Peter Capaldi: ‘Every Doctor Who gets backlash’

'When I watched horror I think I saw something familiar – gore': Peter Capaldi stars in Amazon Prime Video's The Devil's Hour - Matt Towers/The Devils Hour
'When I watched horror I think I saw something familiar – gore': Peter Capaldi stars in Amazon Prime Video's The Devil's Hour - Matt Towers/The Devils Hour

“I’ve always liked a good horror film,” says Peter Capaldi. “I find them comforting, rather than disturbing.” On a rare day off, he likes to settle down with an old favourite – one of Peter Cushing’s Hammer horrors, say, or Dracula A.D. 1972. “Those films remind me of my childhood;” he adds, speaking over video from his home in Muswell Hill, North London. “I was brought up Catholic, so when I watched horror I think I saw something familiar – gore.”

In a nearly 40-year acting career, Capaldi has ticked off almost every genre, from historical drama to DC superhero movies, with plenty of comedy in between. His breakthrough as Danny Oldsen, the boyish Aberdeenshire oil executive in Local Hero (1983) was a comic role in a charming small-canvas masterpiece. Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1993), a short film which he wrote and directed, and for which he won an Oscar, was a comedy, too. His Doctor Who had an irascible charm.

But his latest role marks a rare excursion into horror. The Devil’s Hour is a six-part series for Amazon Prime Video, and Capaldi’s old Doctor Who boss Steven Moffat is an executive producer. It tells the story of Lucy Chambers (Jessica Raine), a young mother who wakes up every night at exactly 3.33am, and experiences disturbing visions. Timed for the run-up to Halloween, the series is an unsettling vision of paranormal activity in the suburbs. Capaldi plays Gideon, an enigmatic figure who comes into Lucy’s life. To say any more would risk giving the game away.

It is perhaps surprising that Capaldi has not done more horror. In the nicest way possible, at 64, his lean frame and sharp features lend themselves to scary characters. Not to mention that grin, which he can flip from friendly to menacing with the merest twitch of his muscles.

Which is not to say that he has never played scary. His best known character, alongside the Time Lord, is Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It’s snarling, savage bully of a communications director (Sample greeting: “come the f--- in or f--- the f--- off!”). It just happened that he was very funny, too. When it first aired 17 years ago, Armando Iannucci’s satire seemed like a supremely cynical view of British politics. Today it looks almost rose-tinted.

Capaldi’s own faith in British politics has been eroded over the past 12 years to the point where, as a Glaswegian, he would now support Scottish independence, he says. “It used not to be something I was particularly drawn to,” he says. I’ve lived in London for most of my life, and always loved Cardiff and Manchester and Belfast. But after the relentlessness of the past 12 years, everything we have been put through, it might just be time to go home and be a part of that.” So if there was another vote he’d support independence? “I would, yeah.”

He is still recognised for Doctor Who, of course. “Someone asked me for a selfie on the bus the other day and I felt bad, because I thought, ‘Should I refuse on the grounds it attacks the magic of Doctor Who to be photographed on the 97?’,” he says. “But then I thought, ‘No, that is actually very Who-ish.’” Russell T Davies is preparing an extravaganza for next year's 60th Who anniversary, which will include David Tennant, but Capaldi would rather let sleeping Doctors lie.

“In a story with all the Doctors in it, I don't know how you could get a fair crack at the whip,” he says. “But there's also this idea that when something's a successful brand you have to keep going back to it. I loved playing Doctor Who, but I'd rather leave it.”

'I loved playing Doctor Who, but I'd rather leave it': Peter Capaldi was the Twelfth Doctor - Simon Ridgway/BBC
'I loved playing Doctor Who, but I'd rather leave it': Peter Capaldi was the Twelfth Doctor - Simon Ridgway/BBC

A new Doctor is on the way, played by Ncuti Gatwa, the first black lead. The outgoing Jodie Whittaker was the first woman. She endured a fair amount of abuse. Does Capaldi worry that Ncuti will suffer something similar?

“People love them,” he says. “We all got [backlash]. I got it. Matt [Smith, the 11th Doctor] got it. People loved Jodie; people loved me, people loved Matt. If a handful of people don’t, there will be another one along in a minute.”

Besides, as he says, nobody gets into the trade to stay humble. “You do not become an actor to have your feet on the ground,” he says. “These people who walk around saying, ‘I’m very real and authentic and thankful’ – why bother? You’d have been more unaffected by not joining.

“My parents were essentially immigrants, and lived in a tenement,” he says. His mother Nancy and father, Gerald, were Italian, and ran an ice-cream business in Glasgow. “This life was unimaginable to them. I’m not equipped to be blasé or have a sense of entitlement about what I’m lucky enough to do. That sounds pious. It’s great luck to have ended up like this.” I ask him where he keeps his Oscar. Leaning back in his chair, he peers at an unseen shelf. “It’s there,” he says, “behind some of the other trinkets.”

Peter Capaldi as the formidable Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It - Des Willie/BBC
Peter Capaldi as the formidable Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It - Des Willie/BBC

Doctor Who is not the only quintessentially British franchise in which Capaldi has appeared. In the recent Paddington films, he played Mr Curry, a grouchy neighbour. Was he surprised at the way the bear was taken up as a kind of national mascot in the days after the death of the Queen? “It’s interesting, thinking about franchises and brands,” he says. “Because what I like about those films is they are but they escape the erosion of the brand, because they have heart. They’re very sincere films. I know they make huge amounts of money, but it’s almost as though it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t.

“In all art, sincerity is what works,” he says, adding with a laugh: “If you can fake that, you’re home and dry.”

After The Devil’s Hour, we’ll see Capaldi in Criminal Record, a detective series for Apple TV+, in which he will star opposite The Good Wife’s Cush Jumbo. He also serves as executive producer, alongside his wife, Elaine Collins. Beyond that, he is happy to see what comes. “One of the great things about being an actor is not knowing. But what’s certain is that the ageing process takes its toll. Certain kinds of roles you might see yourself in are no longer open for you. But that’s alright.”

Surely there are other franchises that are crying out to be Capaldied: The Rings of Power, Game of Thrones, Star Trek, Star Wars? He has a copy of one of the Thrones books signed “to the Doctor” by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, a devoted Who fan. As to being cast, the phone has yet to ring.

“It’s awful, isn’t it?” Capaldi says, with a grin. “But that’s show business. You think you’re getting somewhere, and then…”

The Devil's Hour comes to Amazon Prime Video on October 28