David Tennant: ‘I was told acting was a daft idea.’

In this letter to his younger self, ex-Doctor, Jessica Jones villain and Broadchurch star David Tennant looks back on life, loss and cracking the big time in acting

I didn’t really enjoy adolescence; I was always aware that I was waiting for adulthood to start. I found the lack of control over your own affairs as a child annoying. And that just became more pronounced during the teenage years. I knew I definitely wanted to go to drama school. In fact I think I got my first acting job at 16. Or even at 15, an anti-smoking ad. Then I did an episode of [ITV children’s drama series] Dramarama. We went to the Isle of Skye for four days, and I stayed in a hotel on my own for the first time. I was old enough not to need a chaperone. I was my own boss. It felt like a glimpse into adulthood.

My mum and dad were big influences on the way I saw the world. I wouldn’t have admitted it at 16 though, that’s when you start thinking your parents are just utter losers. But I think deep down, even then, I knew. They gave me a world view which was based on a Christian outlook [David’s father served as Moderator of the General Assembly of  the Church Of Scotland] – Christian in the right sense, genuinely Christian people in terms of the way they believed in equality for all, treating everyone with respect and kindness, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. On the whole they were quite free of the right-wing attitudes that sometimes come with Christianity. They were liberal and forward-thinking. Just the way they deported themselves in life, I cherish.

Doctor Who was a big influence on the young David too. I did like superheroes too but Doctor Who was my great passion when I was a kid. Maybe because I could identify with that character. I could never identify with the Incredible Hulk, though I loved the comics. But the Doctor felt like someone I could aspire to being like. And maybe he’d want to hang out with me too. I think it’s very important that there’s a kids’ hero who is not a jock. That was something I came back to a lot when I was playing the Doctor. And it doesn’t leave you when you leave the show. Finding out I was going to play the role all those years later, it was just surreal. Something which had been so important to me as a child was going to be a big part of my adult life –  would, in fact, in a way end up defining it.

If you met the 16-year-old David now, you’d wonder why he thought all that Brylcreem was a good idea. You’d be mystified as to why he thought that was an acceptable way of presenting himself. I did have an interest in clothes – I remember discovering charity shops and the opportunities they gave me were quite exciting. I sported a bootlace tie at one point, probably to emulate Bono or Jim Kerr. That was one of my favourite things. Worn with a bolero jacket I’d got from a charity shop. And my favourite shirt was a hand-me-down, a paisley pattern – red shot with black pattern. So yeah, surprisingly, I was quite out there, bolder than I realised. And I remember going out to a nightclub in Paisley – Toledo Junction I think it was called – and being accused of being a weirdo, which I think vaguely translated into being a goth in those days. Which I wasn’t, but I suppose in a sea of shellsuits… In fact I got smacked in the face. Just for being a little bit dapper!

I think I was quite outgoing within my own group of friends. But not particularly when I was outside my gang, my comfort zone. Despite the boldness of my bootlace tie. I remember the roar of the hormonal confusion. My head was full of mince most of the time. I was churning, not at ease with myself. But I think I was good as masking my anxieties. And I think I still do manage to do that. It’s only my very closest confidantes who get a glimpse of what’s underneath.

When I was 16 and wanting to be an actor, it still felt like a bit of a ludicrous idea. I didn’t know any actors. And people all around me were going, quite rightly, this is a daft idea. You won’t make a living. It was sound and proper advice. But there was a little part of the teenage me that thought they might be wrong. It would be nice to go back to him now and tell him, you’re in your mid-40s  now, and you’re still getting away with it. Though I still don’t know how much longer that’ll last.

I left drama school in 1991 and worked in theatre and then TV for years. But when I got Doctor Who I quickly became very aware that life had changed. It is unique in terms of the level of attention you’re suddenly getting, incomparable to pretty much anything else. Very rarely is someone getting a job on the news. I became public property in a way you’d never imagine. I remember thinking about all the times I’d been in a room, and someone off the telly came in… the ripple that went round the room – “Ooh, look who it is”, everyone looking and pointing while the famous person apparently noticed nothing. How you imbued that person with a great sense of magnetism and power and confidence. And actually, when you are that person you’re thinking, keep your head down, keep going till you get to where you need to go. It doesn’t feel empowering at all, it just feels scary and nerve-wracking.

If I could have a last conversation with anyone who’s gone now, it would be my parents. Pretty obvious really, they’re so fundamental to who you are. And you miss the mundane, the phone call to catch up. You can never really appreciate that while it’s happening ‘cause you’re just living it day to day. They’re just there. I think the loss of a parent, especially the first time… it’s so bewildering. The loss of one of the fixed points on your life. You always know it’ll happen one day, but you can’t prepare for the scale of that loss. You never quite get over the fact that they’re not there. Neither of my parents died suddenly, they both had pernicious illnesses that took them relatively slowly. So there was no shock. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. It’s no fun watching someone you love suffer. But the advantage is that you can make sure you’re around and you can prepare, as much as that’s possible. But you never really get over it.

Courtesy of INSP.ngo / The Big Issue UK bigissue.co @BigIssue

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