Christopher And His Kind, by acclaimed British playwright Kevin Elyot (My Night With Reg), explores Christopher Isherwood’s formative years in Thirties Berlin in the run-up to the Second World War. Here, Matt Smith reveals why he wanted to play one of the 20th century’s finest writers.
“First and foremost as always it was the script that attracted me to the role,” explains Matt Smith, who is best known for playing The Doctor in Doctor Who. “The story is such a fascinating one. I loved the idea of playing someone so extreme to me, that different kind of vocalisation and physical shape.
“Christopher Isherwood is such an interesting man. There’s something very romantic about Christopher and Auden going off as young men to Berlin. At the heart of the piece is Christopher’s acceptance of his own identity and self-discovery – I think we learn about a man exploring his sexuality and the arena in which he can do that freely.”
The popular actor explains why visiting the home Isherwood shared with his partner proved to be an invaluable experience. “For research I went to see Don Bachardy [Isherwood’s partner before he died] in the States at the house they shared. Don helped me understand his character – he said Christopher was very polite. Just seeing the love Don had for him, and to be in the space where Christopher had lived and written was very informative.
“I also read Christopher’s novels, and then spent a lot of time trawling through video footage, watching, listening and repeating his voice. I had a wonderful voice coach called Patsy Rodenburg who said: ‘Look, just go for it. Don’t worry about trying to imitate him. What’s more interesting is trying to capture the essence of the man and then be yourself.’
“I don’t know whether I’ve managed to capture his voice exactly because I think that has to remain the invention of the actor; however, I hope there’s an element of him in there.”
Playing Isherwood has given Matt a fresh perspective on the magnitude of the work involved in trying to characterise a real person on screen. “This has given me a great respect for people like Michael Sheen,” continues Matt. “But I hope I’ve captured a moment – that little glimpse of glee in Christopher’s eye you know he had; that mischief.”
Having to make mental adjustments away from his Doctor Who persona was a hurdle the 28-year-old was able to master. “Just thinking in a different way physically to The Doctor was also a very interesting challenge for me because one is based on movement and madness and the other on stillness and stiffness really. I hope that you look at this and quickly forget that you’re watching The Doctor.”
Another challenge for Matt was taking part in the nude scenes … and experiencing stubble rash for the first time! “Well, you’ve just got to commit to it, gung ho. It’s different from when you’re doing nude scenes with a boy than doing them with a girl, as you can imagine,” explains Matt. “But I tried to commit to it and wholeheartedly go for it. Having to kiss boys, and finally understanding the nature of stubble rash, was interesting,” he laughs.
Filming took place in Ireland where sets were constructed to resemble Berlin in the Thirties, but Matt had no difficulties visualising the real Berlin because he’d spent some time there shooting another project prior to filming.
“I did a film in Berlin last year before doing Christopher And His Kind; I was there for three months. It’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I would have loved to have seen it at that time in the Thirties because even now it has such a liberal sort of atmosphere, that’s one of its great virtues. That’s one of the things that drew Christopher there, I think.”
The Northampton-born actor, whose credits include Moses Jones, Party Animals and The Street, was a huge fan of his period costumes. “The costume designer has done a wonderful job; the costumes really fly off the screen. I think she captured the Thirties to Fifties brilliantly. It made me want to buy a three-piece suit from the Thirties!” laughs Matt.
Having old friends on set made the experience even more enjoyable, he continues. “Working with Lindsay Duncan again, who’s a great friend of mine, was wonderful. I could work with her on everything I do, every hour of the day. She makes me laugh, she’s so much fun. Pip Carter [who also starred alongside Matt in Party Animals] is wonderful as Auden; he’s a fabulous actor who really makes it all look very effortless.”
Matt, who studied drama with creative writing for a time at the University of East Anglia, has aspirations of his own to be a writer.
“Christopher was such a wonderful writer of prose. The other thing I learnt from Don is Christopher would always write in the morning, he’d get something done every day.
“When I was playing Christopher I would write as much as I could every day. Being around Steven Moffat [Doctor Who writer and creative head] and working with writers like Kevin Elyot has been really interesting. I’m just trying to learn about structure at the moment.”
With Christopher Isherwood under his belt, would Matt consider playing another real person on the small screen if the role was right?
“Well I’d quite like to play Ted Hughes. That would be cool.”