After effortlessly proving the doubters and the ‘Doctor Who?’ headlines wrong, Matt Smith is a man in demand. Not that he likes to boast about it, as ShortList’s Jonathan Pile discovers
Matt Smith is a man to envy. His tenure as the Doctor has been universally lauded, he gets to refer to model Daisy Lowe as “my lady” and, as he proves while leaning casually against an Aston Martin — his chosen motor to front our car special — he looks great in a suit.
He’s also one of a group of young Brits (along with the likes of Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Jim Sturgess) with the potential to conquer the acting world. And with this kind of success comes the obvious perks: a constant blur of exclusive parties in exotic locales, surrounded by beautiful people, with expensive champagne flowing endlessly into crystal goblets. But don’t take our word for it. Let the 28-year-old actor himself revel in his decadent lifestyle.
“I’m up at 6am, work all day, get back at 8pm, prepare for the next day, eat hummus and go to bed. I work nine months of the year, and it’s quite solitary in Cardiff.”
Oh. To be honest, that’s not exactly how we pictured it.
Still, he is the star of Doctor Who. And there’s never been a better time to be the Time Lord. Critically acclaimed, the show has also reached unprecedented levels of popularity in the US thanks both to Smith’s portrayal and the stewardship of Steven Moffat — who also wrote the aforementioned Sherlock and co-wrote the upcoming Tintin film for Steven Spielberg. He must see the positives of his new status.
“What’s good? What’s good? People tend to fly you business class. You get a little bed. Now that, to me, is the sort of victory you want. And I try to nab a pair of socks from every photo shoot.”
In fact, he’s swiped two today — one pair yellow, the other purple. But the truth is he knows exactly what a privileged position he’s in, his responses to our questions revealing him to be both a man who values his privacy and one who’s extremely humble.
“I’ve got to sustain it,” he admits. “People often say, ‘You’ve made it,’ but I’ve got another 40 years of trying to be an actor. I don’t know if I’ll ever have as intense a period of work again. I’m very fortunate. But there’s a long way to go.”
WHERE IT BEGAN
Then there’s the incongruous normality that you don’t expect from a national — and burgeoning international — star; his first car? “It was my grandad’s now-really-cool-in-hindsight vintage BMW,” he says. “I hated it. But now I look back and think, ‘What an idiot!’”
The conversation moves to Doctor Who, and it’s clearly something he’s immensely proud to be a part of. “It’s clever in the same way as The Simpsons. You watch that with a kid and they’re laughing at stuff you’re not. Or you’re laughing at stuff they’re not. It operates on two levels. People can say, ‘Is is too sexy? Is it too scary? Is it too dark?’ No, no and no. It should be sexy. It should be scary. It should be dark. Because what’s the alternative Unsexy, not scary and light? I mean, that’s just not Doctor Who.”
Since being announced as the Doctor in January 2009, two new women have become big presences in Matt Smith’s life. One is Karen Gillan, his character’s current companion, Amy Pond. The other we’ve been warned not to talk about. The thing is, Smith himself can’t seem to stop. As he’s having his hair styled, he drops Daisy Lowe into conversation. As he’s pirouetting around the Aston Martin, he drops Daisy Lowe into conversation. And as we sit down and turn on the tape recorder, he still drops Daisy Lowe into conversation. It seems as if not mentioning her is a rule made to be broken. Even when the subject of those famous paparazzi pictures comes up: “What are you going to do? Daisy has a nice bum. I enjoy squeezing it. If people choose to photograph it, I suppose that’s the deal.”
And he’s very much aware that the power of the press can be a force for good, too. It was because he mentioned in an interview how attractive he found her that they’re together now. “That’s literally how it happened,” he remembers. “She read it and then one day I got a text out of the blue. From Daisy Lowe! I just went, ‘Yes!’ A friend of a friend knew us both and gave her my number.”
But what of his other woman, herself a one-time ShortList cover star? “She’s a five out of 10,” he laughs. “And you can tell her that I said that. I’ll tell her that I said that.” It’s probably for the best — he’ll certainly see her before we do. “Steven Moffat got that copy of ShortList out when the three of us were on a train together. It’s pretty weird seeing Karen [in her underwear]. Actually seeing she can be sexy is quite weird, frankly, because I just know her as ‘Stupid Face Karen’. Men love her, don’t they? But she’s just so ridiculous.”
Of course, it could all have been very different. Acting was not supposed to be Smith’s destiny. Famously (or not, depending on how much attention you’ve been paying), before an injury to his back ended his career prematurely, he was going to be a professional footballer. Although that’s an often spurious claim, made by a number of celebrities (most prominently Gordon Ramsay) that rarely stands up to scrutiny. So, how good was he?
“I was a decent centre-back. I was in the youth system aged nine at Northampton Town and then I went to Nottingham Forest and then to Leicester. I fell out with the Cobblers [Northampton] — they gave me a real hard time about going to Forest. I was only 12. They gave me all this crap about contracts, but it was actually the end of my contract anyway. As a young boy, you’re going to a bigger club and at that time Forest had the best youth team in England. We didn’t lose for two years.”
