Actor Matt Smith appeared at Wizard World Comic Con in St. Louis April 2 and 3. The man most well-known for playing the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor on the wildly popular BBC television series “Doctor Who” recently appeared on the big screen earlier this year as Mr. Collins in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and had a brief but pivotal role in last year’s “Terminator: Genisys.” But his panel at the convention Saturday afternoon was all about “Doctor Who,” as Smith answered a variety of questions from fans about different aspects of working on the show.
A lot of Smith’s favorites from the show were addressed, including his favorite scene to shoot with Alex Kingston, who frequently guest starred on the show as the Doctor’s love interest, River Song. Said Smith, “There’s the scene in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ where she slaps me…and Alex Kingston doesn’t just slap you, she club-hands you. On like take 10 I’m like ‘Maybe just take it easy’ and she’s like ‘Oh yeah yeah yeah I will.’ Then she’d hit me and go, ‘Oh no I did it really hard again!’ I don’t know why but to me that was fun. I think just so many with River. I think what was so interesting about that relationship was that he was always the cleverest person in the room apart from River Song because she knows his future and it pisses him off.” Smith continued, “Alex is just a dream to be around…she’s really great, she’s hilarious. So all of them! Like when people ask me what my favorite episode is….Some of them are kind of better than others I think.”
When prompted for his overall favorite moment from filming “Doctor Who,” Smith replied, “I used to hid in Karen’s [Gillan, who played the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond] trailer. I used to hide in the cupboard and she’s really jumpy and I used to make her jump. One time she was so frightened she cried.” Smith went on to say that Gillan would try to get him back but would usually just forget about it. He used to prank costar Arthur Darvill, who played companion Rory Pond, as well. “I used to wind Arthur up by doing stuff in the middle of the scene like just kiss him. And he’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Kissing you, Arthur, I’m kissing you. Now go and die. Again.’ Referencing the frequent times Rory would seemingly die only to come back to life on the show, Smith continued, ‘That was great, you’d read the script and go, ‘Oh yeah Arthur, you die again mate.’ ‘What, for good?’ ‘No no no, I think you come back.’ Meanwhile, Smith mentioned that his favorite Doctors were a toss-up between Patrick Troughton, who played the Second Doctor, and David Tennant, who played the Tenth Doctor (and was also present at Wizard World St. Louis that weekend), while is favorite creature from the series was the Weeping Angel. “It took Amy Pond so I think it’s a great nemesis for my Doctor,” he said.
There was also a lot of discussion about Smith’s acting process and what it was like playing such an iconic character as the Doctor, one that essentially launched his acting career. When asked how often he improvised things and how often they made it into the show, Smith responded, “I like to improvise a lot, but…with ‘Doctor Who’ the writing is really precise because you’re talking about perception filters and, you know, time vortexes and stuff like that so…it’s quite structured but I always try to take risks from take to take.”
One fan mentioned that “interaction and chemistry is key in creating a piece that’s believable and relatable,” asking Smith how he cultivates that quickly with people he’s just met. “You’ve got to sort of take risks and be brave,” Smith laughed, continuing, “What was interesting about the genesis of Karen and Arthur [was] we were sharing this experience at the same time. When we joined [the show] everyone was like, ‘Better be good,’ and then slowly people sort of got on board with it I think. And so there was so much shared experience that sort of art imitated life and life imitated art….’Doctor Who’ was such a big thing for us all….you’re in the newspapers in England and you’re in ‘Doctor Who’ and it’s a really big transition, so weird the fact that we [were in it together] added to our work on screen.” Smith also said that he tested with Gillan and Darvill after he was cast as the Doctor. “There were something like ten really great actresses up for Amy Pond and Karen was the last one to come in on the second day….Karen walked in and they were just like, ‘She’s mental.’ And then Arthur came and tested and me and Arthur were friends, so he came up to Cardiff and we were with the director and then me and Arthur got the call back and got really drunk in the car. Arthur was like, ‘I think I’m going to get this mate,’ and he did. And then he died,” laughs Smith.
Smith said that decided on the Doctor’s signature outfit consisted of “three days of tortuous trying on of clothes. [They] wanted me to look a bit more like Johnny Depp in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and I wanted it to feel like a professor, I think because I was young. So we had the boots and the jeans and actually the reason why I wore a tweed jacket was because I wore a tweed blazer to the audition because I thought, ‘I’m going to make myself look old because he’s 900….What makes me look old? I know, tweed!’ And then something was missing so I said, ‘Can I try on a bow tie?’
