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A Crime Drama Crosses The Atlantic And Detective David Tennant Is On The Case

Nov 11, 2014

The name David Tennant may evoke two very different reactions: from some people, "Who?" and from others, "Doctor Who!" The Scottish actor starred as Doctor Who in the beloved, BBC science-fiction series. "It's a huge privilege to be involved in something that evokes such enthusiasm," Tennant tells NPR's Robert Siegel. But, he says, it's also nice to be known for other projects as well.

Now, he's making his American television debut in Gracepoint — an American adaptation of the BBC detective series Broadchurch.

"It's been lovely to be involved in Broadchurch and now Gracepoint and find that it gets an almost equal amount of attention [as Doctor Who]," he says. "I feel like I've reached a tipping point where I'm as known for something else."

Tennant stars as the grizzled detective — Scotsman Alec Hardy and American Emmett Carver — in both versions of the show.

"I just felt like [it was] too unusual an opportunity to turn down," Tennant says. "It's such a great story ... I thought, well, I'm not going to miss the opportunity to tell that story to a lot of people who haven't heard it yet. ... It was an exciting challenge to try and recreate something but with a new set of circumstances."


Interview Highlights

On the differences between the Scottish detective and the American detective

I didn't set out to be self-consciously different about it. You know, I think you can only ever do whatever the script supports. I think it would be self-indulgent to go, "Oh, I'm going to make this character different by giving him a quirk of some kind." I don't think that serves the story, particularly. But even very similar scenes with a different set of actors, a different set of circumstances, it starts to evolve as a different character. And the very fact of how you speak somehow influences who you are. The way you move, the way you think, it seeps into your being, and it's quite hard to really break that down entirely. But I'm certainly aware that they feel like very different characters in my head.

On trying to get all the dialect issues out of the way first

You do your homework, hopefully, before you get there. And by the time you get on set, if you're doing a different accent — whatever it may be, whether it's American or even a different British dialect ... then you kind of want to get that out of the way so that it's sort of in your bones by the time you're on set. The last thing you want to be fretting about in the midst of everything else is a particular vowel sound. You want to work on that and practice that so that that's just not something you're thinking about. You're just trying to do the scene to the best of your ability.

On his father-in-law, Peter Davison, who played a prior doctor on Doctor Who, and inspired Tennant to become an actor

Watching my now father-in-law as a young boy was a huge influence on me. It's very peculiar the way that particular part of my life was worked out, but he happened to have a rather wonderful daughter, so there you go!

... All roads seem to have come back to Doctor Who in our life. But, no, it was a huge part of my growing up. I was a massive fan and it certainly inspired me to get into acting and to be ... one of those people that tells stories on TV. That was a huge part of my childhood.

On his father, a Presbyterian minister, and the similarities between performing and preaching

He's retired, but he still, you know, he still does the odd guest preaching spot here and there. ...There's a huge element of performance in being a minister in the church, absolutely. And he's often talked to me about how — if life had been slightly different for him and perhaps the circumstances of when and where he grew up had been different — then acting is something that might have tempted him. But his performing skills went in a slightly different direction.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

David Tennant starred in a British TV series as a grizzled detective named Alec Hardy. He was investigating the death of a child in the English seaside town of Broadchurch. That was the name of the series. It ran here on BBC America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BROADCHURCH")

DAVID TENNANT: (As Alec Hardy) The boat that was burned, that has Danny's DNA on it, was your brother's?

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Ellie Miller) Yeah. It was just left, just off the beach, with the motor chained to it. I mean, anyone could have taken it, just use bolt cutters.

TENNANT: (As Alec Hardy) Who knew it was there?

COLMAN: (As Ellie Miller) Well, everyone did. It wasn't a secret.

TENNANT: (As Alec Hardy) Your son Tom, did he know?

COLMAN: (As Ellie Miller) Yeah. Why?

TENNANT: (As Alec Hardy) Did Danny?

COLMAN: (As Ellie Miller) I don't know.

SIEGEL: Well, this fall, there is an American adaptation of "Broadchurch" on Fox. It's called "Gracepoint," the name of a fictional seaside town in California. And the detective in this show is named Emmett Carver.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GRACEPOINT")

TENNANT: (As Emmett Carver) The boat that was burned, with Danny's DNA, was your brother in-laws?

VIRGINIA KULL: (As Beth Solano) It was left on shore. It was chained to a post. Anyone with bolt cutters could have...

TENNANT: (As Emmett Carver) Who knew it was there?

KULL: (As Beth Solano) Owen, my sister, anyone else who keeps a boat there.

TENNANT: (As Emmett Carver) Did Danny know?

KULL: (As Beth Solano) I'm not sure.

SIEGEL: As you can hear, this is not what you'd call a loose adaptation of a British series. There are differences, but here's the most interesting similarity: the British detective, Alec Hardy...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BROADCHURCH")

TENNANT: (As Alec Hardy) The crime rate in this area is one of the lowest in the country. And this is a terrible anomaly.

SIEGEL: And the California detective Emmett Carver...

TENNANT: (As Emmett Carver) The crime rate here is one of the lowest in the state. This is a terrible, uncharacteristic crime.

SIEGEL: Both of them, the Scotsman and the American, are played by the same actor, David Tennant, who joins us from NPR West. Hi, welcome to the program.

TENNANT: Hi. That was an interesting comparison there.

SIEGEL: There you are.

TENNANT: I've not had that done before. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Now, how is it - explain this - how, when this show crossed the ocean and morphed into an American story, you managed to cross with it and morph into an American?

TENNANT: Well, clearly by losing the word anomaly. I hadn't realized that wasn't deemed suitable for an American audience.

