Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who: ‘I Wanted Him to be Strange’

The acclaimed UK actor talks about going from being a fan of "Doctor Who"... to being the Doctor. He also offered up a little etiquette advice.


[Ed note: We incorrectly refer to Peter Capaldi’s character as “Doctor Who” instead of the correct name: The Doctor. Had we a TARDIS to go back in time and correct the error, we would, but absent that we can only express our sincere regrets.]

Rico Gagliano: Peter Capaldi won an Oscar for directing the short film “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life,” but he’s best known as an actor. He was in the sleeper hit film “Local Hero,” and became a household name in the U.K. playing the obscenity-spewing political spin doctor Malcolm in the BBC series “The Thick Of It” and its spinoff film “In The Loop.”

Most recently, though, he became he became… the 12th actor, is it?

Peter Capaldi: That’s right.

Rico Gagliano: …To portray the title character in the beloved sci-fi series “Doctor Who,” which has run on and off since 1963. The new season just debuted on BBC America, and Peter, we’re honored to have you.

Peter Capaldi: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s a big resume.

Peter Capaldi: I’m older than I look.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I have a question. Do you get stopped more for “Franz Kafka” or “Doctor Who”?

Peter Capaldi: You know, no one stops me for the “Franz Kafka” stuff.

Rico Gagliano: That’s a shock. And speaking of “Doctor Who”… short of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” this show has, maybe, the biggest cult following of any sci-fi franchise ever. They offer you the role, and what were you thinking? It’s a huge mantle to take on.

Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 1, Missy (Michelle Gomez), the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). Photo Credit: Simon Ridgway, © BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED
Photo Credit: Simon Ridgway, © BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED

Peter Capaldi: I just laughed. I just thought it was so funny when my agent called and said, “How would you feel about being the new Doctor Who?” I couldn’t stop laughing. ‘Cause I always loved the show. I grew up with it. It started when I was six years old, and I watched it avidly. And as a kid, I used to write to “Doctor Who,” and the actors would send back letters and signed photographs and stuff like that.

I wrote to them so much, they obviously passed the letters on to the production office, and one day, this package arrived. And it was — I mean, can you imagine anyone doing this now? — it was scripts. A couple of episodes, from the forthcoming season!

Brendan Francis Newnam: They sent to you?

Peter Capaldi: To a kid, yeah. And, I’d never seen a script before in my life. I didn’t even know there was a document, you know, that they used to generate a program with.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You just thought “Doctor Who” was a reality show.

Peter Capaldi: But it was one of the key things of making me want to be an actor and get involved in the business, because I thought, “This is fabulous!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, what a beautiful thing to give to a kid. Well, now that you are Doctor Who, did you ever meet up with any of those folks?

Peter Capaldi: Well, the man who did that…

Rico Gagliano: Who sent this script…

Peter Capaldi: …Was a producer called Barry Letts, who’s now unfortunately dead. But he produced the show with John Pertwee and Tom Baker in it. And I unknowingly met his son, who is a wonderful actor called Crispin Letts. And I said to him, “That name is a very… there used to be a producer called Barry Letts, who produced ‘Doctor Who.'” And Crispin said, “That’s my dad!”

Rico Gagliano: Oh my God. You’re like, “He’s responsible for my career, basically.”

Peter Capaldi: Yeah, and I got to meet him.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He was like, “I went to jail for trademark infringement for sending you that script, but I’m glad it worked out for us in the long run.”

Rico Gagliano: I mean, this is obviously something that’s hugely important in your life. There’s also the opportunity, not just to play the Doctor, but also, to screw it up. I mean, were you afraid?

Peter Capaldi: Yeah, I mean, it’s a big show now, with a much bigger constituency. It’s a bigger product than it ever was. When I was really into it, it was just this strange little show that was yours, and you could get into. Now, it’s this sort of international thing, a franchise.

And that’s the sort of trick with it, really, is not being overwhelmed by the scale of it, and just maintaining a personal and quite sort of intimate relationship with it, you know?

Doctor Who, Season 9, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Photo Credit: Simon Ridgway, © BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED
Photo Credit: Simon Ridgway, © BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED

Brendan Francis Newnam: What’s interesting about “Doctor Who” is that, built into the idea of Doctor Who, you’re allowed to be different. You don’t have to go back and pretend you’re the Doctor Who that came before, because of this idea of “regeneration.” Each Doctor Who can be a different person. What did you want to bring to your version?

