The Ascension of Matt Smith
Matt Smith is playing the piano. So far as I can see, he’s playing from memory, but he might be riffing. Either way, he’s lost in the music – eyes shut, shoulders swaying, apparently oblivious to the fact he’s in the middle of a fashion shoot, surrounded by lights, cameras and a crew half a dozen strong.
Whatever it is he’s playing, it is stirring, if not cinematic. Might be Einaudi, which would certainly fit this space; a vast, rather jaded Victorian church in East London only a few terrified teenagers away from an indie horror flick. It’s a cool October day and there’s a draft blowing. Just what is that sound?
‘Oh, it’s nothing. I was just making it up,’ he says a little sheepishly, conscious perhaps that he has powers beyond most of us. ‘I’ve never had lessons.’ Somehow, that’s not hard to believe. Watch Smith on screen and there’s a sort of nervous creative energy about him. He has the air of a man who could turn his hand to anything – just not for long.
“I thought acting was ‘namby pamby’, which is reductive I’m afraid, but that’s how I used to look at it”
It’s time for his next shot, and as he stands, the crew bursts into applause. ‘Oh, stop it you lot,’ he says, playfully waving away the adulation. There’s more than a hint of the charm he brought to the role that made him a household name, the 11th Doctor in the BBC’s Doctor Who series. At 26, he was the youngest actor ever to take on the role.
Now 34, it’s no longer just the Doctor who defines his maturing career. In December, he returns to screens playing Prince Philip in the second series of The Crown, Netflix’s glossy £100 million Golden Globe-winning royal soap opera. But that nearly wasn’t the case.
Sipping a mug of milky tea he insisted making himself, he tells me The Crown very nearly didn’t have its Prince Philip. ‘There was a degree of scepticism initially, because I thought, “I know this story, I know what happens to the royals,”’ he says. ‘Then, I read the script of all 10 episodes and thought, “Oh, actually, I didn’t know that, and I definitely didn’t know about that…” It was cool.’
It’s a good job he was won over. If The Crown has proved anything – it’s never pretended to be anything other than a fictionalised account – it’s that interest in the lives of our royal family remains at fever pitch. Netflix doesn’t release ratings, but with a further four series in the pipeline, it’s safe to assume they’re high. Even the Queen is reported to have watched – and liked – it.
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Creator Peter Morgan (who also wrote 2006’s Oscar-winning The Queen, and the 2013 play The Audience) set out to create a drama that humanised the monarchy, and at times, that’s sparked controversy. The opening sequence in the first episode of series one depicts George VI throwing a hissy fit at his valet, before reciting a limerick containing a swear word too graphic to reprint here.
That set the tone, and The Crown has come closer than any other series to breaking the British taboo of over-exposing the royal family’s private affairs. It’s also met resistance from the establishment, including Westminster Abbey, which refused to allow Netflix to use it for the scene re-creating the Queen’s coronation. It’s set to continue down the same path in series two, which will explore growing tensions in Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage (including allusions to Philip’s possible adultery), as well as the Duke of Windsor’s reputation as a Nazi sympathiser. Some might say this goes too far, but not Smith.
‘Of course, you want to be respectful, but these things have to be explored because they’re based in fact,’ he says. ‘And one has to remember that these are Peter Morgan’s interpretations of the facts, and my interpretation of how Prince Philip reacted to the situations he was in.
‘Philip and Elizabeth are human beings,’ he continues. ‘We’ve anointed them and turned them into a symbol, but they bleed like the rest of us. The Crown is at its most interesting when it feels domesticated, when you see them in their bedroom or brushing their teeth. They’re a family like any other and that part of it fascinates me.’
The role has changed Smith’s thoughts on the Prince. He comes from staunch Labour-voting working-class stock and doesn’t mind sharing that his grandfather’s reaction to the news he’d be playing Philip was (in a thick Blackburn accent): ‘Oh, you’re not playing that bloody idiot are you?’
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polo, £465 by William & Son. Navy wool-stretch trousers, £130 by Jigsaw. Brown leather Chelsea boots, £495 by O’Keeffe
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He takes a pensive sip of tea and elaborates. ‘For my money, there’s a popular misconception about Philip. He’s had to overcome a great conflict in his life – the man versus the duty. He was revered in the Navy, sporty, outdoorsy, a go-getter. Then, he was asked to walk two steps behind his wife in an age when that didn’t happen to other men. He sacrificed a great deal for Queen and country. He even introduced the first royal press conference. As I’ve looked into him I’ve decided he’s a much deeper thinker than we give him credit for.’