SIEGEL: Evidently not on a vocabulary list of American television shows.

TENNANT: Yeah. Well, you know, it just felt like too unusual an opportunity to turn down. It's such a great story. And it was such an extraordinary sort of moment in the public consciousness when "Broadchurch" transmitted on the ITV Network, and it just became such a thing. You know, it was - that I thought, well, I'm not going to miss the opportunity to tell that story to a lot of people who haven't heard it yet because it's a great one.

SIEGEL: But nearly the rest of the American cast is American.

TENNANT: Yeah, yeah.

SIEGEL: And you are, well, to those who haven't seen you elsewhere, you're a very convincing American. But did you try out for the part? Was it offered to you?

TENNANT: No, it was offered to me. It just sort of - I came along with the executive producer, I guess, from the British end, you know. And I was very happy to do so. It was an exciting challenge to try and re-create something but with a new set of circumstances.

SIEGEL: You can drop the Scottish accent now if you'd like.

TENNANT: I will soon.

SIEGEL: If you feel more comfortable, whatever you would like to do. Apart from dealing just with dialect, are there other differences between a Scotsman and an American that you find yourself...

TENNANT: Yes. They sort of merge. I mean, I didn't set out to be self-consciously different about it. You know, I think you can only ever do whatever the script supports. I think it would be self-indulgent to go, oh, I'm going to make this character different by giving him a quirk of some kind. I don't think that serves the story particularly.

But even very similar scenes with a different set of actors, a different set of circumstances, it starts to evolve as a different character. And the very fact of how you speak somehow influences who you are. The way you move, the way you think, it seeps into your being. And it's quite hard to really break that down entirely. I'm certainly aware that they feel like very different characters in my head.

SIEGEL: In the course of doing this, have there been shots when some American on set - the director, I assume - would say, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. David, you're being too much of a Scotsman right now. Get more American.

TENNANT: I don't think there were. I think, you know...

SIEGEL: Never?

TENNANT: You know, you do your homework hopefully before you get there. And by the time you get on set, if you're doing a different accent - whatever it may be, whether it's American or even a different British dialect, which, you know, I've done several of them - then you kind of want to get that out of the way so that it's sort of in your bones by the time you're on set.

The last thing you want to be fretting about in the midst of everything else is a particular vowel sound. You want to work on that and practice that so that that's - that's just not something you're thinking about. You're just trying to do the scene to the best of your ability, I suppose.

SIEGEL: And what you said was very interesting that once you get the language down, once you get the dialect down, that kind of, sort of drags you into other ways of acting like - of acting American.

TENNANT: Yeah. It does, I think. Yeah. I almost don't want to deconstruct it too much...

SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah.

TENNANT: ...Because it's something of the instinctive, which is what you're always chasing. I'm always nervous of prodding instincts too much in case they fall apart.

SIEGEL: This is your American TV debut?

TENNANT: I guess so. Yeah. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Now I suspect that at the mention of your name, David Tennant, our listeners were divided into two groups - the ones you said who? And the ones who said "Doctor Who?"

TENNANT: Ah. There you go. Yes.

SIEGEL: You played the doctor.

TENNANT: I did.

SIEGEL: Your father-in-law, Peter Davison, was a prior doctor on "Doctor Who." And I've read that watching "Doctor Who" was what inspired you to want to become an actor.

TENNANT: It certainly did. Yeah. No. Indeed, watching my now father-in-law as a young boy was a huge influence on me. It's very peculiar the way that particular part of my life has worked out. But he happened to have a rather wonderful daughter, so there you go.

SIEGEL: This is more than a passing relationship with a television show that you have.

TENNANT: (Laughing) I know. Our life - the whole road seemed to come back to "Doctor Who" in our life. But, no, it was a huge part of my growing up. I was a massive fan. And it certainly inspired me to get into acting and to be the guy that one of those people that tells stories on the TV. That was a huge part of my childhood.

SIEGEL: I've read that you were inspired by "Doctor Who" at the age of 3 or 4?

TENNANT: Yeah. I was 3 or 4. Yeah.

SIEGEL: (Laughing) I've also read that your father was a Presbyterian minister.

TENNANT: Well, he still is.

SIEGEL: Still is.

TENNANT: And he's retired. But he's still, you know, he still does the old guest preaching spot here and there. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Did you think of yourself as becoming just another performer who, you know, as he spoke from the pulpit, you would...

TENNANT: Oh, yes. They're very similar. He would be the first to admit that. There's a huge element of performance in being a minister in the church, absolutely. And he's often talked to me about how if life had been slightly different for him and perhaps the circumstances of when and where he grew up had been slightly different, acting is something that might have tempted him. But his performing skills went in a slightly different direction.

SIEGEL: Is there something liberating now about being on American television where people watch "Gracepoint" and say, you know, this guy, David Tennant, he's actually a Scott as opposed to everyone saying it's "Doctor Who." You know, it's the doctor doing something else.

TENNANT: Yeah. Well, I mean, the thing is "Doctor Who" is - it's a huge privilege to be involved in something that evokes such enthusiasm. But you're aware when you take it on that the first line of the obituary may have been written. You know, it has that kind of reach. It evokes that kind of level of attention. But it's been lovely to be involved in "Broadchurch" and now "Gracepoint" and find that it gets almost an equal amount of attention. And that - I feel like I'm at -reached a tipping point where I'm as known for something else as "Doctor Who." Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, David Tennant, thank you very much for talking with us about your transformation and for keeping up that Scottish accent all this time.

TENNANT: I know. I've done quite well. I don't think I fluctuated once.

SIEGEL: Thank you so much.

TENNANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.