Based on New York Times best-selling author Alan Furst’s acclaimed novel, the mini-series Spies of Warsaw (airing April 3rd and April 10th on BBC America) tells the story of military attaché Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier (David Tennant), a decorated hero of the 1914 war. While he is being drawn into a world of abduction, betrayal and intrigue in Warsaw, he finds himself in a passionate love affair with Anna (Janet Montgomery), a Parisian lawyer for the League of Nations.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor David Tennant talked about what attracted him to this project, what the experience of shooting in Poland was like, dream roles that he’d love to do, how he’d love to be a part of a big comic book movie, what it’s like to interact with Doctor Who fans, what it means to him to have been a part of the Harry Potter franchise, whether he was ever really in talks for The Hobbit, which props he’s taken home, why he wasn’t a part of the London Olympics opening ceremony, and how he’d love to do a project with Aaron Sorkin. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DAVID TENNANT: That was certainly the very fortunate situation with this, yeah. It just came out of the blue, really. I’d worked with Richard Fell, the producer, before. And I’d worked with Coky Giedroyc, the director, before. So, it just arrived with both their names attached, which meant I was obviously going to have a look at it because I knew and trusted them. And then, it had Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais as writers, who are television legends. So, I thought I should probably give it a fairly serious read. It just seemed like something that would be great to do, unlike anything I’d done before, and unlike anything that I had seen being made on television recently. It seemed, in the best possible sense, quite old-fashioned, and like something from a different era. It was quite noir, and a good, old-fashioned movie. It’s got a very strong narrative, but told in this very particular world with all these extraordinary characters who come in and out of it. I just read the script and pretty much said, “Yes!,” straight away. It was pretty straight-forward.
What can you say about how your character fits into this world and the story you’re telling?
TENNANT: Well, Jean-Francois Mercier is the French military attaché to Warsaw, in the late 1930s. He’s part of that diplomatic world, in and out of the French embassy in Warsaw. But, he’s also got a clandestine life. He’s a career soldier, so he’s been used by his Paris bosses to learn what might be going on. Europe is a bit of a melting pot, at that time. Poland is right in the middle, between Germany and Russia. As tensions accelerate, there’s a lot of intelligence to be gathered, so Mercier does a fair bit of snooping around and finding out what’s going on. Very quickly, in our story, he uncovers some evidence that the Germans are planning to invade, in the very near future, and not just Poland, but France. And he takes that back to his Paris masters, to be met with no small sense of incredulity.
What’s very appealing about this story is that it’s fiction, but it’s set very much within the historical fact of the time. The whole idea that Hitler wasn’t as bad as he turned out to be was a very popular idea, at the time, in France, in Britain and elsewhere. There was no appetite for a war. The First World War was within loving memory. People did not want to be getting involved in another protracted, bloody, difficult war, so you can understand that there would be a tendency to believe that Hitler was not quite as bad as he might be. A lot of the true horror of what was going on didn’t come out until much later, anyway. But, Mercier finds himself on the side of believing that war was not only inevitable, but must be faced head-on. He finds that that’s a minority opinion amongst his French superiors. It’s a story of his sense of duty coming up against his sense of what’s right and what needs to be done, but it’s also a love story. He falls in love with Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery), who he meets in Poland, and it’s about them getting together through all that’s going on in Europe, at the time. It’s a good, old-fashioned spy story. It’s set in this incredibly rich time. It’s a world you can really immerse yourself in, and that gives a wonderful setting for this story. And it’s just a really good story. It’s a good, strong tale to tell. Without that, there is no drama.
Is this type of intelligent, complex, compelling story something that you’re typically drawn to yourself?
TENNANT: I suppose so. What I’m drawn to is just a script that takes off and that, when you read it, it has an imaginative life in your own head. When you first read a script is the purest moment. That’s when you can understand how an audience will ultimately receive it. The first reading of the script is so important because you’re experiencing it all for the first time, and it’s then that you really know if it’s going to work or not. After that, when you read it, you’re subsequently having an opinion. But, if you read it for the first time, fresh out of the envelope, and it excites you and/or moves you and/or inspires you, then that’s a pretty safe be that the end product will do that to an audience.
