In Conversation

Matt Smith

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Matt Smith showcases the best in autumn tailoring. Trust him, he's a Doctor.

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On his kitchen table, in his trailer backstage at the BBC’s Roath Lock studios in Cardiff, Matt Smith keeps a box of personalised stationery. On the lid he has written this: ‘TO BE AN ARTIST IS TO FAIL — SB’.

“Samuel Beckett,” he clarifies. “I wrote that down, literally on my first day here.” The notepaper was a “welcome aboard“ present from Doctor Who’s then-executive producer, Piers Wenger. “I thought it was a very nice gift,” Smith reflects. “Now each actor that comes in, I write them a little note of thanks. I say, ‘Thank you for your hard work’.” He reconsiders this, lest it come across as a bit luvvie. “Not to all of them! To some of them.”

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Notes of encouragement, then, and none more so than Smith’s own scribbled memo to himself. Following David Tennant, he joined the show in 2009 as an unknown quantity (“Doctor Who?“ wondered the headlines), the youngest actor ever to man the Tardis, part of a series-wide regeneration that also included new assistant Karen Gillan, new head writer Steven Moffat, even a funny new logo.

“I wrote that down ’cos, frankly, I was staring into an abyss that I thought was unclimbable, and the prospect of failure was looming large. When I started this job, it was terrifying. It was: You Will Fail. You Are Young. And Foolish. And Look Stupid.”

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Since Day One, then, Samuel Beckett’s words have been there: urging him on. “You take that into your day and you can take a risk on it, you know?”

We hardly need to cover Smith’s triumphs as The Doctor here: suffice to say it’s quite hard to remember a time before his wide-eyed, bow-tied incarnation (“Bow ties are cool!“), so completely has he owned the role. This only seems to have galvanised his risk-taking outside Who.

On screen, he has triumphed as both gay icon/author Christopher Isherwood and Forties Olympic rower Bert Bushnell. On stage, he has closed Glastonbury, performing the Doctor Who theme to 100,000 people alongside Orbital, and become a patron of The Royal Court.

Now he’s planning his directorial debut: a TV adaptation of a play by Simon Stephens, the writer known for tackling subjects including a schoolroom massacre, the Iraq War and a sex trafficking tour de force that also featured a beheading. “There is a plan, there is a television channel, all those things are in place,” Smith beams. “It’s a challenge. I like the idea of uncharted territory.”

Young British actors are currently enjoying something of a purple patch, not least Smith’s good friends Andrew Garfield, Benedict Cumberbatch and Luke Treadaway.

“Ben’s off doing Star Trek, Tom Hardy’s doing very well — then, of course, there’s R-Patz, which is a whole other thing...”

Has Smith got a superhero blockbuster in him? “Well, yeah, that’s a big mountain to climb,” he says. “Andy [Garfield] has been in America three years... I’d like to do a play in New York.”

One problem is finding the time. For ten months a year, he’s filming here in Cardiff on a brutal schedule. “Every day, I’m up at half-six and home at half-eight. Then there’s lines to learn. That takes its toll on your body and soul, you know? I live for Saturdays in London. Oh man, it’s Friday today and I’m terribly excited.”

(The next night, Smith will be papped at Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend with ex Daisy Lowe, a relationship whose end was marked by a memorable if slightly unsympathetic Sun front page headline: “Sexterminate!“)

Elsewhere, the onetime Premier League-scouted captain of his school team still finds time for his beloved football - he shows off an impressive keepy-uppy tally around his trailer for Esquire - and clothes shopping.

A fan of graphic print T-shirts, workwear boots and all manner of hats, Smith has firm views on the outfits he models here. The tartan suit, for instance, he loves. “Sunday lunch down the pub with your friends? Rock the tartan suit!”

Earlier in the day, I watch him filming a Doctor Who episode due to air in spring 2013. It features Smith and new companion Jenna-Louise Coleman facing a peril Esquire can’t talk about aboard a mode of transport we can’t name. (Mark Gatiss wrote it - think we’re on safe ground there.) It’s the third episode the pair will appear in together, the first - where they meet - is due to be filmed the following week. “Your whole life is out of sync here,” Smith grumbles. “It’s a constant flux of sync.”

But time catches up with even The Doctor: next year, the world’s longest-running sci-fi show celebrates its 50th anniversary, something the BBC is gearing up to make sure we don’t miss. Amidst all the spin-off events and shows, an anniversary episode will air in November 2013. Presumably, it will unite a number of the ten previous Doctors (of whom seven are still with us)?

“Presumably? What do you know that I don’t?” Smith parries.

Wouldn’t it be good to see them together?

“That is, that is, a... you know; yeah,” he wobbles. “But that’s easier said than done. I would have thought.”

True: hasn’t Christopher Eccleston still got the hump, saying recently he quit because he couldn’t stand the politics?

“Chris! Nooo! Chris will be alright. Well, I mean: who knows? I’d love it. I’d love him to come back. I love his Doctor. I really do. He was from Manchester. Proper hard. Leather jacket. He’d give my Doctor a bit of whopping, wouldn’t he?”

An absurdist existential and philosophical conundrum of which Samuel Beckett - SB - would surely approve.

Doctor Who returns to BBC1 in September

 

(top image)

(Brown mohair jacket, £1,395; grey cotton shirt, £335; grey cotton waistcoat, £525; red wool roll-neck jumper, £400; purple mohair trousers, £525, all by Prada)


(Red/green checked wool jacket, £2,795; red/green checked wool trousers, £495, both by Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Blue cotton shirt, £90; green silk knitted tie, £80, both by Polo Ralph Lauren. Black leather monk shoe, £589, by Salvatore Ferragamo)

(Grey mélange wool suit, £985; white cotton shirt, £82; navy blue wool tank top, £252, all by Calvin Klein Collection. Blue paisley silk tie, £59, by Thomas Pink)


(Brown/black camel hair suit with contrasting sleeves, £2,620; white/blue cotton striped shirt, £365; burgundy silk patterned tie, £140; burgundy leather brogue monk shoes, £600, all by Louis Vuitton)


(Brown checked wool three-piece suit, £899; pale brown checked cotton shirt, £179; brown/bronze silk tie, £95, all by Boss Selection. Red striped socks, £15, by Hackett. Brown suede shoes, £195, by Grenson)


(Brown/green striped patterned wool suit, £1,280; multi-coloured paisley silk tie, £100, both by Etro. Pale blue cotton shirt, £89; silk pocket square, £35, both by Thomas Pink. Black umbrella with duck head handle, £495, by Burberry Prorsum)


(Grey wool checked suit, £1,143; green/burgundy checked cotton shirt, £118; burgundy silk checked tie, £80, all by John Varvatos. Blue silk patterned pocket square, £35, by Thomas Pink)


(Blue wool puppytooth double-breasted suit, £2,500, by Corneliani. Blue striped cotton shirt with contrast collar, £89; blue paisley silk tie, £59, both by Thomas Pink. Red socks, £15, by Hackett. Black leather shoes, £475, by Mr Hare)

Photography by Tom van Schelven
Fashion by Gareth Scourfield
Words by Johnny Davis

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