When asked if he also had a say in the creation of all his Doctor’s quirks and personality, Smith said, “It really comes from you…like fundamental things I knew. I knew that he wasn’t going to be really sort of that good with girls and stuff like that and I’m clumsy so therefore he inherited being sort of a clumsy Doctor….Even when I’m walking it doesn’t really look like I’m walking….It’s an open palette really to be really great when it’s a fantastic character you’re playing.”
One of the panel moderators mentioned that “Doctor Who is so fantastical and whimsical and the Doctor is so relatable in this crazy world and he’s not even human but as fans we feel what he goes through and we understand his pain.” Smith said that what makes him so special and relatable to audiences is that “he’s not very cynical. Well I mean you know my Doctor wasn’t very cynical. He’s a bit more cynical now. That’s cool, isn’t it?” Smith said, referring to the current incarnation of the Doctor played by Peter Capaldi. “I can only speak from my experience, I suppose,” he continued, “but I think…I was really interested in him because he’s the cleverest person in the room all the time and he’s also the silliest and the most ridiculous and I think that is always a really attractive thing, being clever and silly at the same time. I also think that he has the openness that a child has where they go, ‘Oh I’ll look at this,’ or ‘I won’t be cynical about this kind of situation’ and I think again that makes him quite open.” Smith added, “If you’re running a bath when you’re playing the Doctor it’s quite exciting. Like when I was first doing it I’d run a bath and I’d go, ‘How would the Doctor run a bath?’ Suddenly your bath becomes infinitely more interesting. He [is] just the most sort of extraordinary character.”
One fan brought up the Doctor’s quirkiness and asked if any of the character’s mannerisms rubbed off on him, or if there was anything he left with in terms of his personality that the Doctor might have instilled in him. “God,” Smith replied, “Two hearts. The thing about the Doctor is that he’s infinitely cooler than I am and better and extraordinary….There’s a sort of goodness at his core I suppose and he solves problems with his brain, none of which I do….I just love the madness in him really. And also I can’t sort of point blank martyr him too much, like there’s a lot of blood on his hands when you actually consider what he’d done and where he’s been and a lot of innocent people have died as a result of his work. Guilt is what drives him in many ways and I think it’s really important.”
Smith said it was really difficult not to initially tell anyone when it was first cast as the Doctor (although one of his best friends figured it out) and that his first day on set was “nerve-racking. Because the first day you walk in and there’s David Tennant in the costume and you’re in his costume and you’re like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ And then you’ve got to regenerate and everyone’s…staring at you going, ‘What’s he going to do?’ And it took a while for me to sort of bed in I think. But it’s such a great crew. And I’m lucky that I had Karen and Arthur because as I said we sort of all went through it together which I think makes a difference. But I think it’s harder for someone like Jenna [Coleman, who played the Doctor’s companion after Gillan and Darvill left the show] who had to come in and you know I was up and running at that point and you’ve got to suddenly adapt to all this mad stuff. But it’s nerve-racking because you’re on the Tardis and you can’t help [but] go, ‘This is definitely the Tardis, and there’s Doctor Who—oh wait, I’m Doctor Who. Oh no.”
According to Smith, some episodes were hard to shoot. “It’s a tough show to make because it’s got huge ambition and you’re making it not on a scale that some shows are made for, in particularly nowadays financially, so you’ve got to use your ingenuity. For instance…when we were in Utah all of that stuff was challenging, but I think it looked really brilliant in the end and it turned out to be a great episode. It’s usually just the weather you’re sort of battling against in some way. And learning lines…there are so many lines to learn and every night you go home and do a minimum of a couple hours work.”
But there was time for fun on set as well. When asked about something funny that happened during filming, Smith told a favorite story of Gillan’s. “There was once a lady, an attractive lady, came on the set to play a part,” he said. “I thought I’d sort of go and say hello and welcome her to the set sort of thing so…I go and I put my hand on a light stand and go, ‘Hey,’ and I twisted it and it fell on my head. Karen was over here literally doubled over.”
When asked if Smith had any advice for young aspiring actors, he immediately and adamantly responded with “Take risks, read as many plays as you can, don’t say no, and just start making things as soon as possible. Keep going, keep going, keep going.” Sound advice from a man whose hard work paid off, leading him to portray one of the most iconic characters of all time, and truly making the role his own.