What was the experience of shooting this in Poland like? Did you get to spend any time for yourself there?
TENNANT: It was pretty hectic. I got to see it a bit. We were very lucky to film all over Warsaw, and beyond, so I got to experience the city through that, really. It’s an incredible place. The old town is the most extraordinary time bubble because it was rebuilt, brick by brick, by a nation that was desperate to show their strength after the city was completely flattened in the Second World War. The very act of rebuilding the old town was an exhibition of strength and fortitude. But, what you’ve got from a filming point of view are streets that looked exactly as they did, 100 years ago, without modern signs or road markings. It’s a perfect location to shoot something. So, it was great. We had a great time. It was an almost entirely local Polish crew who were incredibly talented and great to work with. It was fantastic!
Is there a dream role that you’d love to do, whether it’s on stage, in film or on TV?
TENNANT: I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve managed to tick off a few of my dream roles, really. Beyond that, you wait for the next script to come in that will have the dream role that you don’t know exists yet, I suppose. There’s a few. I’ve done a few of the big Shakespeare plays, but there’s a few of them I’d still like to tick off. Beyond that, I suppose there are parts you don’t know are out there until you read them. I just like doing different stuff.
Since the movies have become so popular, are there any comic book characters you’d love to play in one of those big comic book movies?
TENNANT: I don’t know which ones I would suit, really. I can’t imagine who I could play. I’m a bit old for a lot of them now, which is a terrible, alarming truth. Who could I be? I could probably still do Reed Richards – Mr. Fantastic. I don’t know. Villains are always great. I’d be very happy to do a bit of that. They’re the one growth industry in movies, at the moment, so it would be nice to do one, I suppose, as either the good guy or the bad guy. The bad guys probably get the better lines, don’t they? And they wear less spandex. That would be quite good.
Because people so love your performance in Doctor Who, is there anything that fans most often talk to you about, when they approach you about the series?
TENNANT: No, not one specific thing. It’s one of those things that people are very enthusiastic about, everywhere I go, throughout the world. It’s got a reach unlike anything else. It’s just one of those things that people feel very possessive of, and I understand that completely. It feels like it’s yours, when you love something that much. It’s lovely to be associated with something that means that much to people. That’s why you become an actor, to touch people, in whatever way, by telling stories. When people have been so affected by something that they dedicate huge parts of their life to it, it’s lovely to be the focus of that. You feel like you can’t quite live up to it sometimes. You feel like you can’t quite be enough, when people are rather overwhelmed to meet you. It’s not because they’re overwhelmed to meet me. They’re overwhelmed to have a bit of interface with that thing that has meant so much to them. It’s actually quite humbling to be this personified presence of that, I suppose. But, I’m aware that that show is much bigger than any individual’s part in it. It’s a way of life, Doctor Who. It’s a lifestyle for some people. And what a great thing to be enthusiastic about. What a great thing to be a fan of. It’s a wonderful, inventive, creative, morally pure thing.
If someone wanted to start watching Doctor Who now, is there a good classic series story that you would tell them to start with?
TENNANT: Oh, I don’t know. There’s 50 years of stuff, so it’s quite hard to pick one moment, unless you go right back to the start, which would be the most obvious joining in point. But then, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I think it’s the sort of show that’s quite self-explanatory, but it’s quite hard to describe. If you don’t know anything about Doctor Who, it’s quite an odd concept. You just have to watch any one. It’s easier to experience than explain.
What does it mean to you to have been a part of the Harry Potter franchise?
TENNANT: Clearly, being a part of it was significant because they were such enormous movies, and are movies that I’m sure will live down the years. I feel a bit of a fraud because my entire contribution was 12 days of filming. It wasn’t much. Although the part is significant because, for a lot of the film, he’s in disguise. Barty Crouch Junior actually features in an enormous amount of the movie, although a lot of the time he’s Mad-Eye Moody. So, I feel a little bit like I can’t really take much credit for any success that those movies had, but it’s nice to have been a part of it, however small.
