David Tennant is making his debut in a starring role on U.S. television with Fox's "Gracepoint," playing Detective Emmett Carver, who's hired to solve the murder of a 12-year-old boy in a small oceanside town. But if you've seen the U.K. series "Broadchurch," the show will seem all too familiar.
Tennant is reprising his character from the BBC America show — same mystery, same crime — but for a different audience. The actor talked with The Frame's John Horn to discuss the differences and why playing the same part with a different accent sounded too appealing to pass up.
David Tennant's history on trying to make it in U.S. television:
I'd had a couple of brushes, I suppose, with American television. I did one pilot which didn't get picked up. I got quite involved in discussions for another couple of projects, which either went different ways or didn't quite work out. So this suddenly presented itself quite fully formed: a script that I trusted, being executive produced by people I knew and trusted, being directed by someone I knew and trusted. It wasn't going to pilot; it was going straight to series. So all the things that kind of put you off — dipping into that world — many of them were removed. I knew that it was going to be a quality product, and any alarm I had was outweighed by the fact that this was a project that I could be fairly safe in assuming was going to be something I wanted to be part of.
How Tennant's experience on "Broadchurch" affected his acting in "Gracepoint":
I think certainly I came to it with a certain knowledge of how certain scenes might work, but that was always kind of blown away by the fact that you're with different people. You are responding to very different reactions, even if there are scenes in there which are almost word-for-word the same. But by the time you get on set with a very different bunch of actors, they feel like different worlds. And all you're trying to do is strip away any preconceptions you have anyway. The last thing you want to do is [tell yourself], "Oh, this is the scene where I do X, Y and Z and finish with a funny walk." You're just trying be in that moment and be reacting to the actors in front of you.
What techniques did other actors have going into "Gracepoint":
People had very different views about what the right thing to do was, which I completely understand. And I don't know what I would do were I in their situation. Anna Gunn, for instance — who plays Ellie, my partner — she watched the whole show and continued to watch it, and would go back to it. And a couple of times when we were shooting, she would come in and say, "There was a beat in the British show which I think we're missing here, and I think we should look to that." Which I find hugely admirable and interesting, because her performance and Olivia Colman's — who played Ellie in the British version — are so dissimilar, they're so unique. Both [are] fantastic performances, both very true and honest, really special performances. And yet they bear very little relation to each other. And yet Anna had really studied that original show, whereas someone like Michael Peña didn't want to watch it at all, didn't want to be influenced by anyone else's performance. And I understand that, too.
The first time David Tennant met actor Michael Peña was in their first scene together:
The director of much of "Broadchurch" — Michael James Strong — came and directed some of the episodes of "Gracepoint," so in a way we were going on that journey again together, in those first episodes at least. But he came up with different notions of disorienting me and the rest of the cast. For instance, I got kept in a different hotel for the first week so that I didn't meet certain actors. The family of the murdered boy, played by Michael Peña and Virginia Kull, I didn't meet them at all until we were shooting the scene where I knock on their doors to tell them their son has died. I hadn't looked into Michael Peña's eyes until he opened the door and I showed him my police badge, and that scene ran for the first time, and most of that is in the finished cut.
John Horn: So you're a true interloper?
Absolutely, yeah, exactly. So the first time we meet each other, and we're sharing this awful, out-of-body experience together. So all those kind of things helped to make you disregard any sense that you'd been here before, because everything was fresh and new and vibrating in a very different way, I suppose. Interestingly, we finished that scene, and, as I said, it sort of happened almost live, and then I was talking to James about it afterwards, and the four actors in that scene behaved remarkably similarly, I thought, to the way that it had been played before, and yet they were coming at that, those emotions, with such honesty and openness. It was a brutal, ghastly afternoon. These people were really living this moment of being told that their child had died. And it was interesting to see two different groups of actors on different sides of the world actually responding to those beats in very similar ways. And there are other scenes that they play wildly differently, but I guess the human experience, particularly in those moments in extremis, is often, you know, it's human experience, it's not particularly defined by nationality, I suppose.
Did any actors come up to you to find out what happens to them in season two?
I think the only person ... Michael Peña, who plays the father of the murdered boy, I think he came up and he was quite keen to know how he could be involved in a second season. I did rather cheekily drop him a couple of hints, from what I'd gleaned from episode one of "Broadchurch" season two. But that doesn't mean that "Gracepoint" season two will go in that same direction anyway. I mean, it doesn't conclude — everyone's journey is not the same, all the characters don't arrive in the same place at the end of "Broadchurch" as they do in "Gracepoint." So season two of "Gracepoint," if that's something that comes to pass, will have a different flavor anyway.
Craft service in the U.S. versus in the U.K.:
Craft service doesn't exist in the U.K. That's the big difference. Craft service being this sort of rolling buffet that you have all day. [It] is extraordinary. So you have on-set catering that makes sure everyone gets breakfast and lunch, that's standard in my experience. But in the U.S. and in Canada there's this extraordinary thing called craft service, which is a whole other department that spend their day preparing snacks for the cast and crew. There's coffee, there's muffins, there's vegetables, there's potato chips, there's everything — and that does not exist back home. And when I would tell this to the cast and crew on "Gracepoint," they were slack-jawed with amazement! They had no notion of how you get through the day. In Britain, at eleven o'clock in the morning, they'll pass around a tin of biscuits, perhaps, and then at three o'clock in the afternoon there might be a sandwich with its corners curling.
Tennant's appeal to doing American television:
I think there's always a sense that there's a world out there that you want to dip a toe into, and American culture is something that we grew up with in Britain. And the idea that if you can go and play in that sandpit, I think you want to try it out, at least once.
“Gracepoint” debuts at 9 p.m. Oct. 2 on Fox.