Doctor Who Breaks Bad: David Tennant Opens Up About His Terrifying ‘Jessica Jones’ Supervillain
The Tenth Doctor discusses his role as Kilgrave, the misogynistic baddie at the center of the addictive new Netflix series ‘Jessica Jones.’
The most sinister man to grace television screens this season rang me from wintry London, a decidedly chipper lilt in his voice. “It’s freezing here!” exclaimed David Tennant, with the same charismatic timbre that foretold doom for so many New Yorkers on Marvel’s binge-watch hit, Jessica Jones.
Tennant, the celebrated Tenth Doctor to step into the TARDIS on Brit sci-fi series Doctor Who, shocked fans with his deliciously evil turn this fall in Netflix and Marvel’s breakout hit. (If you haven’t caught up, beware of spoilers.) As the dapper supervillain known as Kilgrave, he put viewers and anti-heroine Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) through the ringer, wreaking havoc in Hell’s Kitchen with his unique curse of a gift—the ability to brainwash anyone unlucky enough to come into contact with him.
The Purple Man even had a twisted, Time Lord-esque directive in mind: All he wanted was for Jones to serve as his companion in love and mayhem, for-ev-er. Throughout Jessica Jones’ refreshingly dark and richly textured first season, the sociopathic Kilgrave was the most fascinating man on the Avengers-littered planet (arguably even the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date)—and one of its most dangerous minds.
More notably, his shared history with PTSD-suffering superwoman Jones allowed for one of the most complex cultural conversations about rape, consent, and trauma to ever unfold in pop entertainment.
“I think what Melissa [Rosenberg], our showrunner, did very cleverly and indeed carefully in the script was that she talked about things like consent and sexual power struggles and things like that, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do because they’re such sensitive and delicate issues to talk about,” Tennant told me. “To do that within the context of a superhero show is an extraordinary achievement. It allowed some very difficult topics to be discussed and unpacked in some really clever and unexpected ways.”
It’s safe to say nobody expected Jessica Jones to hit the rape issue as hard as it did, or that anyone could’ve predicted that two superhuman Marvel characters would ever discuss sexual and emotional abuse as openly and pointedly as Jessica Jones does with her abuser, Kilgrave, in the season’s latter half.
“And for it not to seem crass or ill-judged! If you told me about that before I read the script, I don’t think I would have believed it was possible,” praised Tennant. “It’s hugely bold to go there, really. And yet it’s so expertly done that it feels entirely appropriate.”
Many have applauded the fact that Jessica Jones is not only the first Marvel-filmed property to be fronted by a superheroine onscreen, it’s also got considerable female firepower behind the camera and on the page. Tennant praised the most estrogen-laced MCU offering to date.
“Most of the characters are female and three of them are gay, which doesn’t define their storyline. After the fact you sort of realize that we had a lot of female personnel, also behind the camera,” he said. “Obviously we want to get to a stage where we don’t notice and it doesn’t matter. But clearly it’s still, unfortunately, rare enough that women make up 50 percent of the cast and executive teams and that’s something we remark upon. But if that’s why it’s a good show, then clearly it’s something we need to do more of.”
Tennant had to spend much of the Jessica Jones press tour deflecting spoilery questions about Kilgrave (while catching up on episodes himself). Now he’s able to offer his deeper analysis of the character who, later episodes revealed, received powers he never asked for after his scientist parents made him their guinea pig.
“His world has been so corrupted and damaged by this extraordinary ability that has been foisted upon him that he doesn’t understand the world from any kind of moral high ground,” he explained. “He genuinely doesn’t have an understanding of empathy. He has no way of having a properly calibrated human relationship.”
Kilgrave clearly doesn’t see himself as a rapist, or even a villain. But to play that self-justified sociopathy, Tennant said, required him to understand that the character’s actions were yet “reprehensible and unforgiveable.”
“You have to try and picture what it would be to exist in a bubble of acquiescence—and what that would do to your understanding of the people around you,” said Tennant. “I think when Jessica accuses him of raping her, he’s genuinely confused. Because of course, in his world, people do what he wants them to do. How could he understand that they’re suffering within that? I had to try and see the world from his point of view, however skewed and damaged that point of view may be.”
I ask if he sees similarities between an expert manipulator like Kilgrave and the ones we see in real life, or on our television screens during election years. In other versions of Marvel comics and animation Kilgrave uses his mind control powers to attempt world takeovers and—in a limited series penned by Neil Gaiman—becomes President-For-Life of a dystopian America. It was the first Tennant had heard of Marvel 1602, but he applauded the concept. “That’s a great storyline,” he said. “Chilling. We’re nearly there.” He considered the current U.S. Presidential race through a Kilgravian lens.
“It seems grotesque to apply the word ‘expert’ to Donald Trump, although clearly he’s doing something right,” Tennant laughed. “Let’s hope he’s finally gone too far and it’s all over. People can apparently say the most appalling things and get away with it and go from success to success in terms of their poll numbers. It seems like he might have gone too far, but I feel like we’ve said that a few times over the last few months, and it’s only gone the other way.“
“It’s happened a little bit in the UK too,” he continued, pointing out UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, the controversial Brit politician. But even Farage called Trump’s recent comments urging the ban of Muslim immigrants going “too far.” “Clearly people are attracted to that kind of plain-speaking, tell it like it is politician who often seems to trade on people’s fear rather than people’s hopes. They talk about building a better country but their building blocks are about making us afraid and wanting to close ourselves down.“
“I wish I could do an actual bit of Kilgraving and sort some of these people out,” he said.
Tennant avoids social media, so he missed the flurry of tweets when Jessica Jones premiered last month, including a rash of reactions from fans coming to terms with the fact that the vile Kilgrave looks just like their beloved Tenth Doctor. “Watching #JessicaJones is ruining David Tennant’s run on #DoctorWho for me,” tweeted @WordsoftheJay. “Suddenly I’m seeing them less as companions and more as hostages.”
“Doctor Who fans tend to be very intelligent, and I’m sure they have no difficulty separating the fact from the fiction and the actor from the role. But they’re also very witty, clearly!” he said appreciatively after I read him a few choice tweets. “If I had to be stuck in a social media universe I’d like to be stuck with those Doctor Who fans, because they have the funniest things to say.”
Tennant also put one popular Doctor Who-Jessica Jones rumor to bed, denying the theory that there’s a nod to the actor’s most famous role embedded in episode 8, “AKA WWJD.” In it, Jones admonishes Kilgrave as he complains over his childhood: “You’re not ten anymore.”
Alas, Tennant gently denied the would-be Easter Egg. “Oh, no! No, no, no. That would be a very in-joke, wouldn’t it? It hadn’t occurred to me! That would be peculiar, I think. But it could be the writers were putting something in that I wasn’t aware of, but I feel that would be far too… meta.”
One perk of the Jessica Jones job, he said, was getting hooked up with Marvel comics by the armful. “I’m getting up to speed again on all the very latest developments, which are very exciting,” he said. Would he consider it… homework, I asked? Perhaps for future reference?
He paused. “I think ‘homework’ would make it sound like I wasn’t enjoying it,” he said. Tennant, who’s currently rehearsing to play the eponymous king this January in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II, is also set to return to his BAFTA-winning series Broadchurch and is eyeing his next film role. He played coy on the wild possibility that Kilgrave might ever pop up again in the MCU.
“The Marvel universe, like any fantasy universe, can do whatever it likes. Kilgrave’s end in Jessica Jones is pretty final. I’m certainly not fielding calls from Marvel at the moment. But yeah, I think those may occur in the future,” he teased. “I mean, you would be foolish to rule anything out...”