Matt Smith is wearing bright turquoise socks. The 30-year-old star of Doctor Who is lolling around on a leather couch deep within the cavernous confines of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, a day before he’s set to appear on a panel celebrating the 50th anniversary of the British science fiction drama at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
When I draw attention to his socks (they coincidentally match the shirt I’m wearing), Smith proudly draws up his trouser leg to take a closer look. “They’re a similar color to your shirt!” he says, enthusiastically in a fashion not unlike the Doctor himself. “I always steal a pair of socks on every photo shoot I do.” He pauses. “It’s my thing.”
Smith looks drastically different from his on-screen persona as the Doctor, having transformed himself to play a tough guy in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, How to Catch a Monster, which will be Smith’s first appearance after he wraps up his tenure on Doctor Who later this year. There’s the 50th anniversary special airing Nov. 23 (on BBC One in the U.K. and BBC America in the U.S.) and then the Christmas Special, where the Doctor will regenerate into… Well, who knows who he’ll become yet? Neither Smith nor executive producer Steven Moffat are giving us any clues about which actor (or actress?) might step into the role and play Number Twelve. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation between Smith and BuzzFeed.
How liberating is it to leave behind that Doctor Who coif and the bowties?
Matt Smith: I’ve got to be honest, it is quite liberating. Although I’m putting Miracle-Gro on it because I need to get it back for September to go and shoot the regeneration [scene]. But it is freeing, shaving it off. Walking round at Comic-Con, people didn’t recognize me as much. Just generally, people recognize me much less, and that’s quite nice as well, because you can be more anonymous.
It helps when you’re walking around Comic-Con wearing a Bart Simpson mask. Was that surreal, walking around surrounded by some of your biggest fans?
MS: I went up to the BBC America booth and I tried to talk to people, but I put on an American accent. I was like, “Hey, how’s it going, man? I like your TARDIS thing,” and whatever and no one wanted to talk to me! There was one girl in particular who had a backpack on with Tom Baker-y straps like a scarf. And I was really trying to talk to her and she was just not interested.
At what point did you know that it was time to move on from Doctor Who?
MS: It’s something that I was considering for a while. It’s one of those jobs where there’s never a right time, because part of you just wants to do it forever. It’s such wonderful storytelling and it’s the most wonderful character and it’s the most wonderful cast and crew, and so much about it is right. I think you have to keep challenging yourself and keep challenging the show. For the show, it’s the right time and it will re-galvanize it. The show will get bigger and better, and I’ll become a fan and look back on my time and just go, “I’ve had the most wonderful journey.”
What was the conversation like that you had with Steven Moffat about your decision?
MS: To be honest with you, it’s, that’s something that I’d like to keep private, because it’s a private conversation and Steven is a dear friend of mine. It was something that we talked about a while ago as well, in rough terms. In my head I just knew that, after the 50th anniversary, I’d look at retiring the bow tie, as it were.
But Steven was supportive, I imagine.
MS: Yeah, yeah, he was. But obviously as well, it’s one of those things. It wasn’t easy for both of us because we’ve worked together for three years, and creatively and personally, we’re close. Part of me would have liked to have continued and finished the journey with him, but also, for me, I just felt like it was time for a change of lifestyle.
When we spoke way back in 2010 shortly after you joined the show, you described playing the Doctor as playing Hamlet: “I can’t think of any other part, in world television, where a 60-year-old and a 27-year-old can play the same man. It’s because the spirit of the man is the same. It’s a bit like playing Hamlet, in a way… It’s limitless, really.” Do you see it differently now?
MS: No, I still see it that way. Look over there [he points at a series of posters of Doctor Who, Broadchurch, and An Adventure in Space and Time, there’s William Hartnell, there’s two Doctors — well, it’s actually Dave [Bradley] who looks so like William Hartnell. That’s the same character and then in the middle of it there’s another Doctor [David Tennant] and we’re completely different looking men and ages, and yet we all get to play the same man. I think it allows you to be completely inventive with this character and be really bold. I liken it to Hamlet, because I believe that it’s about being really true and courageous with your own instincts and really individual with the part. I shall miss it terribly.
Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special is very much under wraps —
MS: Yes. Did you make it to Comic-Con? There was a trailer there.
Yes, that trailer will not go online, I hear.
MS: Do you know what? I’m so impressed with the guys in Hall H who came to the Doctor Who panel, because they haven’t put it online. And I think, good for you guys, that’s amazing. There’s a real sense of team spirit about Comic-Con and that just proves it. Seven thousand people in a room and not one of them has put it online. And I think, “Thank you. Thank you. Just really, thank you, guys over there on the internet and BuzzFeed. You can’t see me but I’m talking into the recording device as a personal thank you.”
What can you say about the special that won’t get you killed?
MS: It’s in 3-D. We’ve got David Tennant — Number Ten — and Johnny Hurt playing the Doctor, along with myself. We’ve got Rose Tyler [Billie Piper] and Jenna-Louise Coleman. I think Steven has managed to reveal something new about the character and the world the character is in. It’s longer than a normal episode. We’re aiming to release in cinemas both sides of the Atlantic. I really hope people enjoy it.
So expectations should be high?
MS: Why not? I think expectations of Doctor Who should always be high, because it’s a show that must always progress and get better and better.
We’ll get to see David Tennant’s Ten and Eleven working side by side. What was it like then, working with your predecessor?
MS: Dave! He’s fantastic. He’s a fabulous bloke. He’s a fabulous Doctor, and our Doctors really get on. Actually, on and off screen, me and him get on really well. He’s a real pro and a good man. I have a lot of time for David.
Obviously, David went through a similar situation a few years ago and did leave the role. Did he offer any advice on making a graceful exit?
MS: Yeah. We talked about leaving and when is the right time to leave and how his experience of leaving was. He was very open and very generous with me. We discussed it together. I was very intrigued to hear his take on it. I don’t know, I think maybe just take each day as it comes with it and say, “I’ve had a great time, and I’m not dead yet. I’ve got another month of shooting to come.”
But Trenzalore beckons.
MS: Trenzalore beckons, my friend. What’s amazing about Steven Moffat is he mentioned Trenzalore in Season 5. You think, “Wow, four years later!” He’s managing to reveal new things, yet thread plotlines through. I don’t know how anyone thinks that far ahead. He’s great at planting and paying off. I think that’s when Doctor Who is great — when the payoff is really strong, whether it’s with the Impossible Girl or you’re revealing how to defeat the Silence or whatever it may be.
We don’t know yet who the next Doctor is. Is Doctor Who ready for a female Doctor, do you think?
MS: Absolutely, it’s ready for a female Doctor. Why not, if she’s the right actress for the part, if she’s the most inventive, if she can do courage and madness and all the things that you need to be a Doctor? Yeah, why not? I don’t think gender should play an issue. I think we live in an age where why not? Why not?
I think Steven Moffat could come up with some explanation about why the Doctor regenerated as a woman.
MS: It might add something really interesting and a whole other dynamic. But I think they’ll just get the best actor for the part, man or woman. They’ll cast the best actor — the best actor who’s out there and wants to do it.
Looking back, was the fan and media scrutiny and intensity greater than you had imagined it would be going in?
MS: Yeah. Nothing could prepare you for that. Nothing can prepare you for the changes that take place in your life — for the changes, not only in my life, but my family’s. Nothing can prepare you for the enormity and the transition that you go through. It’s a really big change and a wonderful one. But I’ve traveled the world with Karen [Gillan] and Arthur [Darvill] and Jenna [Coleman]. I met some wonderful people. Just the general workload and learning lines, it takes over your whole life. That’s another reason it was time to go, because it’s nine months a year up in Cardiff. You promote it for a month to six weeks in different countries. It’s a great chunk of your life. I’m 30 now. I’ll be gray if I keep going.
