My interview with Matt Smith is – not that you care – the first I have done in person since the walls came down in the spring of 2020.
“Really? For The Irish Times?” Smith says, doing a good impersonation of sounding honoured. “Great. Well, I’ll take that.”
What better place to re-enter the fray than the Venice Film Festival? We are in the Excelsior Hotel on the seaward side of the Lido. It is not actually the hotel outside which Dirk Bogarde expired in Death in Venice, but the view from our window is more or less the same. White sand leads down to an azure Adriatic. Are those beach huts abutting the hotel grounds?
“This is great. Isn’t it?” Smith raves as we gape at the bathers. “Being in Venice is mad. And it’s hard to believe that it is still standing. It’s on stilts, man.”
Anyway, Smith, former doctor from Doctor Who, former Duke of Edinburgh from The Crown, is currently bouncing merrily after the well-received premiere of Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho. He plays a dodgy character in a referential shocker that strives for less comedy than previous Wright films such as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. Set largely in the eponymous quarter of London's West End during the 1960s, the film nods to contemporaneous horrors from Amicus Productions. Featuring a good late turn from Terence Stamp, there is a proper seediness to Last Night in Soho.
“I like his movies because they feel like great Radiohead albums,” he says of Wright. “They’re all slightly different. They all live in their own genre.”
I like that the film is as keen on de-romanticising as it is on celebrating the era. Sending contemporary art student Thomasin McKenzie back in time, Last Night in Soho can’t help but revel in the mottled glamour, but it is also alive to the casual abuse of women and the indifferently policed brutality of the streets. This is not Austin Powers.
“I think that’s very true,” he says. “My character lends himself to that in particular. I’ve been doing interviews with the Italian press and they have been saying ‘it’s dangerous to be nostalgic’. I don’t know. I’m probably quite a nostalgic person. I mean… what do you remember of the 60s?”
I don’t know quite how to take that. I splutter something to the effect of “not much”. Funnily enough, I was born in the week BBC’s Doctor Who first broadcast.
"Get off. So that was 1963," he says. "So, you don't really remember that much about it, but you probably do remember a lot of the guys who came out of it. Culture. Fashion. Music. There are a lot of actors I love who came from that. Terence, for example. Great to talk to him. Michael Caine. I think I do glamorise it."
Does the world feel that bit more regimented now? I’m sure the 38-year-old Smith doesn’t want to throw televisions out of hotel windows, but we can’t help but smile when we hear stories of 1960s excess.
“Oh, I know exactly what you mean. Or be able to just travel round in a blimp? Ha, ha! Or just smoke everywhere? Or park in London and not have to type something into your phone? These are the things I romanticise about.”
As you may have gathered, Smith could hardly be more chatty. Gangly and chiselled, he leans into the conversation like a batsman getting on to the front foot. I can detect no hint of a Northamptonshire accent – he sounds pretty much as he did on Doctor Who – but that is, indeed, where he grew up. Legend has it he was on track to becoming a professional footballer; he was captain of Leicester City’s youth team before a back injury laid him low.
“Yeah. It was something I enjoyed to do. And obviously, in a different life, I may have been a footballer.”
Does he ever think about that?
“All the time. I’m an avid football fan. I watch football every weekend. From Friday night to Monday evening. A lot of my weekend sorts of oscillates around football. I had a back injury. Look, you need a bit of luck in life.”
Like a lot of British talent, he made his way into the business via the National Youth Theatre. That helped him get an agent and edged him on the road to sudden, jolting fame.
“I went for an audition at the Royal Court [in London] and then I did a play at the National [Theatre] and then spent a couple of years doing theatre. I did a few TV things, and then sort of got Doctor Who.”
Just like that.
Smith was, perhaps, the least well-known actor – and certainly the youngest – to take over the role since the series’ revival in 2005. But he made a success of it. Just 26, he turned the character into something of an action hero without shelving any of the eccentricity. He immediately found his every move listed on the front page of the tabloids and I wonder if anything can prepare you for that.
“No. I don’t think anything can prepare you for that,” he says of the overnight, arresting change that comes with that part. “For want of a better analogy, it’s a bit like being in [public] office. You’re the custodian of this 60-year-old part that appeals not only to granddad but to the five-year-old. Real family shows are hard to come by. That’s another reason it has lasted. It is cross-generational. So, nothing can really prepare you for what is required of you or prepare you for being so present in popular culture.”
Unlike many, more formal offices, the title of Doctor Who does not come with a term limit. Serving from 2009 until 2013, he stayed long enough to create an independent identity, but not so long that the performance hardened into a schtick. That must have been a difficult decision.
“If you look at the people that play that part, they are generally there for three or four years, because the workload is so gargantuan. The line-learning and the everydayness of it. I think you run out of steam for one thing. I think you need a break physically and mentally from it. But also, I felt with any long-running part you’re at risk of caricaturing the thing you started out doing. I didn’t want that to be the case. And I wanted to leave them wanting more.”
He walked straight out of an elderly TV institution and (almost) straight into a freshly-minted one. Few anticipated that The Crown would have quite such resonance when it wafted out of Netflix on staggering waves of cash in late 2016. Didn’t everyone know the story of the British royal family? Was it right to tackle the drama when so many of the characters were still alive? I can imagine Smith having understandable reservations about playing Prince Philip.
“Look, the writing was so good on The Crown,” he says. “And the people involved were clearly wonderful film-makers. What really drew me to it was the misconception of Philip as this doddering idiot. The more I looked at it, I found him to be really progressive and cool. He was someone on the other side of the law almost. I liked that about him. He had the courage of his convictions. There was a sense of ‘f*** the establishment’ about him. I knew it was really good.”
There was a time when actors got hemmed in by roles such as Doctor Who or James Bond. That doesn't happen so much now. Daniel Craig gets to play Macbeth on Broadway. Peter Capaldi gets to be in The Suicide Squad. Smith has barely paused since leaving the Tardis. He played the lead in American Psycho on stage. He was in the magnificent British horror film His House and he will shortly appear as Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon, HBO's Game of Thrones prequel.
In another era, he might have felt the need to move to Los Angeles to maintain a career. But actors can manage from anywhere now.
“Yeah, I’ve been tempted by New York,” he says. “I would quite like to live in Berlin. It’s tricky as an actor. There are a lot of cities I’d like to go live in. I’d love to live on the Amalfi coast in a dream version of my life. But somehow London has always remained a magnet. I’d love to drive from Galway down that west Atlantic coast. I’ve never done that.”
It is surely all before him. And roles galore. If he’d stuck with the football his career would be coming to an end now.
“Yes, I do think about that,” he says. “The great thing about being an actor is that you can do it when you are old and doddery.”
Last Night in Soho is released on October 29th