Former ‘Doctor Who’ David Tennant’s Latest Regeneration: A Punk-Rock Demon in ‘Good Omens’
Talking God, fame, and destiny with ‘The Best Doctor Ever,’ currently shapeshifting again in Amazon’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Good Omens.’
Few stories in showbiz lore are as perfect, and therefore perhaps as suspect, as the one about how David Tennant got his start as an actor. But as he retells it, smirking that just-right amount of Scottish charm as he lithely gesticulates from an armchair in a Manhattan hotel room, you can’t help but buy the whole thing, hook, line, and sinker.
Besides, everyone loves a good story. And, as anyone who has followed Tennant’s rocket-launch trajectory from Shakespearean player to star of Doctor Who and, now, lead of Amazon’s ambitious Good Omens, almost nobody is better at telling one than David Tennant.
The 48-year-old actor, in New York for a bout of Good Omens press—the series launched May 31—smiles with wistfulness as he begins.
He was 3 years old living in Scotland when, after seeing an episode of Doctor Who, he told his parents he wanted to become an actor.
“I remember vividly John Pertwee turning into Tom Baker,” he says, referencing the event in the long-running British sci-fi series in which the Doctor regenerates into a new physical form after an event that would normally result in death. There have been 13 Doctors since the series’ 1963 launch. Currently, the role is played by Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to do so.
“I know it was 1974 when that happened, which is when I was 3,” he says. “I was watching and that led to conversations with my parents about what actors were, and the idea that they were pretending to be these people to tell you stories. At a very young age, I knew that I got the concept of that, and obviously got sort of intoxicated by the notion of it.”
Conversation with Tennant is a bit intoxicating itself. He has a rapid, stutter-start way of speaking that is both gregarious and still somehow soothing, a kind of quintessential British charm. He remembers how he began acting in local productions and taking classes at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He quickly earned a sterling reputation in British theater, which led to an upstart television career.
In 2005, after more than a 15-year hiatus, Doctor Who returned to TV with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. For the second series, Eccleston regenerated into Tennant, who had been cast as the historic Tenth Doctor.
“I had grown up as a massive fan of that show,” Tennant says. “I mean, that was my hobby, my obsession. And then of course it wasn't on TV for many years. Even though I was still pursuing acting, partly inspired by watching Doctor Who as a kid, it wasn't on TV anymore. By that time, I was interested in theater and Shakespeare. And then weirdly after I became an actor, Doctor Who came back and suddenly out of the blue it became something that I was involved in.”
It was closure that no one had expected. “The circle was made,” he says. “It was a quite surreal but very joyous experience for all of us.”
Hearing the story again is fitting, as origin stories are of utmost importance given the occasion we’re meeting: To discuss the beginning and, maybe more specifically, the end of the world.
A survey of Tennant’s acting career is, much like Doctor Who, a conversation about regenerations. This time, the transformation is into Crowley, a demon who has lived on Earth since the dawn of creation.
The Amazon limited series Good Omens is based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s wildly popular 1990 novel about Crowley and an angel named Aziraphale (played here by Michael Sheen). The Antichrist is coming and, with him, Armageddon. Having grown quite accustomed to their life on Earth, Crowley and Aziraphale, despite their opposing moral compasses, team up to attempt to prevent it.
In the book, which takes place in 1990, Crowley is described as a sort of American Psycho/Patrick Bateman type, with tailored suits and slicked-back hair. For the series’ 2019 modern setting, the look is reimagined: A ginger fauxhawk, punk jackets over black v-necks, John Lennon-inspired sunglasses, and a Jim Morrison swagger. Juxtaposed against this is Sheen’s Aziraphale, prim and mannered in a fussy all-white tuxedo.
For all the themes of religion, morality, and the apocalypse, Good Omens is at its heart a buddy comedy—and Tennant’s first opportunity to do one, at that. Tennant and Sheen are perfectly matched, to the extent that you could even imagine them easily swapping roles to just as entertaining effect. It’s actually the first time the journeyman actors have worked together.
