Q & A: David Tennant on ‘Gracepoint’, American Accents and Playing the Same Role Twice

Gracepoint star David Tennant, probably best known for playing Doctor Who, recently did a press call where he chatted about American accents, his theater background and creating the same role twice - as he did in the BBC's Broadchurch.


FOX’s new 10-episode series Gracepoint, adapted from the British series Broadchurch, tells the tragic story of a young boy who is murdered and the police investigation that follows. Leading that investigation is Detective Emmett Carver (David Tennant) and Detective Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn), who soon find that the mystery will turn neighbor against neighbor in the small seaside town.

Series star Tennant, probably best known for playing Doctor Who, recently did a press call where he chatted about American accents, his theater background and creating the same role twice – as he did in the BBC’s Broadchurch.

Gracepoint, which also stars Nick Nolte, Jacki Weaver and Michael Pena, airs on Thursdays at 9pm on FOX.

For those who watch Broadchurch, what will we see with Carver that we didn’t see with Hardy?

David Tennant: That’s probably not for me to say. It’s probably for someone who can be more objective to really know. I didn’t set out to reinvent something particularly. I think there’s a sense, with the whole show, that if it’s not broke, you’re not really out to fix it. We’re really out to tell this story to an audience who, broadly speaking, haven’t seen it yet.

Broadchurch was obviously a bit of the sensation back here in the UK, and I think that’s what brought it to the attention of Fox. It got a very loyal and very enthusiastic following on BBC America. There’s a huge populist audience who haven’t seen it yet, and that I think is what we’re principally aiming at.

I didn’t set out to change anything particularly, I just tried to tell the story as it came up and through the script, and be as truthful and loyal to that as possible.

I think Hardy and Carver are very different, actually. They certainly feel very different in my bones. Obviously, they look quite similar. They are following the trail of an investigation which has many similarities, but they feel different to me. It’s probably for others to make a list of quite how obvious those differences might be. That’s not really my principal concern. I just want to tell this fantastic story as truthfully and as honestly as I can, I suppose.

You have worked in film and stage and TV. Do you have a favorite genre that you prefer to work in?

David Tennant: I don’t really. I’m quite greedy for the variety, I suppose. I like the fact that I get to flip between them all. That’s something that I would sort of work quite hard to preserve my ability to do that, I suppose. There are advantages and frustrations with each, I guess. In theater, you get to tell a story many times, over a number of months, and you get to investigate every possible corner of what that story might be.

I guess if you’re filming something, whether it’s film or television, it’s all about chasing that one moment and getting it in the can to make it live just that one time. They’re both related but very different techniques. I enjoy trying to master both of them really. I think they are quite different jobs, but the experience of working the theater I think informs working on film and television and vice versa. I feel very fortunate that I get to dabble in all these different genres. Hopefully, that’s something I’ll be able to continue to do.

You’re doing an American accent on this version of the show.

David Tennant: Yes.

Executive producer Carolyn Bernstein praised as impeccable. I know that some critics have been more critical, saying you sort of sound like Batman at times, so…

David Tennant: Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

No, there’s certainly not. I’m wondering, my question is, how you perfected your American accent for the show, and are you worried that American fans of Doctor Who, who recognize you for your Scottish accent, but they may not be as receptive to your character?

David Tennant: Well if they’re fans of Doctor Who, I didn’t use a Scottish accent in that, either. I used an English accent in that. I don’t imagine that’s an issue. I think doing different accents is part of the job of acting really. It’s something else that I quite enjoy the challenge of, to be honest.

Preparing for an American accent, I think just about in every corner of the globe, we’re brought up watching American movies, so it’s something that we all have some kind of ear for, I guess. Obviously, it’s something that you take seriously, and you work with dialect coaches and experts to help you, and then you just practice until it’s kind of in your bones, really, so that it’s not something you’re thinking about when you’re on set every day. You do your homework and then you wind it up and let it go, I suppose.

