Amazon Prime’s apocalyptic comedy Good Omens has proven a hit with viewers and critics – and star David Tennant thinks this may have something to do with the current state of the world. Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray went to meet him to find out more.
I have, for as long as I can remember, been ever so slightly obsessed with David Tennant. When I was 15, my dad offered me a signed photo of my favourite Doctor Who star so long as I promised to complete some household chores.
Many years later, I discovered that my much-prized autograph had been forged by my devious father – something which I can’t stop myself from blurting out when I meet Tennant for our interview in a London hotel.
“That is deeply dark,” he responds, eyes widening in shock. “I’m so sorry. I feel somehow responsible, even though I was blissfully unaware that was even happening.”
And this, in a nutshell, tells you everything you need to know about David Tennant.
Tennant may frequently be the most interesting person in the room, but he’s always far more interested in what everyone else has to say. He listens as much as he talks (a rare quality in Hollywood). And he’s genuinely dedicated to not just making the world a better place, but speaking up on behalf of others, too.
He proved this point at this year’s #March4Women, when he emotionally read out the testimony of John Clough MBE, an anti-domestic violence campaigner whose daughter Jane was killed by her partner in 2010. And when Stylist’s women’s editor attended an International Women’s Day breakfast in aid of a girls’ education charity earlier this year, she noticed that Tennant was pretty much the only high-profile man in attendance.
When I bring this up in our interview, though, Tennant bashfully bats away my praise.
“I just think it’s common sense,” he tells me, when I ask why he – unlike so many other men in the spotlight – actually sticks his neck out to talk passionately about feminist issues. “I mean, I think it goes beyond any sort of political response. It’s just the natural way of things and the natural way to be.”
Adding that he doesn’t believe it’s his place to tell people how to be feminist, Tennant goes on to explain that it’s not so much about being aware of the world’s ongoing issues – although this is, of course, very important. Rather, being a feminist ally is more about readdressing your own behaviour and constantly analysing the narratives you have been fed from childhood.
“As a father of daughters, [world issues are] something that one wants to be keenly aware of, but it’s that constant examination of programming that you’ve received yourself,” he says. “I think all of us men – and women – can be guilty of having expectations of the world.
“We just have to make sure that we’re challenging them, just to make sure that we’re all in a levelled playing field. That’s all it should be about.”
With this thought in mind, it’s almost hard to believe that Tennant has, over the years, brought us some of TV and film’s most iconic villains: think Jessica Jones’ abuser Kilgrave, Bad Samaritan’s psychopathic Cale, and Harry Potter’s demented Barty Crouch, to name just three.
And, for those who have yet to read Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens (if that is you, stop everything and rectify so immediately), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Crowley – Tennant’s character in the book’s new Amazon Prime adaptation – is yet another ‘bad guy’ to add to the list. He is a demon, after all – the very same demon who tempted Eve with the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in fact.
But, as Tennant is quick to point out, Crowley is a demon who is doing his best to save humankind from an antichrist-induced apocalypse, so he isn’t all bad.
“Crowley’s mischievous,” he says. “He’s not particularly evil. He finds the unrelenting evil of hell a little bit tedious, quite frankly, and he’s much more interested in taking down the mobile phone network than actual death and destruction.”
It’s an interesting point, and one which begs the question: can there ever be such a thing as a truly evil person? Tennant isn’t so sure.
“Even in the in the most awful human being there must be something of humanity in there,” he says. “There must be something that you can kind of understand, even if this understanding is psychopathy. Then at least… I don’t know if you can have empathy, but you can have sympathy, I suppose.
“That’s the thing with any kind of acting job – you’ve got to find the kind of the way in, the explanation. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the choices the character makes, but you have to get on the other side of the argument even if they are, you know, unrepentant and awful.”
Good Omens may play with our preconceived notions of evil, but it also dishes up a healthy portion of apocalyptic dread. Indeed, the show’s allure has a lot to do with society’s very real fears about the end of the world. And Tennant – who recently announced that he and his wife Georgia Moffett are expecting their fifth child – is every bit as afraid about what the future holds as the rest of us.
“It does feel like the end times are worryingly close to hand,” he says. “But at the same time, I think we all imagine we’re going to work our way through it somehow, but right now, there aren’t a lot of optimistic signs.”
Despite this, though, Tennant remains hopeful about humanity’s chances.
“One has a kind of general sense that it’s all going to be OK, however misplaced. And, you know, there are some clever people and you just hope that they will triumph. It feels a little bit like the less nuanced or the less intelligent might hold the sway for a while, but the pendulum swings back, historically, it does. You just hope not too much damage is done in the meantime.”
Tennant is tactful, and he doesn’t name any names, but his meaning is clear: power is not necessarily in the best hands at this current time.
“The biggest threat to our planet is some kind of climate emergency, and I feel like we’re waking up to that,” he says. “But it may already be too late. I think we’ll realise too late and then start to do something about it, and maybe we’ll manage to save ourselves the very worst excess, but we’ll probably already be committed to some pretty awful stuff. We’re probably there already aren’t we?”
