An ancient time traveler's eyes in a boy's face. A handsome princeling with an ugly ambition. A silver-tongued seducer with a dark side. Whether it's, Game of Thrones prequel or new psychological thriller Last Night in Soho, Matt Smith embodies contradiction in his characters.
For Last Night in Soho is in theaters now, so I caught up with Smith fizzing with energy over the phone from Spain where he's filming Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon, scheduled to premiere in 2022., Smith plays Jack, a sharp-suited and silver-tongued denizen of 1960s drinking dens. When Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin Mackenzie dance into his world, he promises a heady whirl of showbiz glamour, but the role showcases Smith's capacity for seductive charm hardening into something darker.
We chatted about the glamour of the 1960s, why Smith loved the '90s, and whether he'd be tempted to join Russell T Davis in a return to Doctor Who. Here's a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
CNET: Shooting House of the Dragon is a bit different from Last Night in Soho, presumably?
Matt Smith: Yes, it is a change of pace, isn't it? We're doing night shoots in Spain. Lots of fighting and dragons and all that business.
One of the things struck me about Last Night in Soho was that I saw it at a screening in Tottenham Court Road, and afterwards I went round the corner and stood right outside the Toucan, the pub that features heavily in the film. Was it weird for you to turn a familiar place that into almost a fantasy landscape?
I think the film does such a beautiful job of... of London, doesn't it? It's a real character in the movie, and it's a real ode and homage to London Town. Knowing Soho quite well, frequenting it in the evening and daytime, it was thrilling to have it reimagined as the '60s. We closed Wardour Street and Dean Street on a Friday night, which was bizarre when you think about it.
Even the film's modern-day scenes have a slightly unsettling, alien quality to them as cities have changed so much in the past year or two. What's it like shooting at the moment?
Well, of course films sets are COVID-conscious, and rightly so. So there's a lot of testing and people in masks. But to a certain degree everyone's back at the coalface, so to speak, and we're trying to get as much good quality work made as we can.
I spent an afternoon with Terence, which was just fascinating. We talked about many things, but never really about London. I knew Diana, I did a Doctor Who episode with her so we were firm friends actually. Any time spent in her company was always quite thrilling. She was such... she was a hoot. And she was very, very generous with her time and she's full of wonderful anecdotes about the industry and different people. She's totally missed.
Can you share any of those anecdotes?
Not off the top of my head! But I was about to work at the Young Vic [theater] and I was a bit nervous about the size of the space, and she was just like, 'Oh, darling, it's your friend.' She'd obviously had a really wonderful career and they were total icons in that period really, weren't they?
What is it about the 1960s that has such a grip on us still?
It was a very fashionable period, which is quite appealing to look at. It's quite easy on the eye. And Britain was in a process of change, the Beatles were around and they changed the face of modern music in many respects, there was a lot of culture happening and people were stepping outside of themselves coming out of the '50s which was a slightly more staid time. There's a color and vibrancy to it which looks pretty great.
You wear a lot of great suits in this film....
Yeah, I was a real fan of that. Odile [Dicks-Mireaux, costume designer] did such a wonderful job with the costumes. She really designed them beautifully. Those big boxy gangster three-piece suits and tie pins and the quiff hair, it was right up my Strasse.
We're a similar age [Smith is 39], and when I was young in the '90s being a fan of Michael Caine films and the swinging '60s, it's weird to realize now that the '60s was as long ago then as the '90s are now...
That is a bit weird.
Sorry to drop that on you. Did you feel a nostalgia for the '60s or was there any other period that's spoken to you?
Well I fucking loved the '90s! The '90s were mega. I was pleased to hit that at a good age. In my teenage years, it felt like there was something going on, there was a sort of ambition and a hope to the world. And there was a great music scene, and the Premier League was pretty brilliant. There was something about the '90s. I suppose one looks back on the '60s with a degree of maybe rose-tinted glasses because again, the music scene and what was happening in Britain and culturally seemed quite exciting. But yeah, I was a real fan of the '90s.
With House of The Dragon and Doctor Who there's also an element of nostalgia from fans. What can you bring that's new and different when you're coming into something that has an established fanbase and past and legacy?
I suppose you bring yourself and your own spin on it. It's like to a certain degree, what does anyone bring to a Shakespeare play or something that's been done before? You have to bring your own emotional makeup and your own identity and your own spin and take on things and, you know... throw some paint at the wall and see what sticks.
And what kind of paint are you a throwing at the wall for House of The Dragon, or are you not allowed to talk about it?
I suppose that paint is your sort of attitude you bring in and see what sticks. We're trying to make a show that's entertaining on lots of different levels and has a similar scope and ambition to the previous show, in many respects. But obviously, you're never going to be able to re-create the success of Game of Thrones, because that was a very particular point in time. It was its own unique entity.
Speaking of particular points in time, the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who is coming up...
I have to ask, would you go back to the show?
I don't know. I mean, when is the 60th?
That's in 2023. And Russell T Davies is back [Davies, who oversaw the hit 2005 revival of the long-running British sci-fi show, is taking over as showrunner again next year].
Wow. Like, who knows? I mean, look, I'm pleased Russell's back. I think he oversaw one of the great 10 years of Doctor Who. He's a great guy, he's a brilliant writer, I think he manages to get in the cultural zeitgeist, which is what that show needs to do. It's an exciting move for the show, so, I'm sure one of his scripts would be just brilliant. I haven't heard and no one's picked up the phone yet.
What are you looking at next?
I'm looking at my night shoot tomorrow night. Take one day at a time, take each part as it comes and try to do a good job. But yeah, it's nice when you get to enjoy moments like this with Last Night in Soho because I'm really proud of this film.