It’s part of what actors do. I always like seeing people transforming themselves in whatever way that might be, and a different accent is part of that. An accent, obviously, it’s to do with the way your mouth works and the sounds that come out of your head, but somehow it informs everything about you, I think. If you speak in a different accent, you begin to move in a slightly different way. You think in a slightly different way. I think it’s part of trying to find what makes a character and it’s probably one of the things that, because I’ve done a character very similar to this in the British show that preceded Gracepoint, I guess this is, the accent, is one of the things that helps define what’s different about this incarnation of this particular character I guess.

Could talk about working with Anna Gunn, and talk about the relationship that your two characters have, as compared to the relationship that Hardy and Miller had in the original. They, of course, had a very combative, prickly relationship. Does it get off on the same foot, and just in general working with Anna Gunn?

David Tennant: Yes. The central relationship between Carver and Ellie so defines the show really, and defines the way the story is told. Essentially, the bones of it are the same as Broadchurch is. I play the big city cop who gets dropped into this one horse town, as he sees it, and is given, as his deputy, this rather local cop, who is perfectly good at her job, but from Carver’s point of view is something of a hick, who doesn’t really understand how modern policing works, and gets far too emotionally involved with everyone, and really needs to develop a healthy streak of cynicism.

That relationship, as it was in Broadchurch, is very much one of the central structures to Gracepoint. A lot of that is defined by the relationship you can build up as actors. I was very nervous, especially having done this show before, and that relationship and worked very well with the wonderful Olivia Colman, who plays Miller in Broadchurch. I was nervous, of course, turning up on day one to meet Anna, because we had so much to do together, that that relationship was so important to get right.

Luckily, she just turned out to be a proper actress, someone who was committed to getting it right, who was open, who was easy to work with, who you could also have a laugh with, who you could throw anything at her and she would respond. That’s just the kind of relationship, the kind of professional relationship that you always hope for.

It was a huge relief and then a great joy to work with her throughout the ten episodes. Everyone who knows her work knows how talented she is. I was very chuffed to get to play alongside and also get to know her offset as well. She’s a lovely lady and someone that I feel greatly enriched to know.

Do you feel your theater background helped you with the show, since you’re used to doing different interpretations of the same basic story?

David Tennant: Well, maybe. It’s hard for me to really know, isn’t it? I keep being asked, “Was it odd to tell the same story again?” Of course, from a theater background it’s not at all, it’s what you do eight times a week. In fact, I was doing it in a whole new set of circumstances, surrounded by completely different actors, at times telling completely different parts of the story.

There are bits of plot; there are some characters in Gracepoint that no equivalent existed for in Broadchurch. It didn’t really feel like a repetition, it just felt like you were telling a story that was familiar, but there were enough differences. Yes, as you say, acting is always about repeating things, to a greater or lesser extent. It’s very rare you do one take of something, even on a TV show, so you’re used to repeating things more than once. It just was an extension of that principle, I suppose, to go back and tell a similar story again from the start.

Maybe theater background does help with that; it’s difficult for me to entirely know, as that’s the training that I’ve had. Because I started in the theater, that still sort of feels like the day job to me, and any kind of filming, it still fills like a bit of a sabbatical, even though I probably do a lot more of that now then I do on stage. I guess that’s in my bones, that’s how I sort of approach things. Maybe it did help.

With the characters in Gracepoint and Broadchurch being so similar, was your approach to playing each of them different at all or was the goal more along the lines of just bringing the character from Broadchurch to a wider audience in America?

David Tennant: I just tried to play each scene as it came. I didn’t want to be self-consciously quirky about it. I didn’t want to re-create something for the sake of or reinvent something for the sake of reinventing it. I didn’t think he’s got to be different, I’ll give him a limp or a funny hat or a lisp. I just wanted to tell the story. I just approached each scene as openly as I could, and tried to tell that story as honestly and as well as I could. I think that’s all you can ever really do.

