David Tennant on how good it feels to play bad
In January 2018 we got to sit down with Scottish actor David Tennant on one of the many sets of the Amazon Prime and BBC co-production of Good Omens – in this instance, sand dunes outside of Cape Town, South Africa – to talk about his role as Crowley the demon, the challenges of bringing a much-loved book faithfully to the screen, and why the resultant show is likely to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
How did you get involved with Good Omens?
I read the script and that was enough to make me realise this was something quite special. I was transported to this extraordinary world and this very particular worldview that [the authors] Neil [Gaiman] and Terry [Pratchett] had created.
They’ve got such a unique voice together. It’s not like anything else that I’ve ever read or been part of with its mix of the fantastical and the mundane and the satirical. It’s like an ancient morality tale but very much set now.
How would you categorise the show, and does it have to tread lightly given its religious content?
Good Omens is very much a satire. It’s satirising all of humanity, really, from our belief systems to our ways of being human. But it’s doing it very affectionately.
When you’re dealing with things like heaven and hell and talking about religious issues – as you might’ve seen yesterday at the [set of the] crucifixion of Christ – it’s potentially quite contentious. But actually, it’s not, because the show is a celebration of belief systems. It doesn’t deny anything while being quite free with the with the way it uses religious motifs.
Given the state of the world, does making a show about the apocalypse seem prescient?
There’s two parts to it. I have a personal reaction to it as a human being with opinions about where the world is at.
It suddenly seems alarmingly prescient that we’re doing something about the oncoming apocalypse. At times during filming you wonder if society will even make it to transmission date.
But then, in terms of the character, he’s very much within the world and infrastructure of hell, and part of what I think is glorious about the way Neil sets these characters is that it’s supernatural and, at the same time, it’s like an episode of The Office in terms of the politics of the characters, the mundanities, and their small-mindedness. Crowley is very much about protecting his corner of existence.
The show’s only six episodes, but they’re pretty packed, covering everything from Ancient Rome to the French revolution to now. What was that like to shoot?
The scale and scope of it keeps bewildering us. We were in Shakespeare’s globe for a scene, we recreated the crucifixion for a scene, we’ll do Ancient Rome in a couple of days, and the Garden of Eden. It sort of zips around.
I know there’s been several attempts to make this in the past, and I can absolutely understand why they’ve been defeated. It requires all these locations and characters, and each has to be completed so fully, because it’s the story of the entire world heading towards the end of days. And you can’t really recreate that in the corner of a studio at Elstree.
It’s amazing that we’ve had the resources and the space to tell this story with all the élan that it requires. Every day is very exciting.
What’s been the most fun about making the show?
We get to do so much dressing up. There are so many ludicrous versions of these characters through time, and these scenes are sprinkled throughout the shoot. That’s been the gift that keeps on giving.
There’s the full-armour version, the Garden of Eden version… and having them all being made real has been amazing. I never imagined it would be possible. Reading the script I thought a lot of that would have to be dropped. It’s part of the testament to Neil’s tenacity, Douglas’s vision and, indeed, Amazon’s pockets.
This is the first Amazon production you’ve worked on. What’s the Amazon magic touch, if there is one?
They’ve invested in it. You can feel it. It feels like a production that’s loved and that some money’s been spent on, frankly. It sounds callous to be so crude, but that’s what you’ll see. You’ll see this enormous canvas that’s been created, and that just needs a production company that’s willing to allow that and invest in it.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been through the sausage machine of a million executives who might, in other circumstances, have homogenised it. This feels very much like we have the true voice of this novel. Thank goodness for that.
I can’t pretend to know what the early production meetings were about and whether that was something Amazon facilitated or, just allowed to happen, or actively encouraged, but however we ended up here, it’s a credit to [Amazon] that they’ve allowed the show to exist in the way they have.
Did you know Martin Sheen (who plays the angel Aziraphale) well before shooting?
Not well, but we’d known each other for years. We did a film called Bright Young Things together about 20 years ago. But I don’t think we were even on screen together, though we spent some time socialising. We’d never really acted together.
But I knew his work – of course – and I knew him well enough to know he’s a decent and fun and lovely human being to be around.
I was pretty confident that was a selling point [when I signed on], as the vast majority of our scenes are together. And you want to know that going into what’s been a six-month shoot.
He’s a great person to be on set with. He’s creative, inspired, reliable, funny and quick and all the things you hope to have in a scene partner. That’s been one of the great joys of this job.
On paper Crowley is a kind of a villain because, well, he’s a demon, but he’s also a hero. Was he as fun to play as he looks?
I don’t really see him as a villain. Obviously, he would identify as one – that’s the team that he works for and that’s what he’s supposed to be doing — but he keeps confounding that.
The great charm about Crowley and Aziraphale is that they are not very binary. That’s their great tragedy: over the thousands of years they’ve lived on Earth, they’ve slipped from their primary mission.
That’s what makes them such good friends – although they wouldn’t even admit to being friends – and what makes them the yin and yang for each other. Aziraphale’s actually a bit of a bastard, and Crowley’s quite kind-hearted.
Officially, Crowley’s a demon, so he has that licence to be a little naughty, but he stops short of being entirely vile, which is lovely to play.
He’s a delicious character. He’s got a real swagger to him. He enjoys humanity and he’s happy to be drinking up his time on earth… he’s Dionysian in that way.
How involved were you in the look of Crowley’s costume?
In the novel he’s much more German-street bespoke tailored. That was the original version in the script, but then we all talked about it and it felt like maybe there was a slightly more ‘of-now’ version of Crowley that was more rock ’n roll and a bit lusher.
I didn’t want him to be too slimy or lounge lizardy… it felt like he was a bit more en vogue than that. Or at least his version of what that might be. Not too buttoned-up, a bit looser, a bit more anarchic.
So the character of Crowley got a bit of a contemporary makeover?
We’re making the show now and setting the modern bits of it now, so you’ve got to be influenced by that. I’m almost too close to it to say how different the character is to the one in the book, but throughout history we see Crowley living in the moment he’s in.
Much more than Aziraphale, who stopped changing his clothes at the turn of the last century. So it felt right having Crowley recasting himself for each era, including this one.
What was it like working with an 11-year-old actor playing the Antichrist and the rest of the young cast (called ‘The Them’ in the show)?
They’re all appallingly professional. They put us all to disgraceful shame. They know their lines, they know how to stand… they’re unmoved. There was a take today with all sorts of stuff going on in the background and Sam [Taylor Buck] didn’t miss a beat and it was in the can.
There’s something about the focus of youth that makes us all feel terribly old.
Lastly, why should people watch Good Omens?
I imagine if you start watching it you won’t be able to stop. At first you might be completely bemused by the way the story barrels along, the corners it takes and the handbrake turns it makes, and then you’ll start meeting more and more of the extraordinary characters – and indeed the extraordinary actors playing them – and I imagine the experience of watching it will be like going into the rabbit hole and you’ll just go further and further and suddenly you’ll realise there’s no way you’re going back… I hope I’m right.