At this point, Smith’s thoughts seem to wander. He’s a natural fidget – during the course of our shoot, our style director has to constantly adjust a tie or a collar that’s been knocked out of shape by Smith’s fiddling – and suddenly he has the look of a man who wants to get up and examine the mop and bucket in the opposite corner of the room, or flick the light switch on and off for a few moments.
To get him back on track, we turn to sport, and specifically football, his first love. Like his father and grandfather, he’s an avid Blackburn supporter. He was once tipped for a professional career, but a back injury put paid to that in his teens. It was a tricky period. ‘I was injured for about a year. Luckily, my Dad was very sage and wise about the whole thing and my drama teacher forced me into acting. I came to it with a lot of suspicion. I thought, for the want of better words, acting was “namby pamby,” which is reductive I’m afraid, but that’s how I used to look at it.’
Even so, he caught the bug, discovering it had more in common with sport than he’d anticipated. ‘When you’re an actor, you’re striving for moments that feel real and compelling. Football does the same thing,’ he says. ‘I defy anyone not to be turned on by Sergio Aguero scoring against QPR – I mean really turned on – with the pure drama of one goal deciding the fate of the championship.’
For those who (like me) might have to look that up, that’s the goal that won Manchester City the Premier League in 2012 (the same season Blackburn were relegated, another visceral moment for him).
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He continues with enthusiasm, shifting in his seat. ‘In drama, you’re reducing things to the most minute detail so they become really, really interesting. That’s what moments like that do. It’s like watching the Olympics and someone losing a race by the length of their nose. It’s totally thrilling and heartbreaking.’
There’s a charm and an energy to the way Smith explains his thoughts, which jump around almost uncontrollably. He’s not short of an opinion, either. Suddenly, we’re off sport and onto politics. ‘I’m totally non-plussed at the moment,’ he says puckishly. ‘I voted because one should, but not because anyone inspired me. The older I get, the more I think the people up there talking to us are like the teachers at school you ignored. To me, the Nineties was the last decade when politicians felt like frontmen. Theresa May has failed on all counts. At least Corbyn’s wearing a suit now.’
Trump fares no better. ‘I’m pretty in line with the rest of the world, but not the majority of America,’ he quips. ‘After all, a cartoon villain is now the leader of the Free World. Let’s hope he does some good. Things have to change, though. I mean, we’ve started to communicate about nuclear wars on Twitter.’
“You’ve just got to not think too much and just do, just be present”
Smith isn’t known for communicating on social media. In fact, he’s one of those happy to avoid it altogether. ‘It just doesn’t compel me,’ he says. ‘Look at children in schools now. When we went home we played together in the street. Now teenagers socialise on their phones and I guess the world’s shifting that way. But sometimes you’ve got to not think too much and just do, be present. I think those things remove us from being present.’
Does it bother him that he and his equally famous girlfriend, Lily James (she of Downton Abbey, War & Peace and Baby Driver), are often social media fodder? ‘I sort of denied it for a long time and still do in many ways,’ he says. ‘The mystery between celebrities and their followings has evaporated now. Frank Sinatra was a celebrity because there was distance between him and the people chasing him.
‘Fame isn’t a real thing, it’s an industry,’ he continues. ‘Some people are good at being famous and some struggle with it. Even celebrity transactions are very strange now. We used to ask actors for autographs; you’d spend time with someone, you’d ask them their name, who it was for, you’d share a moment. Now, all people want is a selfie and it’s literally “click”. Bye. Gone. And it’s not even about the photo, it’s about the moment after the photo, when it’s passed on – it’s about where it goes.’
And then we’re back to football. ‘I don’t want to be doom and gloom,’ he pleads. ‘There’s so much to look forward to. Blackburn are going well, England’s in the World Cup. I can’t wait.’
With series two of The Crown wrapped up, Smith’s attentions will soon turn to Mapplethorpe, a biopic about the controversial society photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, slated for release in 2018. Smith will take the title role, which charts the photographer’s rise to fame in the 1970s through to his untimely death in 1989. It sounds like it’ll suit his quirks a treat – he was spotted filming in New York in July, wearing a thick black wig and silk gown worthy of a rock star.
I try to bring us back around to acting, but too late, his mind’s off and running again. ‘Actually, I want to go and play music for a bit.’ He pauses for a moment, lost in his thoughts. It seems rude to interrupt. ‘You know what,’ he announces. ‘Maybe I’ll get round to those piano lessons.’
Series two of The Crown will be available on Netflix from 8 December