. Now, he’s back at his alma mater, the Royal Court, with ‘Unreachable’, the latest work from legendary experimental playwright Anthony Neilson.
It’s a play that comes only with the description ‘a film director on an obsessive quest to capture the perfect light’. After five weeks of Neilson’s esoteric take on rehearsals – ‘It’s quite hard to explain: we do a lot of talking, really; one day we jammed on musical instruments’ – Smith has just been given 31 pages of script, which is less than half the play. He has no idea how the story ends. Neilson has warned his cast that they might have to go on stage with their scripts in hand.
‘“American Psycho” made me shit my pants’
‘Someone who worked with him,’ says Smith, ‘who shall remain nameless, said “It’s like committing career suicide… but I think you should do it.” And here I am.’
This is a strange play, right? Why are you doing it? ‘I was a big fan of Anthony’s work, and I met him and he seemed pretty weird and pretty cool and he pitched this for me and I thought: Yeah, that sounds pretty weird and pretty cool. And now here we are, five-and-a-half weeks in with 31 pages of a play that goes up in just under ten days…’
Don’t you ever just think: I’d like to do ‘Hamlet’ like David Tennant did? ‘Well, you know, it may have come my way a couple of times, but it’s never felt quite right.’
Are you having fun? ‘I am because it’s so bizarre. I think Anthony’s the first to admit it can be quite an unnerving process, which I think he probably quite likes.’
You’ve achieved massive mainstream success and now all your theatre projects seem a bit obscure. Is that a reaction, kind of a ‘Metal Machine Music’ or a ‘Kid A’? ‘ “Kid A” is my favourite! I sent Anthony a live recording of “Idioteque” and said I wanted the play to feel like that. I think art that is divisive is a good thing. The tragedy is that not everybody comes to see it; they’ll choose something else because they know they’ll have a good time. It’s perfectly valid to go to the theatre because you know you’ll have a good time, but for now I’d just love to make “Kid A”. We all would, right?’
Your last stage role was Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’, a musical hardly anyone got to see. Why no West End transfer? ‘ “American Psycho” made me shit my pants, but in a good way. I’d never sung before and I was utterly, utterly terrified, but I loved the character and I love that idea of a serial killer and I love the ’80s and I love New York. They asked me to do Broadway and they asked me to do the West End. But I just thought: I’ve done it, move on. And I didn’t want to live like a singer. It’s such a pain in the arse – you can’t drink, you can’t talk loud – it takes such nunnery.’
Instead you’re playing a young Prince Philip in a new Netflix show, ‘The Crown’. Presumably he won’t be the comedy racist we’ve all come to know and love? ‘It’s not “Spitting Image”! When he was younger he was a bit of a rock ’n’ roller. I’ve fallen in love with him and the royal family, actually. He had the most extraordinary early life and quite a mad family. He lost his sister in a plane crash then went to learn to fly planes. And he was a naval man – I mean, he’s revered in the navy. Philip’s cool, man, Philip’s a cool dude.’
Are you a political guy? What are your thoughts on Brexit? (This interview took place a week before the referendum.) ‘I think because I’m getting old I’m more engaged in politics, somehow, and I find it increasingly bizarre and ridiculous. I just can’t believe the show-ponyness of the whole thing. And the idiocy and the lunacy of these people we elect. I’m sorry, half of them look like they should just be – I don’t want to be disparaging to too many people – but they just look like underachieving teachers. Some of the time I think: Who am I listening to? Why the hell am I listening to you about this?’
‘I get the tube to work every day, I get the tube home every day. You have to do normal shit, man!’
You’ve spent a lot of time in the US recently. What do you reckon about Trump? ‘It’s like watching a cartoon unfold in front of you. Everything’s like “The X Factor”. He does these rallies and they’re all whooping at stuff like “We’re going to stop immigration.” What the fuck are you whooping at? But, you know, the Patrick Bateman part of you says, “I’d love to see what happens if he does.” But he won’t win. Sometimes I look at Hillary Clinton and think: I’m not sure about you. But there is no alternative. You cannot elect that man.’
On a happier note, I take it you look back purely fondly on ‘Doctor Who’ and the fame that came with it? ‘Oh I love it, I’m proud of it, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was a wonderful experience for me and my family. I still do all the conventions and stuff. I don’t think I’ll be as famous for anything [else] because it’s got so much cultural relevance.’
Are there any downsides to the fame? Do you get hassled a lot? ‘No, if you start living abnormally, then it’s over. I get the tube to work every day, I get the tube home every day. You have to do normal shit, man!’