It would be sort of self-conscious, and just a bit odd for me to be setting out to do something that the script didn’t support. Inevitably things then do become different, because you’re playing even scenes that are very similar with very different actors, so you’re reacting to what they are giving you, you’re responding to the different environment that you’re in.

I think at times there are some scenes that are very similar to Broadchurch. There are others where even though the words can be very similar at times, they play very differently. That was continually surprising for me being part of it. I don’t suppose it would have ever been any other way really.

I think the thing is we’re very fortunate. I think this is a tribute to the quality of the script, because good actors, in my experience, respond to good scripts and want to do them. Because it’s such a well written piece, I think both times, in the UK and in America, we attracted Rolls-Royce of casts, and therefore whenever you go to play a scene with people that are that good, something exciting is going to happen. That, I think, happened in every episode and every scene. That’s the sort of thing you dream of when you leave drama school. These are the kind of jobs you fantasize about.

Are you ever surprised to learn anything about yourself as an actor? With such an extensive career in taking on these roles, specifically with role of Emmett Carver, is there anything that you were surprised to learn about yourself as an actor?

David Tennant: That’s hard to know when you’re in it, I think. I think you sort of realize these things years down the line, actually. I look back on things I did years ago, and go that’s when I started to do that, or that’s when I figured out that sometimes you can try too hard or sometimes you can worry too much. Many actors would recognize that journey through a career is learning how to let go of various personal hang-ups.

I’m sure that my continuing journey is absolutely part of that, and I think you can be a better actor the more relaxed you can be, the more honest you can be, the more candid you can be, the less self-conscious you can be. I think that’s something that keeps going and I’m sure my experience in Gracepoint will contribute to that when I look back on it, with the objectivity of a decade or so.

The process itself of doing an American television show versus a British television show. Is the process and the making of them pretty different or were they pretty similar?

David Tennant: It’s kind of the same job all over the world really; it kind of works in the same way. The way that it’s shot obviously depends on how the director does it. It’s basically the same; makeup people, and props guys, and the electricians. They’re kind of the same the world over, the same sort of people. Actors are a very similar breed, whichever country you go to. There are differences. There are practical differences to the way the days are structured and to the amount that’s expected to be shot in each day. That’s grace notes, really.

Craft service, that’s a difference. We don’t have that in Britain. There’s more snacks on a US TV show. That, I would say, is the biggest difference. At the end of the day, everyone’s really just trying to tell the best story they possibly can, in the most elegant and compelling way. I would say that’s more similar than I would have expected before I did it.

It’s the sort of industry that people are quite pleased to be part of. There’s far too many of us all wanting to do these wonderful jobs. I think most people, who are lucky enough to get these jobs, are thrilled to be there and really are highly motivated and very excited about what we’re doing. I think that, I would say, is true the world over, so it’s a great pleasure for me to be part of that.

When you’re playing Carver, does it tend to at all though bleed into Hardy? Do you ever get confused or do they get mixed up? I think it would be kind of hard to keep straight in your head sometimes.

David Tennant: Not really because, like I was saying, as we’ve been talking earlier, you’re just sort of playing each scene as it comes up. You only shoot one scene at a time, so you try to stay as in the moment as possible. Maybe, if I was day about, going between the two shows, but because I went to Vancouver Island where we shot the show, and I lived surrounded by all the people who were involved with it. That’s what we were there to do. That’s what you’re concentrating on while you’re there. I don’t think it did really.

I was worried that might be the case. There’d been quite a long gap between Broadchurch Season 1 and then shooting Gracepoint. There’d been about 18 months. Then I came straight off the end of Gracepoint into the start of shooting Broadchurch two, which is what I’m doing right now. That was literally a 24-hour turnaround, and I headed into the read through lousy with jetlag. I thought this could be tricky. I don’t want to be slipping into the wrong accent. I think, bar calling one of the families by the wrong name once, I don’t think there’s been any other time where I’ve got confused between the two.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top