Where you ever really in talks to do The Hobbit?
TENNANT: Oh, lots of things are talked about, at many different times and in many different stages. Things can work out, in a lot of different ways. One has to be diplomatic. The thing is, once a movie is made, it’s there and it exists. The people who play the parts are the people who play the parts, and that’s how it should be.
Having had such a varied career, are there any other roles that you’ve done that hold a special place in your heart?
TENNANT: Everything does, a bit. Because it’s quite a vocational lifestyle, when you’re part of anything, it’s quite all-consuming, whether it’s something that lasts for years, like Doctor Who, or something that lasts for a few days, like Harry Potter, or something that lasts for a concentrated eight weeks, like Spies of Warsaw. While you’re involved with it, it fills your whole being, really, so everything feels quite special. I can forget about certain things I’ve done, completely. And then, if you’re reminded about the movie or something comes on in a re-run, it takes you right back. The memories are quite vivid, even way back. I’m getting on a bit now, so I’ll see things from 20 years ago, that I was in, and I think, “That doesn’t look anything like me. That’s a boy, bouncing around.” But, my interior memories of it are still so vivid that it feels like I’m still there. It’s a bit confusing to see the image that looks nothing like me anymore because the emotional memory of it is still so close to the surface.
Have you ever taken any props home with you, or is there anything you wished you could have taken home with you?
TENNANT: I have a sonic screwdriver. In fact, I have a little box of Doctor Who things that were presented to me, with a sonic screwdriver and a stethoscope and TARDIS key. I don’t think I’ve ever taken anything I wasn’t supposed to. I can’t remember doing that. I would have quite liked a Harry Potter wand, but they were very closely guarded. That’s quite a well-oiled machine. I can’t think of anything else that I’ve got. Oh, I’ve got one very special thing. When I was first with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1995, I played Touchstone, the jester in As You Like It, and I’ve still got the little stick that jesters have with the head on the end. I don’t know what they’re called, but I’ve got the one that I had as Touchstone. It was beautifully made, with a little leather handle and a Mr. Punch type face. Every now and again, I do acquire stuff and it starts to take over my house, and every now and again, I have a very severe bout of life laundry and get rid of lots of stuff, and then I regret things I’ve thrown away. Not many things linger for all that long.
Why weren’t you at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics? Were you asked to take part, at all?
TENNANT: I waited and waited for the call, but nobody got in touch. I believe there was an online petition to get me to carry the torch. I don’t know how many people signed it, and I don’t know what happened to it. Either it never made it to the London organizing committee, or they chose to ignore it. Nobody ever called me up, so I wasn’t involved. There was going to be a little Doctor Who montage in the opening ceremony, but I believe it was cut just before. So, even that small contribution was cruelly robbed from me.
Having done Fright Night, are you looking to do more studio movies in the States?
TENNANT: I’d like to, if it was the right thing. I’ve never been very tactical about what I do or what comes up. I just wait for things to come in. If I’m lucky enough to have a choice between two things, I follow my gut, really. So, if the right thing came up, then of course I would do it.
Do you ever watch any TV shows and wish you could do a guest arc on the show?
TENNANT: Oh, yeah, all the time. But, The West Wing is finished now. That’s the one that I would have loved to have been part of. I’d love to work with Aaron Sorkin on something. Just the way he writes, he has no fear in writing people that are fiercely intelligent, and I love that. I love the speed of his stuff, and the way people free-associate and interact. That kind of writing is very exciting. It’s hard to have that kind of clarity of voice, especially in a world where there’s a million executives listening to everything you do and having an opinion and trying to drive everything towards the lowest common denominator because that’s what happens when things are made by committee. So, to have someone who’s got a strong individual voice that is allowed to be heard is quite increasingly rare. These people need to be cherished.
Spies of Warsaw airs on BBC America over two nights, on April 3rd and April 10th.