Peter Capaldi: Unpleasantness, basically. Unpleasantness and inaccessibility.

Rico Gagliano: That’s kind of true, actually.

Peter Capaldi: Yeah. I mean I sort of didn’t want to be trying to get the audience’s approval. It sounds odd, but I thought, “This is an alien creature.”

Rico Gagliano: Doctor Who is an alien, for those who don’t know.

Peter Capaldi: Yeah, and he’s part of a mysterious race called the Time Lords, but he’s a rebel Time Lord. I didn’t want him to be… a guy [laughs]! Just a guy that you bump into.

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Tom Who.”

Peter Capaldi: Yeah! Exactly. I wanted him to be, you know, strange. So, people are saying, “Do you have to be so unfriendly? Do you have to be so spiky?” Yeah, I do have to, because if you’ve lived for two and a half thousand years, as he has, you realize life is tough, business as usual, get in line.

Rico Gagliano: Actually, I think we have a great clip to illustrate this. This is from the first full episode that you appeared in as Doctor Who. And in this scene, the Doctor has just regenerated and become you. And you are extremely perplexed by the weirdness of your new eyebrows and voice. And you’ve confronted a random homeless man in an alley in Victorian England, and are trying to figure yourself out with him.

Rico Gagliano: [Laughs.] He’s confrontational. He’s a confrontational doctor.

Peter Capaldi: But he’s a great, joyful character. It doesn’t reduce his joy. I mean, he loves… I always think he’s the kind of creature who would love seeing the sun rise over an empty car park, or watching garbage blowing around in the wind, and also seeing stars being born in the star fields of Alpha Centauri. He can do all of that stuff.

It’s not like “Star Trek,” where you have a battleship in space with all this military backup and stuff. He’s just this guy, he’s just like this odd professor at university, wandering and not even looking for adventure, but stumbling into it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, this show has been going on for decades. The day it first launched was the day Kennedy was assassinated.

Peter Capaldi: That’s right, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Then, it was delayed.

Peter Capaldi: I don’t know all the details, because — as I have been told quite tartly by some uber fans — I’m a fan of the show. Not a scholar.

Rico Gagliano: Because you have this thing called a “life.” [Capaldi laughs.]

Brendan Francis Newnam: But, you’re even talking about the division between scholars and fans of the show. My question is, the show has been going on since 1963… Why should someone start watching it now? It seems overwhelming.

Peter Capaldi: Well, every episode is episode one. What happens is, this guy tumbles around time and space with his beautiful and glamorous companion. And every week they show up on another planet, or another time zone, and accidentally stumble into another adventure with some megalomaniac, or some evil creature. And you can just turn it on. You don’t have to know anything about it.

Also, what I love about it is, it’s a show that manages to explore quite profound philosophical ideas and also have guys in rubber monster suits. There’s a kind of a B-movie quality to it, which I absolutely adore.

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara. Photo Credit: © BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED
Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara. Photo Credit: © BBC WORLDWIDE LIMITED

Rico Gagliano: Something that the current showrunner, Mr. Moffat, has said about it, is that it has these incredible shifts in tone.

Peter Capaldi: Well, that’s the challenge of playing it.  Because I thought — since I grew up in the playground being Doctor Who and stuff — I still thought, “I can do that when I arrive and start filming it!” But I realized I had to put on my mature acting head, because you have to be very nimble. Sometimes it’s very funny, and sometimes it’s very sad or tragic, but it’s often within the same scene. That was the shock.

Rico Gagliano: “This is actually hard.”

Peter Capaldi: It’s actually hard. It’s not just fun. You can’t rest with it. Also, ’cause a new writer comes along, and… the thing about “Doctor Who” is there is a queue of the best writers in the U.K. who want to write an episode. Now, they all can’t write an episode because though they love “Doctor Who,” they don’t necessarily understand how it works. But you get this fabulous material. And they all want to push the envelope and change it and stuff. So you never get into a groove where you think, “I know how to do this,” because I don’t.

Rico Gagliano: Tom Stoppard’s “Doctor Who,” coming up?

Peter Capaldi: He just couldn’t get it. He couldn’t work with the monsters.

Rico Gagliano: He’s just not smart enough.

Peter Capaldi: I’m trying to think of a very clever “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” gag now. That’s hard at this time in the morning.

[We also had Peter answer a few of our listeners’ etiquette questions. Click here to learn how he’d kill with a stethoscope.]