I admit that I don’t know the answer, to which he responds: “Who knows? If one could predict that obviously, one would stop it from happening.”
Perhaps it is this sense of doom that has led to such an influx of dystopian dramas of late. Good Omens, Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale, Chernobyl, even Game of Thrones to some extent – all of these shows deal with dark truths, horrifying futures and end-of-the-world scenarios. I ask Tennant if he thinks the reason we’re drawn to such fiction is because it can help us distance ourselves from what’s going on around us, and he takes a moment to consider my question.
“Maybe it helps make sense of it,” he says. “Part of the purpose of telling stories is to try to make sense of the world that we are within and to try and, you know, we fictionalise things to see the truth.”
He disagrees, though, that this is a new trend.
“Take Nineteen Eighty-Four,” he says, pointing out that that George Orwell’s classic novel was published in 1949. “This sort of dystopian worldview is not new. It’s something we are endlessly fascinated by. It’s a bit like picking a scab, isn’t it? I wonder if it’s the stories that change, or it’s just what we notice about the stories that change. You know, I’ve done quite a lot Shakespeare, and it feels like whenever you do a production of Shakespeare, because the writing is so full of human experience, it seems to reflect the moment that society is in. And that can’t be, because the plays are 400 years old.”
I suggest that audiences are probably more aware of a show’s real-life parallels than ever before, because we’re all analysing and discussing TV on social media and Twitter. But David cuts me off.
“We’re not all on Twitter,” he reminds me. “I don’t know how people can watch a TV show and tweet about it at the same time.”
I assure him that people do exactly this – and that many of them, too, dive into the blackhole of Reddit to pore over the details of every single Easter egg and reference and metaphor. (“What’s Reddit?” he asks.) Just a few notes of music in The Handmaid’s Tale can, after all, be loaded with meaning – and any one of Tennant’s outlandish outfits in Good Omens can make headlines, if one fan suggests they are loaded with “secret meaning”.
But, while online forums can prove wonderful places to connect with other fans, I feel obliged to inform David about the dark side of social media. Over the past few years, we have seen a number of trolls – many of them men, but not all – become “triggered” by women in sci-fi. I tell him about those who trashed Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who before it even started, the issues people had with Star Wars’ Rose, the scathing comments about the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, and the seemingly endless source of outrage over Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel.
“The culture of outrage is very hard to get past,” notes Tennant thoughtfully. “And it’s the enemy of nuanced debate, as people are hiding behind a screen version of themselves, and the only way to be heard is to become more and more entrenched in an opinion… it’s a modern phenomenon that’s quite dangerous, because it’s very difficult to get past that sort of tribalism.
“Funnily enough, if Good Omens teaches us anything, I think it’s that the people who are really going to save the world are the ones that will walk from the positions of plurality and meet somewhere in the middle. They will find a way, find a middle ground, find some debate and nuance that isn’t just shouting and screaming each other.”
David has never been too worried about how fans of Pratchett and Gaiman’s novel will respond to the Amazon adaptation on social media, because he says Good Omens perfectly captures the book’s “unique and idiosyncratic voice”. (And besides, he’s not on social media, due to his fear that he’d “get sucked into it and never escape”.)
“I think we have managed to capture that in the adaptation, and that’s probably why Neil Gaiman had to [write the script],” he says. “I suspect if anyone else had come to adapt this for television, they would have made it more like a TV drama, which would probably have killed it. It needs that sort of slight anarchy to it. And I think that’s also why it works on TV, rather than as a film.”
Of course, TV is often as big as any movie nowadays, and Good Omens is no different. Starring alongside David is Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale, who teams up with Crowley to prevent the oncoming apocalypse. The cast also includes stars such as Miranda Richardson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Jack Whitehall and John Hamm as the Angel Gabriel.
“There was this sort of revolving door of extraordinary people,” says Tennant. “People were delighted to be there. But I think that’s a testament to the source material, and to what Doug [MacKinnon] as a director and Neil [Gaiman] did with it.”
Tennant knows that sci-fi isn’t for everyone, but he thinks even people who haven’t previously been drawn to the genre will find something to enjoy in Good Omens.
“I think it’s quite hard to find something that has this combination of high drama and high comedy,” he says. “It’s not like anything you’ve seen before.”
And, he adds, it’s only six episodes long, which he sees as “rather appealing”. “I feel a bit snowed under by the constant stream of new seasons of stuff that I’ve got to catch up on, so I’m quite relieved when some nice six-part drama comes on the BBC.”
Does that mean we won’t be getting a Good Omens sequel, then?
“Well, that would mean people would love it,” says David. “So I wouldn’t be sad if people are calling for a second season. But I think there’s a great pleasure in having a beginning, and a middle and an end of something that contains a story. And that’s what the novel is.
“The novel was Neil and Terry writing together – and this is very much a tribute to that.”
All six episodes of Good Omens are available to stream now on Amazon Prime.
Main image: Getty