WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
He’s already won a bunch of awards, including an Oscar, but come Christmas, this 55-year-old actor will be the next big thing out of Britain.
By Jack Doyle
When 15-year-old Peter Capaldi saw an anniversary special of Doctor Who in 1974, he was so excited that he built an alien from scratch and wrote a passionate fan letter about it.
This summer, Doctor Who writers announced that the Doctor, a time-traveling, many-lived alien, would “regenerate” into a new actor. After a built-up aura of secrecy better suited to the royal family than to a TV actor, millions of people tuned in to watch the big reveal. Lights dimmed, lasers flashed, curtains parted — and out stepped a bashfully grinning 55-year-old Capaldi.
If you don’t watch much British TV, it’s unlikely you’ve heard the name, and with good reason. The last time Peter Capaldi took to Hollywood’s silver screen, it was as a zombie-dodging doctor in World War Z who offered up a few terse words to Brad Pitt. A lanky, graying, hollow-faced, raspy-voiced Scotsman, he’s hardly America’s type.
Nevertheless, the guy has won an Oscar, two awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, plus armfuls of other acting awards. Where has Peter Capaldi been?
After a built-up aura of secrecy better suited to the royal family than to a TV actor, millions of people tuned in to watch the big reveal.
The short answer: in the BBC’s stable of 50-ish “jobbing actors,” as he calls them. Capaldi is an unusual pathfinder out of this common resting place for the U.K.’s best middle-aged actors. He’s also resisted the pull of Hollywood, at least for the time being.
“At the moment everybody wants you to go … they keep saying, ‘Don’t you want to be Hugh Laurie?’” he speculated recently. “I mean I love Hugh Laurie, but I don’t want to be a guy who goes to work every day for nine months of the year in a corner of Burbank.”
Unlike many of his British actor compatriots, including the three most recent Doctors, Capaldi didn’t train as an actor, but rather as a painter. He learned to perform in a punk band called The Dreamboys, then appeared in indie films in Thatcherite Britian during the 1980s and ’90s. His acting, consequently, is all raw experience — it’s apparent in how his voice breaks when he shouts and how his own body sometimes seems out of control.
Capaldi has also tried his hand at writing and directing. His Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life rather unexpectedly won him the 1995 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. “I thought I was going to be Ridley Scott now, or Steven Spielberg,” he once commented wryly. Soft Top, Hard Shoulder, which he wrote, directed, and co-starred in with fellow actor and wife Elaine Collins, was honoured at the London Film Festival in 1993.
But Capaldi truly shines in characters teetering on the verge of collapse, from his arm-flapping 1983 debut as a hapless suit-and-tie chasing Burt Lancaster around rural Scotland in Local Hero, to a straight-laced BBC broadcaster heading for breakdown in 2012’s The Hour. His heartbreaking portrayal of an old alcoholic journalist in BBC Scotland’s 2011 The Field of Blood highlights his peculiar brilliance as an actor – Capaldi understands the power of understatement, TV specificity and what’s left unsaid in how modern people communicate.
People approach him on the street asking nicely to be told, “Fuck off!”
His decisive break, however, was about as unsubtle as you can get. In 2005, Capaldi appeared as Malcolm Tucker, a snarling, fantastically sweary, skeletal Labour spin doctor whom Capaldi turned into an angry political monster in the BBC’s The Thick of It. During its seven-year run, Malcolm Tucker came to life so vividly that he had his own Guardian column during the 2010 U.K. election. The show was the inspiration for the award-winning American political satire Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss.
The Thick of It’s rehearsals were improvisation-based and live-wire dangerous, throwing Capaldi into punch-ups with James Gandolfini, warm-ups to Frank Sinatra and swear-offs with the inspiration for his character, Tony Blair’s formidable former director of communications, Alastair Campbell. The result? Two BAFTAs, and people approaching him on the street asking nicely to be told, “Fuck off!” In real life, he’s known for his friendliness and approachability — but, he’ll admit, “If you spend hours being scornful, there’s a residue left when you ask ‘Where is the TV remote control?’ or ‘What do you mean I have to mow the lawn?’”
After Capaldi’s introduction in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special, he’s guaranteed household-name status. Despite recent criticism of the show’s writers, Doctor Who is a multigenerational program, and given its success on BBC America, it’s also multinational. You’ll see the Doctor’s time-traveling blue police box, the TARDIS, on many British streets; though many would argue that the show is intended for kids, many people sit down to watch Doctor Who together as a family.
Capaldi is one fan in for the long haul. Just seconds after the big announcement he teased, “I haven’t really played Doctor Who since I was 9!” It’s just the kind of giddy enthusiasm we can’t wait to tune in to see.
- Jack Doyle, OZY AuthorContact Jack Doyle