Given that you are now 30, it seems somehow fitting that you’re moving into the next stage of your career.
MS: I hope so. Yeah. Who knows what that will be? As yet, unemployment.
You’re starting off though with Ryan Gosling’s film, How to Catch a Monster.
MS: That’s really great, actually. That was a wonderful experience. He’s a good man too. Creative. Inventive. Clever. I think he shot a really special film.
Was that film an opportunity to distance yourself creatively, in a way, from playing this character that you’ve become so closely associated with?
MS: It wasn’t a conscious effort to distance myself. I just got a part that was very different and off came the hair. But actually, that was really liberating creatively. Actually, the process of working was very different to the process of making Doctor Who. One is not better than the other, but it was just interesting to engage in a sort of different creative process. I really enjoyed it.
And it meant working with Christina Hendricks.
MS: She was amazing! She’s a great soul. I dig her.
You transformed for the role. Which begs the question: Who looks better bald or shaved? You or Karen Gillan?
MS: Oh, I think probably Karen, because she’s prettier than me. She’s completely bald and she’s all looking rather brilliant. I don’t know, really. Karen’s prettier, isn’t she? I think people would rather look at Karen’s face than mine.
You once said of the Doctor, “He’s not cynical. He’s open to every facet of the universe.” Has that rubbed off on you as well?
MS: Probably not as gracefully as it rubs off on the Doctor. I think we can all take a lesson from the Doc, you know. That’s what I would try and remind myself of. I think it’s important. That’s why I like kids. They taste and see things and experience things for the first time, and they’re not cynical about it. They don’t have the context to be cynical. It’s when we become teenagers and we become older, our cynicism becomes more apparent. And I think the doctor, even at 1,000, manages to remain uncynical.
He has that sense of childlike wonder that we lose as we age.
MS: And curiosity is so important in life. As a character, I think that’s one of the things I admire about him most, actually, is that he’s constantly curious.
You said at Comic-Con this past weekend, “You’ll forget about me.” Do you honestly think that?
MS: Well, I don’t know. Maybe. People haven’t forgotten about David [Tennant] and Chris [Eccleston] and [Tom] Baker and everyone. But perhaps. I think the show moves on and the generation of fans will watch whoever the next man or woman is doing it. They’ll engage with that Doctor. And my Doctor will be the one before, as it should be, and they will support him, as it should be. And I’ll do the same. I’ll turn into a fan and I’ll support him. I’ll get behind him and be on his side.
So the wheel keeps turning?
MS: The wheel keeps turning, my friend. T.S. Eliot got that right.
What do you hope is the legacy that you and Eleven leave behind?
MS: We made bow ties and tweed cool somehow, I hope! I tried my best and I really hope that people have enjoyed my incarnation of this brilliant character. I hope they’ve laughed on occasion. I hope they’ve been moved and I hope they’ve felt his courage. I just tried my best to be inventive and to engage as much with the fans as possible. One of the things I’m proudest of is the fact that, in America, it’s my tenure. I’ve really watched the show get bigger here in the three years, since I first met you. It has a slightly different presence at Comic-Con now than it did then. The [viewing] figures are slightly better. I’m really proud and I’m really grateful, actually, because everyone over here has made me so welcome. The fans here have really embraced the show and embraced me. I feel very grateful for the support that I’ve received over in the States. They’re cool too, because they just shout really loud. They’re like, “Waayy!” We all dig that.
Plus you’ve got that massive collection of fezzes now.
MS: And fezzes, yeah! I left behind fezzes. I’m proud of that too, because fezzes are just the coolest thing.
So, what’s next?
MS: Well, I don’t know. I’ve got to get a job. If J.J. [Abrams] or Steven or any of those guys want to put me in anything, I’m free and willing.