“I’m used to the fact that people in Britain know who I am on some level, but the notion that there’s any kind of international recognition is still bizarre to me.”
FRIGHT NIGHT directed by Craig Gillespie, written by Marti Noxon based on the screenplay by Tom Holland, with Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin, Toni Collette and David Tennant. A DreamWorks release. 106 minutes. Opens Friday (August 19). See listing
David Tennant is not the star of Fright Night. He's not on the poster, and he appears in exactly one shot in the theatrical trailer. Colin Farrell gets all the attention as the movie's menace, a suave suburban vampire named Jerry, and Anton Yelchin and Christopher Mintz-Plasse score a lot of screen time as the teenagers who try to end his reign of terror.
But have no illusions: Tennant is the reason a large percentage of the movie's audience will be catching Fright Night this weekend. It's Tennant's first genre role since he left the hit British sci-fi series Doctor Who after playing the beloved time-travelling hero for four years. And to put it simply, as Fright Night's swaggering Vegas stage magician, Peter Vincent, Tennant owns the film, goosing the proceedings with the mercurial energy and over-the-top bravado of The Doctor, and then pulling back to reveal a very human hero underneath.
"It's a delicious character to be handed," the actor says from his dressing room in Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End, where he's starring in a production of Much Ado About Nothing opposite his former Who sidekick, Catherine Tate. "[It's great to] come in in the second act, as the Hollywood people like to describe such things - to be allowed to freewheel with that a bit, which was very much encouraged."
He's offering a radically different take on the Peter Vincent of Tom Holland's original 1985 Fright Night, a has-been horror star turned local TV host played by Roddy McDowall. Horror hosts having gone the way of UHF stations, Tennant's version of Vincent is a louche, leather-and-eyeliner-sporting rocker - The Doctor after a regeneration into Russell Brand.
"You have this illusionist in every sense of the word," Tennant explains. "He's clearly very successful on his own terms, but his personal life is a disaster area. He's a drunk, he's miserable, he's self-hating. At first he just seems like an irascible drunk, but we find out [that's] perhaps more deeply rooted than it might first appear."
The actor says he was very happy with the experience of his first Hollywood picture, praising director Craig Gillespie (Lars And The Real Girl) for encouraging the cast to contribute ideas and improvise during the shoot.
"I mean, it wasn't improvisation like Mike Leigh would have it, but [Craig] would certainly be interested in sort of loosening it up a bit, seeing where it would go," he says, "to the point that it went to some quite dark or lurid places - some of which ended up in the final film, which I'm very pleased to see. You're on set at 3 in the morning, thinking, ‘Oh, you're never gonna use that joke about me shagging the showgirl,' and then you see the final film and it's in! That's quite pleasing."
Tennant hadn't seen the original Fright Night when he was offered the role.
"I was a kid when it first came out, and I remember it being there, but I didn't see it then," he says. "It was only after I was on board for this one that I checked out the original. It was a very small-scale, slightly tatty B movie that became a sensation. You look at it and you can't figure out why that should be, other than it's got a certain charm to it. And of course that's quite a hard thing to re-create with a remake, because you're chasing something that is by definition elusive."
Not that he would have turned from the challenge.
"It was a very juicy opportunity to be handed, and kind of out of the blue," he says. "I just got a phone call. DreamWorks wanted me to go over and meet some people, which is the sort of phone call that your drama-school self dreams about."
Despite having spent years seeing his face plastered all over the United Kingdom as part of Doctor Who's marketing - and having turned up as a baddie in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire - Tennant is still dazzled by the idea that he's become a star.
"It's just remarkable that anybody knows who you are," he says. "You know, I've just about got used to the fact that people in Britain know who I am on some level, but the notion that there's any kind of international recognition is still slightly bizarre to me."
It seems bizarre to me, in the Comic-Con age when blockbuster movies target geeks and nerds directly, that Tennant wouldn't be a major star. His charismatic run on Doctor Who for then-showrunner Russell T. Davies brought millions of new fans to the revived series. In October, BBC Video will release a 26-DVD gift set collecting all of his episodes and specials, The Complete David Tennant Years.
There was a time, not too long ago, when doing a science-fiction series meant the end of an actor's serious career. You took a role on a show with Star Trek in the title and you spent the rest of your days turning up on shows like Eureka and Warehouse 13.
It's not the same now, as Tennant has discovered. His run on Doctor Who turned out to be the gateway to doing virtually anything else he wanted to do, including playing Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company - opposite Patrick Stewart, who similarly reinvented himself after more than a decade in the Star Trek franchise.
"Actors move from TV to film now in a way they never used to," Tennant says, "and things that might be called ‘genre' television I don't think are seen as the lesser art form they were once regarded as, [especially] when they're being done by people like Russell T. Davies. You know, he's the greatest writer television has."
It certainly doesn't hurt that genre television has grown up in the last decade. Shows like Doctor Who and the U.S. remake of Battlestar Galactica appeal to adult viewers who fondly remember the old versions but appreciate the maturity and gravity of the new productions.
When I ask whether he'll be part of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary celebration next year, Tennant is judicious: "I'm sure something will be celebrated, but I haven't had any phone calls yet."
He shouldn't have to wait much longer. Doctor Who is intensely beloved in England and elsewhere, and Tennant rates a big chunk of that love - and will likely be feeling it for a very long time.
"I think there's a generation now who don't see [Doctor Who] as something lesser," Tennant says. "They see it as something to be absolutely celebrated and put front and centre. Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor in the 70s, talks now about how he's employed solely by people who grew up loving him.
"I pray to god I'll be enjoying the same thing in about 20 years' time. That's fine by me."