Sounds impressive. But Liverpool won the 2005 Champions League with Djimi Traore in their ranks. A team’s success isn’t always a measure of individual talent. Without the injury, would he actually have made it?
“How long is a piece of string?” he ponders. “I don’t know. I like to think I’d have had a go. That first season at Leicester I was captain and I was playing well. But it wasn’t to be. But out of all the clubs that I played at, the only player who went on to play in the Premier League consistently is [Spurs’] Jermaine Jenas. He played in my team for two years at Forest. But that’s one player from a team that were bloody brilliant. So it’s a tough game to make it in.”
He’s fallen out with Northampton Town, that’s been established. But it still doesn’t explain why, when he was born and brought up in the East Midlands, he supports a team based in a post-industrial Lancashire town more than 150 miles away. What was it about Blackburn Rovers (other than Smith’s particularly dubious proclamation that they’re “the greatest club on the planet”) that was so attractive to a Northamptonshire schoolboy?
“My dad’s from there,” he reveals. “You know how it is. Listen — my son is going to be a Blackburn fan whether he’s born in Manchester, London or wherever. When I was a kid, me and my dad would play a lot of Subbuteo together. I’d be Blackburn and he’d be Burnley for the derby. I used to get really upset if I lost, and he’d wind me up. But don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t like Burnley either. It’s war, man.”
No matter how strong his support for the club, he surely can’t be pleased with the way things are going since Indian company Venky’s (which also spends its time producing processed chicken meat and pharmaceuticals) took over 10 months ago. Not least because of the cringeworthy fast-food advert the Blackburn first team were forced to star in.
“It breaks my heart to see foreign owners come in to football clubs, promise all sorts of things and deliver nothing,” bemoans Smith. “They’ve sacked a brilliant manager [Sam Allardyce] and employed someone with no experience. Sorry, Steve Kean, I will probably meet you one day and I’ll shake your hand and all the rest of it, but at the moment I want to scream. Because it matters to me. Football matters.”
So it does seem you can add a flair for football to the list of reasons to admire/envy Matt Smith. And while his current path has thrust him into the public eye, he’s certainly living a different life than he would have been doing if his contemporaries were Jermain Defoe and Jamie O’Hara. “I’d be in Faces and Chinawhite. I like to have a drink and enjoy myself, but I go down my local.” As he contemplates this potential other life, it stops him in his tracks. “Faces. Oh my God. Wow. That’s my idea of hell.”
However, it turns out that this wasn’t always the case.
“The deep irony of it is, when I was younger, my sister worked in London as a dancer and I used to love going to Chinawhite,” he recalls. “I had a credit card and I’d spend £90 on a bottle of champagne. Because I thought that’s what you did. And that was what I thought was cool. It’s funny, actually -— now that I’m presented with the opportunity of getting in free and not having to queue, I don’t want to go.”
What does he like to do, then? Given the time (which he possibly doesn’t have, due to his schedule) and the money (which he probably does), where would he go? Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering he’s spent much of the past two hours leaning against an Aston Martin Virage Volante, his thoughts turn to road trips: “I’d love to go back to Brazil. I’d probably start in Rio and go down.” Immediately as the words have left his mouth, his particular brand of common sense kicks in: “Although, actually, the roads there are pretty bad.” Concerns about these potential potholes lead him in another direction. “You know what I’d do? I’d go and hang out in New York. Get myself a Mustang. Drive across the US. Take my lady. Get my best friends to meet us halfway. Off we go again. Great.” And if he is stuck doing his annual nine-month stint in Cardiff? “I love Question Time on a Thursday. I love Parliament on a Wednesday. I love the theatre of it — it’s so gladiatorial. I find myself enraptured by it. Like when a dude from Bognor Regis gets up and says, ‘You know, guys, our plants aren’t growing right. Can we get some water?’ Valid point — let’s move on to the big guns.”
Still, eating hummus while listening to the concerns of farmers on Britain’s south coast won’t be a part of his life forever. He understandably doesn’t give an exact expiry date for his stint on Doctor Who, but he won’t still be doing it in 10 years’ time. That point he’s very clear on (“No!”), so what does the future hold for the 11th Doctor?
“I’d love to play a rock star,” he says with a smile, before launching into a stream of consciousness. “I’d love to play Ted Hughes. He’s a poet, but to me it’s the same thing. I’d love to play Ian Curtis. Sam [Riley] did it, but it’s never too late. They might do a play of it. Jeff Buckley’s already been cast, but I can’t sing like him anyway. Tough gig to sing like Buckers. That’s a good album, Grace. I’m massively into rap as well.”
A pause for breath and we’re finally able to get another question in. Can he rap? “Lay down some beats, I’m from the Northampton streets, Can I tell you that when I get home, I’m going to eat a lot of Starmix treats?” It seems the answer is no. Happily, he concurs (“Terrible. Stick to the acting, Smith”). And now we’ve found something he isn’t good at. At last.
Doctor Who series finale BBC One at 7.05pm
(Images: David Venni)