“We’re so sort of similar in terms of a casting bracket that usually they take one or the other of us in a show rather than both of us together,” Tennant says. “So we could have been cast either way around. We joke about that with theater, how when we’re in our seventies we’ll do a play and alternate parts every night.”
Good Omens is the second splashy recent adaptation of one of Neil Gaiman’s works, following American Gods in 2017. The series share some DNA, from ambitious, dazzling visuals to a precarious balance of irreverence towards Christianity and religion and an astute dissection of its morality and structure.
That’s something that fascinated Tennant when he was offered the role, but it’s perhaps something that fascinates reporters more, given Tennant’s upbringing. His father was a minister.
“It’s one of those things, isn’t it, that whatever your reality is seems utterly normal to you,” he says. “It didn't feel like we had a particularly different life to anyone else. My dad's version of religion was very much a sort of humanitarian, practical, moral one. And I feel like if it left me with anything, it was with a very clear sense of morality rather than religiosity. And I'm very grateful for that.”
As for how Good Omens handles religion, its surreality shouldn’t be confused with blasphemy.
“Considering its subject matter, one might imagine it would be quite controversial,” he says. “But actually, I think it's not particularly against the tropes of a Christian, religious upbringing. It's quite on message really. The bad guys are the bad guys and the good guys the good guys.”
Prior to the show’s premiere, he was more nervous about the book's fans. A base of them has been waiting 30 years for this adaptation, and many have a clear idea of what they want from it. It’s exciting, but it’s also dangerous.
But this is also someone who has tackled Romeo, Hamlet, the Doctor, and, heck, even Scrooge McDuck. The pressure is “something to get over and get on with,” he says.
The thing is, globally, Tennant may be one of the most popular actors working today, if not one of the most recognizable—and certainly among the most prolific.
There’s no underselling what it means for an actor to be voted “The Best Doctor Ever,” probably because there’s no apt comparison to the show’s status as a global cultural phenomenon. And then to follow that up as the lead in Broadchurch, one of the ITV channel’s most celebrated dramas of the last decade, and then to simultaneously appear as the villain on Netflix’s buzzy first season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones between Broadchurch’s second and third series.
In fact, he has over 120 iMDB credits stretching back the last three decades. There’s Shakespeare—he played Hamlet in a TV version of his award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company turn—Harry Potter—he played antagonistic Barty Crouch in Goblet of Fire—and literally Casanova in Casanova.
It’s a kind of shapeshifting that American actors who portray a character as iconic as the Doctor aren’t typically allowed to even attempt, making Tennant’s profile on this side of the pond a slower burn, if still one that was always inevitable.
The rise of geek culture coinciding with the ease of the internet has meant an explosion in the popularity of Doctor Who and Broadchurch stateside, especially with the streaming boom. And Tennant’s relentless work schedule never slowed, scoring him stateside recognition in the indie comedy world—he costarred in Lena Dunham’s Camping—with kids—he’s the voice of Scrooge McDuck in the Duck Tales reboot—and, now, with Good Omens and the very specific kind of fan pandemonium an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman property can inspire.
It’s been six years since Tennant last appeared as the Doctor in the 2013 50th anniversary special, and a decade since his last regular appearance, when he was replaced by Matt Smith. And that’s not to mention, oh, about 45 years since a toddler’s time in front of the telly launched a dream. Without a TARDIS of his own, it’s difficult for Tennant to articulate what his original expectations were for how the role would change his life, and how the experience matched up with them. But he gamely tries.
“I was aware enough that certainly in the U.K. at the time, that being associated with that show would sort of live with you sort of forever,” he says. “I was aware that I was surrendering anonymity to some degree. But beyond that, you don't really know. You don't know if it'll work out. You don't know if the show will keep running. You don't know that it will end up having an international profile, that it now seems to have.”
When you’re living through it, it’s hard to be objective. But its influence is such—few series that have aired in any country, let alone one for this long, have been so beloved—that he knows he’ll never shed it from his identity, nor would he want to. “It’s a very easy thing to be known for because people feel benevolently towards it, you know? It certainly creates more opportunities than it prevents.”
Plus, it helps to have a developed a certain talent for regeneration.